Manchester City is one win away from a third straight Premier League title and a fifth in six seasons under Pep Guardiola. (More Football News)
English football's dominant force was tested by a new rival in the form of Arsenal, but Mikel Arteta's team has buckled under the pressure of trying to keep pace with Guardiola's relentless trophy-winning machine.
While the race is not over yet, it would take a remarkable collapse for City to throw it away now.
“We have to apologize to our people, especially for the second half,” Arteta said after his team's 3-0 loss to Brighton at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
It was the fifth time in seven games that Arsenal has dropped points in the closing weeks of the season.
By comparison, City's 3-0 win against Everton earlier in the day extended its unbeaten run to 21 games in all competitions, including 11 straight wins in the league.
City has been near-perfect, while Arsenal's challenge has melted in the heat of the battle, with Brighton's second-half goals from Julio Enciso, Deniz Undav and Pervis Estupinan all but ending the Gunners' hopes of a first title in 19 years.
“We fought really hard to be in the position that we are in and today we were in a critical moment to keeping hoping and digging for that dream," Arteta said. “When you have to play in these moments you cannot do what we did in the second half.
"Then we have to look. If a team is capable of doing that when it comes to the biggest stage, there's a lot of things to analyze and think about because it cannot happen.”
The truth is that Arsenal's slump began long before Sunday's painful defeat.
Having led the table for most of the season, it was eight points clear of City at the start of April, having played a game more.
But in the space of six weeks, there has been a 12-point swing in Guardiola's favor, helped by City's 4-1 rout of Arsenal at Etihad Stadium last month.
It is a measure of the extent to which Arsenal's form has slumped that it could even afford to lose twice in head-to-head against City and still have the title in its own hands. Instead, the true damage was done in back-to-back draws against Liverpool and West Ham when Arteta's team let two-goal leads slip on both occasions.
Then came another draw at home to last-place Southampton all in the lead up to that showdown at City when the superiority of Guardiola's team on the night only confirmed how well Arsenal had done to run the race so close.
City can be crowned champions with a win against Chelsea on Sunday but could win the title sooner than that if Arsenal loses to Nottingham Forest a day earlier.
“Mathematically, it's still possible (to win the title), but today it's impossible to think about it," Arteta said.
Arsenal has 81 points — four behind City's 85. And while its progress this season has been outstanding, having ended last year in fifth place on 69 points, Arteta may look back on a missed opportunity given his side's flying start to the campaign and City's inconsistency early on.
Arsenal won nine of its first 10 games in the league. By early February when City lost 1-0 against Tottenham, the defending champions were five points behind, having played a game more.
They haven't lost another game since and barring the unlikeliest of twists, it is a run that has put them on course for another title and potentially more with the Champions League and FA Cup still in Guardiola's sights.
GUARDIOLA WANTS GUNDOGAN
With four goals in his last two Premier League games, Ilkay Gundogan is outscoring Erling Haaland right now. And with the Germany international out of contract in the summer and linked with a move to Barcelona, he would leave a big hole for Guardiola to fill in midfield.
One potential replacement — Jude Bellingham — is reportedly close to sealing a deal with Real Madrid, leaving Guardiola having to look elsewhere for an alternative.
On Sunday, the City manager said he hadn't given up hope of convincing Gundogan to sign a new deal at the club.
“Nobody knows what is going to happen, maybe he will stay, hopefully,” Guardiola said after Gundogan struck twice in City's win at Everton. "He can show again and again and again the quality and importance and his commitment, to all of us, to the club, not just scoring goals.
“He can do everything and everything well.”
Haaland scored City's other goal, his 52nd of the season.