As the Premier League title race reached its zenith on Sunday, there had been a glaring absence of clichéd twists and turns in the weeks which preceded matchday 38. Title races have become renowned for their unpredictability but Man City and Liverpool simply refused to conform to historical norms, to play by the rules or to succumb to the heft of the pressure which the final weeks induced.
Brighton & Hove Albion provided what seemed to be a sting in the tale just moments after Liverpool had taken the lead at Anfield. For a transient blip in time the fairytale ending was a real possibility, for those supporters leaning towards the Reds, at least. Brighton supporters bellowed out the latest scoreline at Anfield in the minutes before the ball was flicked into Ederson’s net at the Amex Stadium.
The fear was suddenly plastered over Guardiola’s face; City fans were mute and stunned.
The sleepless nights and vivid dreams of a Premier League trophy embroidered in red ribbons that visited Liverpool fans in the build-up to the grand finale suddenly became a tangible reality.
What everybody seemed to forgot in a moment of time so scarce that it hardly feels real in hindsight was that City have been and done it all before. They were not allowing a header from Glenn Murray – a player who, for all of his goal scoring prowess, must be a Sunday League player masquerading as an actual Premier League footballer – to thwart their path to back-to-back domestic titles.
The old guard kicked into gear: David Silva – a player who has come under scrutiny this season for the first time in his esteemed career – controlled a heavy-weighted incisive pass from Aymeric Laporte with a deft touch of ingenuity, providing just enough weight to roll the ball into Serio Aguero’s path, ensuring that there was no requirement to break stride. A sweeping left-footed drive slammed through Matt Ryan’s legs with laser-like precision. Two revered legends of the club combined to unlock a defensive unit who have often been so unbreakable against the very best in the division.
The result then became a formality when Aymeric Laporte nodded home a second goal with seven minutes remaining before the interval. Riyad Mahrez made a stride forward in his endeavour to win over a fanbase who haven’t warmed to his style – or his penalty-taking prowess, which is apparently modelled on Jonny Wilkinson’s conversion technique – by taking the result beyond the hosts before Ilkay Gundogan finished the season with a free-kick so exquisitely placed that it seemed to encapsulate the grace, finesse and perfection of the defending champions with one scintillating swipe of the boot.
As the party unfolded on the south coast, pundits, journalists and spectators alike naturally began to dissect the season, striving to explain an almost unexplainable level of supremacy.
Silva, Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho, four immortal members of City’s old guard, will go down in the annals as the pioneering talents of a full scale revolution at the club. Replacing them is a task which Pep Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain and the club’s owners will need to lend a serious weight of thought to in the coming years.
John Stones could yet be the man to replace the Belgian but there is a stark and credible feeling that there is simply no match for the club’s insatiably popular man both on and off the field. He is an ambassador for the sport, Manchester City and the city of Manchester; replacing him would be akin to finding another Sir Alex Ferguson, forming another Oasis or building a new Hacienda.
Fernandinho’s qualities, meanwhile, are remarkably distinct but there are talents in waiting who could adapt to replicate his function. Replacing the club’s all-time top goal scorer will be similarly impossible. That just leaves Silva, a player who possesses such mystical tendencies that replacing him has seldom been viewed possible.
Guardiola, though, has done the unthinkable: he has signed a player in Bernardo Silva who is already threatening to usurp the playmaking king of the Etihad Stadium. As he was held aloof in front of the delirious City supporters, who belted out a rendition of an Abba-inspired chant which has been tailored to their diminutive hero, it felt as if this was the Portuguese wizard’s coronation: the moment in which the proverbial baton was passed over from one Silva to another.
He deservedly earned a place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year and is a strong favourite to scoop Man City’s player of the season accolade. At just 24-years-old it’s clear that Bernardo is a player with the credentials to follow in the footsteps of both his namesake and the other aforementioned members of City’s history-defining golden generation.
But what is pertinently remarkable about the narrative unfolding at City is that the former Monaco man is not merely an upgrade for El Mago: he could even be an upgrade.
Uttering a sentence of this ilk would have been considered blasphemy about six months after he joined the club. Heads would have been mounted on spikes for even suggesting that David Silva’s reputation and achievements could ever be toppled. Now the fans find themselves in a position where the impossible has become possible. In Bernardo we find creativity synonymous with that of his namesake, bundles upon bundles of relentless work-rate, a capacity to eat up the turf at a rate Forest Gump would be proud of and a surprising tendency to bounce off colossal central defenders no matter how rotund.
Don’t forget to add in an infectious personality and popularity amongst both teammates and supporters. I repeat: he is just 24.
The curtain comes down on the season, narratives unfold, eulogies rain down and reflections on arguably the most high-quality title race the Premier League has even seen are offered. Amidst all this City fans can look both backwards and forwards in time with equal fondness and optimism, envisaging a future of further success with at least one member of the celebrated old-guard adequately replaced – or even upgraded.
Bernardo epitomises just about everything that is utterly ethereal about this current Manchester City squad and one only has to listen to pundits of varying allegiances deliver gushing appraisals on the midfielder to appreciate that his popularity transcends far and wide.
Guardiola has made the impossible possible in more ways than one since arriving at City and, through the £43 million signing of Bernardo, he has done something that was once considered beyond the realms of possibility.
At the culmination of a second season with the champions, it’s safe to say Bernardo has successfully passed his audition for the role of Silva’s long-term successor.