With an explosion of blue-and-white ticker tape, Manchester City’s Premier League title celebrations erupted.
That’s three league titles in a row, five out of six and who knows how many more for a team that keeps on reaching new heights? “They’ve set a benchmark that has pulled them apart,” Chelsea manager Frank Lampard said after his team was beaten 1-0 by the newly crowned champions on Sunday.
“I think they’re outstanding ... that’s why they are on for a possible treble.” The first leg of that three-pronged trophy pursuit is complete, with the finals of the FA Cup and Champions League still to come.
The concern for Manchester United and Inter Milan in those respective finals is that this City team only appears to be getting stronger as the season nears a spectacular climax for Pep Guardiola.
“To be considered one of the greatest teams we have to win Europe, win the Champions League,” the City manager said.
Victory against Chelsea extended City’s unbeaten run to 24 games in all competitions. And even with Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and a host of star players named on the bench against Chelsea, a 12th straight win in the league was secured.
It was a run that proved too much for an Arsenal team that had led the way for much of the season, but buckled on the final stretch.
Nobody at City appears to be tiring of that winning feeling.
Certainly not Guardiola, who has now won 11 league titles in 14 seasons of management, spanning Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City.
Not the players either, who answered their coach’s challenge earlier in the season by proving they had not lost their edge and sang “We Are The Champions” in the locker room.
And not the supporters, who flooded the field after the final whistle at Etihad Stadium, letting off canisters of blue smoke and celebrating joyously as a period of unprecedented success for their beloved team goes on.
While this latest title — a seventh under the ownership of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family — was duly relished, the overriding feeling within the stadium was about what comes next.
One banner, carried onto the field by fans, read: “The treble is on” and Kyle Walker spoke of the team’s determination to “create history.” In that sense, it would feel like an underwhelming end to the campaign if City failed to add to the league title.
That is a natural consequence of Guardiola’s dominance and why the pressure on him grows to finally conquer Europe with this team.
For City’s English rivals, however, the title remains a dream and Arsenal — like Liverpool in recent years — has learned the hard way just how painful it can be to go head-to-head with Guardiola.
In the end, Mikel Arteta’s side fell away all too easily, winning just two of its last eight games. But for much of the season, it felt like Arsenal would hold on for a first title in 19 years.
It might not get a better chance to beat City than this year when Guardiola’s players struggled for consistency before going on a relentless march from February.
Even then, Arsenal led the table by eight points as recently as April 7, but still couldn’t hold off City’s charge.
“Arsenal brought us to our limits, otherwise (we) would not win these 12 games in a row,” Guardiola said. “We didn’t give up and they felt that we were there.” It is possible to imagine City getting stronger next season, with 52-goal Haaland more settled in the team and the league.
New signings are also likely to come in during the off-season and Guardiola’s new three-man defensive system may also be more refined after changing his formation during this campaign.
That is for the future. On Sunday it was all about City’s latest party, but Guardiola hopes the end of season celebrations have only just begun.
Financial charges cast cloud over Man City's dominance in English football
Manchester City’s ruthless run to the Premier League title can be traced back to the morning of Feb. 6, when the club was hit with more than 100 charges of financial wrongdoing.
City has not lost a game in any competition since then and is on track to win three trophies, having also advanced to the finals of the Champions League and the FA Cup.
But even if the accusations made by the Premier League appear to have marked a turning point in potentially the most successful season in the club’s history, they continue to cast a cloud over City's years of dominance in English soccer.
City has been England's leading club for more than a decade thanks to the lavish backing of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. The club was bought by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008.
The latest title triumph was the club's fifth in six years and seventh in the past 11.
On Sunday, as City celebrated with its fans at Etihad Stadium — named for a sponsor deal with the state airline in Abu Dhabi — there was no sign that the off-field issues were causing undue concern to supporters or players.
Instead, against a backdrop of blue smoke and explosions of ticker tape, the trophy was lifted to rapturous cheers and City manager Pep Guardiola spoke of his goal to lead the club to its first Champions League title against Inter Milan in Istanbul on June 10.
“We have the feeling we have done something exceptional in terms of the Premier League, but of course to be considered one of the greatest in Europe we have to win the Champions League,” said Guardiola, who has won 10 major trophies in seven years at the club. “Otherwise people will say our time here is not complete.”
City's ongoing supremacy, however, is leading some to look again at the charges against it, with one column in a British newspaper last week asking whether it was “the greatest team or one built on years of cheating?”
City is accused of providing misleading information about its finances over a nine-year period from 2009-18 — a span in which it won three titles and signed some of the world's best players, like Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne.
During that time, City changed the landscape of European soccer by becoming one of the most powerful teams in the sport. The club's exorbitant spending has provided the foundation for the unprecedented success, and prompted questions about whether anyone can halt City's dominance.
The Premier League charges came after a four-year investigation and the publication of leaked emails and documents, likely hacked, that were published starting in 2018 by German magazine Der Spiegel. The documents allegedly showed attempts to cover up the source of the club's income in a bid to comply with Financial Fair Play rules operated by European soccer body UEFA and the Premier League.
UEFA created its rules after the global financial crisis 15 years ago to monitor revenue and spending of the clubs playing in European competitions like the Champions League.
The aim was financial stability in the industry by ensuring that spending was balanced with earnings, which included not inflating sponsor deals with companies linked to club owners. Critics said the rules protected storied clubs with huge fan bases from challenges by emerging rivals with wealthy owners, such as state-backed Man City and Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain.
If found guilty by the Premier League investigation, City faces punishments as severe as a deduction of points or even expulsion from English soccer’s top division.
City already had a two-year ban from European competitions overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2020, after a UEFA-appointed panel found “serious breaches” of financial rules from 2012-16.
But whereas CAS said some allegations could not be judged because of a statute of limitations in UEFA rules, no such time limits hamper the Premier League investigation. CAS also fined City 10 million euros (then $11.3 million) for failing to cooperate with UEFA investigators.
One internal email highlighted by Der Spiegel suggested City favored a legal fight with soccer authorities, noting that senior management “would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them (UEFA) for the next 10 years” than consent to being punished.
The Premier League has laid out about 80 alleged breaches of its financial rules and has accused City of 30 more, which relate to its supposed failure to co-operate with the investigation.
In response, City said in a statement in February it had “irrefutable evidence” to put the matter to rest “once and for all.”
Guardiola provided a more impassioned response when addressing the charges days after they were announced.
“My first thought is we are already being condemned,” he said before adding he was “fully convinced that we will be innocent."
City's last loss came the day before the charges were announced, when it was beaten by Tottenham 1-0 and was five points behind long-time leader Arsenal.
In the face of all this adversity, City has powered through to another title and could become only the second English team to win the three main trophies in a single season.
Whether it can clear its name off the field, however, remains to be seen.
Leeds near relegation
The Sam Allardyce experiment looks destined to fail after Leeds’ 3-1 loss at West Ham on Sunday pushed it to the brink of relegation.
Leeds needs to win against Tottenham on the last day of the season and hope that other results go its way to avoid the drop.
Rodrigo opened the scoring at London Stadium, but goals from Declan Rice, Jarrod Bowen and Manuel Lanzini consigned Leeds to a latest defeat.
Allardyce was tasked with the job of ensuring survival at the start of May, but has only picked up one point in his three games in charge.
“It was always going to be a difficult task,” the 68-year-old former England coach said. “Lots of people said I’m mad for taking it. I’m not mad. I just love football and Leeds United was too big a job to turn down for me, however short it was.”
Brighton qualifies for Europe
Roberto de Zerbi might be one of the most in-demand coaches around this summer — but he says he has his sights set on leading Brighton into Europe next season.
“The club, the players, me, my staff, and the fans, they have to organize their passports to travel in Europe next year because we have to grow together,” he said after a 3-1 win against relegated Southampton on Sunday.
Few could have predicted such a successful season for Brighton after manager Graham Potter left for Chelsea in September.
But De Zerbi has taken the club to new levels after leading it to Europe for the first time in its history.
That was secured against Southampton, with Evan Ferguson scoring twice in the first half to set up the win.
Mohamed Elyounoussi pulled one back after the break, but Pascal Gross’ goal sealed a 3-1 victory.
Brighton can’t now finish lower than seventh — in the Europa Conference League spot — though a sixth-place finish and a Europa League berth are all but mathematically guaranteed.