GOODISON PARK, Liverpool — One down, two to go.
Manchester City, not for the first time, put their fans through 90 minutes of torture before emerging from Goodison Park with a vital three points that puts them on the brink of winning their second title in three seasons. Wins in their final two matches—at home to Aston Villa and West Ham—will see them crowned champions, unless Liverpool manage six points and a barrage of goals from their remaining fixtures.
Their 3-2 win, which came courtesy of goals from Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko (two), completes their first league double over the Merseysiders since the 1980-81 campaign and brings to an end their five-year wait for a win at Goodison.
This was by far City's toughest remaining game, and Liverpool fans were hoping their local rivals could do them a favour by taking points off Manuel Pellegrini's men and putting the title back in their own hands.
When Ross Barkley scored a wonderful opener on 11 minutes, hopes at Anfield were raised, but this City side looks to have dispensed with its old "Typical City" tag and instead has a steely determination to get over the line.
City played like champions-elect, with the same desire shown in last week's superb victory at Selhurst Park on display again this afternoon, their class proving too much for Everton.
Sergio Aguero equalised with a moment of brilliance, but it was to be his last piece of action after limping off with what appeared to be a groin strain shortly after. This was Aguero's season in a microcosm: superb piece of individual skill one moment and a disruptive injury the next. It seems doubtful he will be involved in City's crucial last two games of the season.
It was his 17th goal in 19 league appearances, a strike rate that suggests increased involvement may have ensured the title was already in City's grasp.
Dzeko's double either side of half-time saw City move into a comfortable position, but, of course, winning in straightforward circumstances isn't in the Blues' script, and Romelu Lukaku's 65th-minute strike set up a nervous finish. However, unlike City sides from eras past, this one looks unlikely to falter when it matters.
Dzeko's two goals continue his fine run of form during the climax of the season. Whereas Alvaro Negredo lost his way after a blistering start, the Bosnian has stepped up as the stakes have risen. His header against Crystal Palace went straight into his pantheon of vital City moments, and his two goals Saturday can be filed alongside them. He may be a frustrating player at times, but there's no doubting his ability to score important goals.
And it wasn't just Dzeko who shone; there were a number of heroic performances on display. Joe Hart was excellent and made a world-class save from Steven Naismith; Javi Garcia, once again, proved a steadying pair of hands in midfield; and Martin Demichelis, City's best player in the last six weeks, was imperious at the back.
City's most maligned players are delivering at the right time.
Afterwards, Pellegrini told reporters:
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.
I think it's very important to continue in the way we are doing so far—today was the last game away from home and we started this season with four points from the first six away games so I think this team is doing much better in this respect.
We've won twice in our last 10 times here and Everton played really good today—you could clearly see that they wanted to win from the beginning and it was a very tough game for us.
With the recent slip-up against Sunderland, a result which briefly handed Liverpool the initiative in the title race, still fresh in the minds of the Blues, complacency in the final two matches is unlikely. Pellegrini knows he stands just two wins away from his first title as a manager in Europe. It would take a brave man to bet against City now.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here: @RobPollard_.