Manchester City seized control of the Premier League's absorbing title race with a come-from-behind 3-2 victory at Everton on Saturday.
Ross Barkley gave Everton the lead with a superb curling effort in the 11th minute, but City hit back with goals from Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko before half-time. Early in the second half, after Joe Hart made a fine save to preserve City's lead, Dzeko netted his second to make it 3-1.
Romelu Lukaku pulled one back for Everton midway through the second half but could not find an equaliser that would have provided yet another twist in the title race.
The win put Man City on 80 points, level with Liverpool but in first place on goal differential. Everton remained fifth, and now cannot catch Arsenal for the Premier League's final UEFA Champions League spot.
Regardless of who wins the Premier League, this season's title race has been perhaps the most fascinating in the league's history. Per Martyn Ziegler of the Press Association (via the Daily Mail), the lead atop the table had shifted from one team to another 22 times before Saturday, with Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool all having runs at the head of the pack.
Saturday's result ensured that nothing can be decided until the final day, but with two matches remaining, City must now be considered favourites. If Manuel Pellegrini's side win their two remaining games, they cannot finish lower than Liverpool—and would almost certainly take the title by virtue of their superior goal differential.
What's more, City will play both matches at home. First up is Aston Villa's visit on Wednesday, followed by West Ham next Sunday.
Everton, meanwhile, finish the season next Sunday at Hull City.
The three goals gave Man City 150 for the season in all competitions. As ESPN's Paul Carr noted, that is a record for English top-flight sides.
City entered Saturday's match knowing that three victories in their final three matches would—by virtue of their superior goal differential—result in a second league title in three seasons. But to get the first win, Pellegrini's men had to overcome what had been a poor recent record at Goodison Park, as noted by Bet365.
Chances were at a premium in the opening minutes—before Barkley opened the scoring with a memorable wondergoal. After accepting a lay-off from Steven Naismith well outside the box on the left, Barkley curled an inch-perfect shot past City goalkeeper Joe Hart and into the top corner for a 1-0 Everton lead.
With that, the title race had witnessed its latest twist and, as David Prentice of the Liverpool Echo tweeted, England manager Roy Hodgson had heard a compelling argument for Barkley to make the Three Lions' World Cup squad this summer.
The Toffees' lead didn't last long, though. In the 22nd minute, Yaya Toure picked out Aguero on the right, where the Argentine finished low past Tim Howard at the near post to draw level.
Aguero appeared to pick up a groin injury on the play. He left the match in the 28th minute, replaced by Fernandinho. The move altered City's tactics, forcing the visitors to play with a lone striker, Edin Dzeko, instead of two.
The next chance fell to City's Samir Nasri, who curled his shot well over the bar in the 36th minute. City then went ahead for the first time in the 43rd minute, with Dzeko tucking a header just inside Howard's near post to give the visitors their first lead. Lukaku had a big chance to equalise just before half-time, but the Belgian striker skied his shot over the bar from John Stones' cross.
Trailing 2-1 at half-time, Everton nearly equalised in the first minute of the second half. Barkley dribbled through the heart of City's midfield and laid off for Naismith, whose shot was tipped around the post by Hart.
Moments later, City made it 3-1.
Fernandinho lofted a pass to Nasri on the left and after cutting inside, Nasri picked out Dzeko with a cross to the middle. Unmarked in front of goal, Dzeko tapped in to make it 3-1.
City were clearly buoyed by the goal, and for several minutes the visitors had the upper hand. But in the 65th minute, Everton pulled a goal back, Lukaku diving low to head in Leighton Baines' cross from the left. City's players were furious, insisting that at least one Everton player had been offside in the buildup, but referee Lee Probert allowed the goal to stand.
Both managers made substitutions immediately after the goal, with City bringing on Aleksandar Kolarov in place of Toure and Everton introducing attacker Gerard Deulofeu for Phil Jagielka.
But despite the defensive-minded substitution, City generated the next chance. Nasri and James Milner combined to set up Pablo Zabaleta on the right, but Zabaleta saw his low shot saved by Howard.
At the other end, Everton came close through substitute Deulofeu in the 87th minute. But after the Spaniard weaved through the box beating multiple defenders, Hart made another save to keep City in front.
It turned out to be Everton's last good chance as City masterfully killed off the match over six long minutes of stoppage time. With that, Pellegrini's team moved within two victories of the title.
|Everton Player Ratings|
|Gerard Deulofeu (for Jagielka, 66')||MID||N/A||7|
|Aiden McGeady (for Osman, 83')||MID||N/A||6|
|Manchester City Player Ratings|
|Fernandinho (for Aguero, 28')||CM||6||6|
|Aleksandar Kolarov (for Toure, 66')||MID||N/A||6|
|David Silva (for Nasri, 75')||MID||N/A||6|
Pellegrini declined to say the title race is over, saying City will "take each game as it comes." Speaking to MCFC.co.uk, Pellegrini said:
I think that the worst thing we can do is to think we’ve finished the Premier League now.
We have to play games against teams who play with no pressure so it’s important that from tomorrow, we start to think about the game against Aston Villa—we take each game as it comes.
We won and that’s the important thing in this moment—the pressure is too high to play our best football but we played well and coped with it.
Maybe the team was nervous at 3-2 but we defended well. We started one goal down so it wasn’t easy to recover from that beautiful goal.
After that we managed the game very well, we scored three and had other chances to score.
All of the players played well and all of the team deserve their merits.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez said the Toffees were "disappointed" with the result, telling EvertonFC.com:
I thought it was a fascinating game. We started well and looked in control and it was a magnificent piece of skill from Ross Barkley.
But we are disappointed with the three goals we conceded. Manchester City didn't carry enough threat to score three goals. It was at times more down to our understanding and a little bit of luck.
Our overall performance was terrific but I think the injury to Aguero affected us more than it did them.
Manchester City host Aston Villa on Wednesday before both teams finish their Premier League seasons next Sunday, when Everton play at Hull City and City host West Ham United.
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