And then there were 13. A possible 13 games left in which Pep Guardiola and Manchester City can rewrite the football history books in their quest for silverware on four different fronts as, for the 25th time this season, the lead at the top of the Premier League changed hands last night.
Twenty years on from Manchester United’s unforgettable treble, a “quadruple” remains an incredibly tall order of course, especially given the effort Liverpool are making in the Premier League and some of the big hitters remaining for City to overcome in the Champions League.
But as goals from Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane saw the Blues coast through what was, on paper, their easiest remaining fixture of the campaign, City fans saw their team return to the top of the Premier League and could at least dream of witnessing a season for the ages.
Chelsea reached May 1, 2007 still in the running for all four trophies, Manchester United hit April 19, two years later, before their quadruple hopes floundered. But it is hard to imagine that any squad in the history of English football has ever been better equipped to chase that goal than this current City one.
With an eye on that date — more specifically, a handful of dates — with destiny, Guardiola rang the changes, seven of them, sending out a team which while clearly not second string, allowed some of his more important figures to enjoy an evening with their feet up.
It did not make a blind bit of difference and nor should it, given that there are now more than 50 points between City and Cardiff in the Premier League table.
De Bruyne opened the scoring, after five minutes, unleashing a blistering shot from Aymeric Laporte’s pass, despite the close attention of Sean Morrison and the tightest of angles. Neil Etheridge will question whether he should have been beaten quite so convincingly at his near post but, still, that looked like being the least of the goalkeeper’s concerns, with 85 minutes still to play.
It was such a devastatingly one-way start to proceedings that the only surprise was that Guardiola’s team was not already two goals to the good by that point.
Thirty-four seconds had elapsed when De Bruyne skipped into the area, beat a couple of defenders and crossed to the far-post where Gabriel Jesus slid in and narrowly missed turning the ball into an open net.
Four minutes were on the clock when Jesus squared to Riyad Mahrez and the £60 million winger’s curling shot forced Etheridge into a diving save at full-stretch.
Nor did the goal dampen City’s drive and energy — the seven-goal advantage they held over Liverpool before kick-off could be doubled if Guardiola’s side maintained this sort of start.
Sane rolled a shot just beyond the far post, where Jesus was once more lurking, the German’s free-kick beat the wall but was straight at the keeper and Jesus blazed over from 12 yards following a poor clearance from Bruno Ecuele Manga.
Geometry 🤓 pic.twitter.com/volEw8v0LN— Kevin De Bruyne (@DeBruyneKev) April 3, 2019
The only slight concern for Guardiola was the loss, with just 17 minutes gone, of left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko who appeared to suffer a hamstring injury and was replaced by England defender Kyle Walker.
That actually represented an upgrade in on-field personnel for Guardiola but, in terms of offering Walker some rest ahead of the weekend FA Cup semi-final with Brighton and next week’s Champions League showdown with Tottenham, it was a worry.
Guardiola had clearly earmarked this game as the one “gimme” left in City’s calendar although, aside from a Manchester derby and a league meeting with Spurs, there is not much left to concern the City manager domestically.
In fact, Guardiola was even moved to hand a first league start to the criminally under-used Phil Foden, 19 next month and suffering from a lack of first team chances among City’s galaxy of stars.
He fired a long-range shot well over just before the half-hour, short minutes after Jesus, yet again, had missed a promising opening after a brilliant De Bruyne run to the by-line, his pull-back being missed by the Brazilian from four yards, under pressure from two defenders.
Sane thumped another free-kick over but, as the half wore on, there was a hint of impatience from the home crowd as the initial impetus faded and Cardiff even had the audacity to win a corner after 40 minutes.
Perhaps inevitably, that resulted in a fantastic City counter-attack, from John Stones’ headed clearance, four blue shirts against two Cardiff defenders with De Bruyne playing Jesus clean through and the striker yet again missing a golden opportunity as his shot was deflected behind.
At least Jesus’s next involvement was more productive as Mahrez’s right-wing cross swung over to the far post after 44 minutes and the striker skilfully cushioned the ball on his chest, swivelling to guide it into the path of Sane.
The German did the rest with a technically brilliant strike, his left-foot shot depositing the ball into the far corner of the goal on a low, powerful and unstoppable trajectory.
The second half was never likely to offer Cardiff much respite and so it transpired, with Foden’s early shot blocked well by Etheridge and De Bruyne’s long free-kick bouncing just wide.
Sean Morrison almost turned a De Bruyne cross into his own goal and, in one intoxicating five-minute spell after the hour, six good City chances came and went — Etheridge saving well from Foden twice, a Laporte header, Mahrez and Sane while Fernandinho struck a post for good measure.
By the time Oumar Niasse steered Cardiff’s first on-target shot of the evening directly at Ederson, after 74 minutes, the outcome had long since been decided although City’s ultimate fate still has some way to run.
Man City (4-3-3):
Ederson 6; Danilo 7, Stones 7, Laporte 8, Zinchenko 6 (Walker 18, 6); De Bruyne 9, Fernandinho 6, Foden 6; Mahrez 7, Jesus 6, Sane 8. Subs (not used) Muric, Kompany, Sterling, Gundogan, D Silva, B Silva.
Etheridge 8; Peltier 5, Morrison 6, Manga 5, Bennett 5; Gunarsson 6 (Bacuna 80); Hoilett 5, Camarasa 5 (Reid 83), Ralls 5, J Murphy 5 (Mendez-Laing 60, 6); Niasse 5. Subs (not used) B Murphy, Zohore, Cunningham, Harris.
J Moss 7