Pep Guardiola, above all, wants his players to be relaxed. In the aftermath of Manchester City’s draw at West Ham last weekend — the one that effectively guaranteed the identity of the Premier League champion would be decided on the season’s final day — he did not, as might have been expected, haul his squad in for extra work.
Instead, with the club’s season now hanging on a single game, he gave them some extra down time. The whole squad was granted two days’ break, a chance to rest and recuperate and escape the pressure. Ilkay Gundogan went off to get married.
Guardiola is right, of course, to identify that the test awaiting City is primarily psychological. In ordinary circumstances, it would easily dispatch Aston Villa on home territory: a couple of quick, early goals, a brutal display of superiority, an imperious saunter over the line. The challenge, this weekend, is to make the circumstances appear as ordinary as possible.
City does not, as it turns out, have any margin for error. The 14-point advantage over Liverpool it held in January has been whittled to just one. City has had several chances to settle the matter in recent weeks — Riyad Mahrez might have beaten Liverpool in early April; he might have beaten West Ham, too — but it has failed to take them. Now, if Guardiola’s team stumbles again, and Liverpool beats Wolves, the title will go to Anfield.