One of the best measures of the quality of a champion is the standards set by the next-best.
As Manchester City once again proved themselves the finest team in the most competitive domestic league in their sport, they never stopped looking anxiously over their shoulders at the tigerish, relentless pursuit of an excellent Liverpool.
City tantalised their supporters on a topsy-turvy last day of what had already been an epic English season, by falling behind, not by one goal but two, at home to Aston Villa. At that point the ghosts of their many near-miss sagas in the Champions League haunted their followers.
Trailing 2-0, they had put in jeopardy the leadership of the Premier League, with Liverpool just a point behind them at kick-off. There were a few in the Etihad fearing that, much in the way a two-goal advantage in the closing minutes of their Champions League semi-final tie against Real Madrid had been erased and City eliminated, the English title may be squandered at the very last.
But City recovered emphatically in the last 15 minutes against Villa, with a three-goal burst, two of them from Ilkay Gundogan, and although their place at the top of the table was never actually lost to Liverpool, that was only down to timing.
Villa, with goals from Matty Cash and Philippe Coutinho either side of half-time, appeared to have indirectly rolled out a red carpet for Coutinho’s former colleagues at Anfield. At that stage, Liverpool needed just one goal, to take them 2-1 ahead of Wolves, to overtake City and pinch the Premier League.
Liverpool would score two, win 3-1 to collect their three points, but by then Pep Guardiola's defending champions had produced a stunning blitz to insure against calamity. It was not quite as dramatic as 10 years ago, when Sergio Aguero’s injury-time winner claimed City their first title of this century, but there was genuine suspense.
Chances had gone awry, from players with the most dependable big-match temperaments, like Kevin De Bruyne, who ballooned two efforts over the Villa crossbar.
The conspicuous hero was Gundogan, who came off the bench with 22 minutes of normal time remaining. He outjumped Cash to head in at the far post, reducing the arrears. He then did justice to De Bruyne’s determined run and cross to put City ahead for the first time in the game in the 81st minute. Two goals in five minutes from the German, sandwiching a crisp, precise drive from Rodri which was the equaliser in a spell of stunning City momentum.
At the final whistle, the relief was palpable, and although Guardiola and City would have preferred a more leisurely end to the long, draining joust with Liverpool, the fact the race went to the wire is a feather in City’s cap. There have now been two last-day, nail-biting title deciders between the light blues of Manchester and the reds of Merseyside in the space of four seasons. That City have come through on top in both is a tribute to the coolness and faith in one another that is ingrained in Guardiola’s squad.
They will not sit for long looking back and admiring their work. There were errors that Guardiola will not want repeated. A makeshift back four was stretched apart for Villa’s opening goal, the coach correcting it with a half-time rejig that saw Fernandinho substituted after what had been a jittery last 45 minutes as a City player for the long-serving, much-loved Brazilian.
Guardiola also knows that, although the recent record may suggest that winning the Premier League is almost becoming City’s routine - 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 - the fine margin of this triumph urges him to further develop, to progress, and bring in fresh ideas.
One of those is already itching to join the team that, on its day, plays the most attractive football anywhere in the club game.
He is Erling Haaland, who will officially join a City squad of varied and numerous attacking talents at the end of next month. The giant, precocious Norwegian would have liked seeing the resolute character his new teammates showed in coming back from behind, in a situation of intense pressure. He will like joining a club who are champions again. And he will know that he now bears a special pressure to keep those standards high.