Manchester City’s game at West Ham on Sunday could have been the match that all but confirmed Pep Guardiola’s side as Premier League champions.
But when the final whistle blew at London Stadium after a breathless encounter which ended 2-2 and featured Riyad Mahrez missing a late penalty – one which would have as good as won the title for the visitors – it was the home fans who were celebrating a memorable moment of their own.
A game played out in a raucous atmosphere culminated in West Ham legend Mark Noble emerging from the tunnel with his children to receive a guard of honour following his last home appearance for the club, taking in the adulation of a 60,000 crowd, almost all of whom had stayed behind to show their appreciation.
Manchester City will have to wait for their own joyous celebrations, their party spoiled for now. Their champagne remains on ice, but for West Ham supporters this was an “I was there” moment, one to live alongside the best they have experienced since moving from Upton Park, like November’s 3-2 win over Liverpool and an epic victory over Sevilla in the Europa League in March.
This was a thrilling game which both sides knew they could have won, might easily have lost and ended up pretty pleased to have drawn – and one that was followed by a farewell to a true club legend.
In the end, the winner was a stadium condemned by so many since it was opened in 2016.
The atmosphere that, it was complained, did not exist most certainly does. It turns out all it really needed was a decent team.
“Bits of it [the atmosphere] today was fabulous,” said West Ham manager David Moyes. “This year the stadium and crowd have been fantastic. But I think that is because the players have been so good. They don’t give in. They keep at it in every game.”
‘All we have to do now is win’
At half-time, Jarrod Bowen’s double meant City were 2-0 down and in a worrying situation.
They had not come from two goals down to draw a match in 10 years and have not managed to win a match from that position in 17 years.
Had the score stayed the same, they would have been three points ahead of title rivals Liverpool, having played a game more than Jurgen Klopp’s men with a goal difference advantage of five.
On Tuesday, Liverpool play a Southampton side that last month conceded six on home soil against Chelsea and on eight other occasions this season have conceded three or more. After that they entertain a Wolves team that has won once since the middle of March and conceded five at home to City only four days ago.
Guardiola did think about bringing Ilkay Gundogan on – but decided to wait. The response underlined why, despite his despair at being knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid on a night when City seemed to have a place in the final sewn up, Guardiola never once questioned the mentality, resilience and character of his players.
“You cannot be here over the past five years if you don’t have that,” he said.
City’s task next Sunday at home to Aston Villa is now simple. Win. Nothing else matters.
It is exactly the same situation they faced 10 years ago, when they eventually beat Queens Park Rangers on the final day to win the title.
On that occasion, it took Sergio Aguero’s famous intervention after 93 minutes and 20 seconds to snatch the title from Manchester United, an anniversary the club celebrated with gusto on Friday.
“No please, not in that [manner],” reflected Guardiola, when reminded of that momentous day and his thoughts drifted to what a repeat might do for his nerves.
“It’s similar because it depends on us. Now there are no debates about goal difference or anything. We need to win our game to be champion. If we don’t win, Liverpool will be champions. It is an incredible privilege to have the chance with our people at home to win one game to be champion. I’m looking forward to it.”
Guardiola always felt the title would go to the final day. In his view, Liverpool are “almost perfect”. Far too good to dismiss with three or four games of the campaign to go.
But City’s fate is in their own hands and Guardiola and his team are 90 minutes away from a fourth league success in five seasons.
“I encourage all the Blues in Manchester that day to go to the streets and the stadium,” he said.
“I can assure you something. In one week our stadium will be sold out and we will give the supporters all of our lives over 95 minutes and they will give us their lives.
“They will be so proud, I’m pretty sure.”
Hammers’ history makers
The point confirmed a piece of history for West Ham.
Moyes’ men have now secured European qualification through their league position in successive seasons for the first time.
Although the Hammers boss regrets the manner in which his side’s domestic form faltered in the second half of the campaign as they battled on two fronts – falling agonisingly short in the Europa League as they were beaten by Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final – he feels a standard has been set.
“I wanted to challenge a lot of the top teams here,” he said. “I have felt this year we had a pretty good go at it. We have drawn a couple of times against Manchester City and beaten Liverpool and Chelsea. We have shown we can compete.”
West Ham could still nudge themselves above Manchester United on the final day to secure a top-six berth in successive seasons for the first time in their history.
But Moyes knows the challenge to keep moving forward is not straightforward, especially as such a pivotal figure as Noble will no longer be around.
“Very few clubs break into the top six,” he said. “We did it last year. We are really close this year.
“I want to try and get in amongst it and upset it if we can. But next season will be hard, especially when you are losing Mark Noble, who is so important in the dressing room. We have a big job next year.”
For Manchester City, the big job is next week.