And breathe again. On a misty night at Wembley Manchester City squared their shoulders, slapped themselves about the chops a few times and produced a performance to ease the bruises of a difficult 10 days.
By the end a 3-1 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur wasn’t so much winning ugly as winning with the usual frictionless beauty, in the process clamping at least one hand on the Premier League trophy.
Kevin De Bruyne was a powerful influence through the second half as Spurs struggled to dig their own fingernails into the game. De Bruyne will also take the social media glory for that extraordinary, endlessly gif’d moment of high-speed touch and vision. Sprinting forward under a high ball De Bruyne did three things at once: holding Eric Dier off with his back; shifting his feet perfectly on the run; and simultaneously doing the necessary high-speed calculus to volley the most extraordinary dipping top-spun pass into Raheem Sterling’s stride.
Sterling scored one, made one and buzzed around to good effect. But it was David Silva, the conductor in a decisive fast start, who produced the most poignant performance of the night, a state of the nation game for a player who was familiarly brilliant at times and chuggingly peripheral at others.
In the build-up Pep Guardiola had hinted Silva might be reaching the end of his lifetime as a regular starter, a genuine note of sadness for anyone who watches this team play. Sic transit gloria Silvae: it has been eight years now in England, during which he has been the outstanding midfielder of his time, perhaps the greatest friend the ball ever had in the Premier League.
Time wears down even the most boyishly irrepressible of footballers, and Silva’s stamina and mobility have naturally declined a bit in the slog through spring. This was his fifth 90 minutes in 15 days, on a night where it seemed inevitable Spurs would squeeze and harry City’s midfield from the start.
Mauricio Pochettino had picked his spikiest midfield, which is another way of saying he picked Erik Lamela, the muddy pair of wellingtons he keeps in the boot of his car just for occasions like this.
But it was City and Silva who started at a sprint. His first involvement was the usual easy poetry: a stop, a beat taken out of the game while Sterling made his run; then a perfectly nudged pass inside Ben Davies, the kind of set move Silva could probably summon up from a portable sofa with both hands folded behind his head.
And for a while he was everywhere, not cruising but sprinting, aware of the need to jazz this slightly stuttering City team into early action. One little falling-backwards lay-off to Sterling was both absurdly languid and absurdly precise, the act of a man who sees the game happening three moves ahead, who seems to be tugging your sleeve and letting you in on a secret with every pass.
There is even something fitting about Silva’s shaven head these days. As the half wore on that gleaming cranium seemed to throb under the Wembley lights with its own creative pulse, radiating good ideas, a lightbulb on legs.
At the end of which City’s opener came from a long punt forward from Vincent Kompany, aided by Spurs pushing up to compress the space in midfield. Gabriel Jesus sprinted away, showing the basic speed that is often hidden in City’s possession football, and slipped the ball beautifully past Hugo Lloris.
Moments later it was 2-0 from a similar move. This time Ilkay Gündogan set Sterling away. He was fouled by Lloris just outside the area. Jon Moss gave the penalty and Gündogan eased it into the corner.
Then came the fade. Christian Eriksen pulled one back just before the break. Silva was involved again, unable to track the run. And for a while early in the second half City’s playmaker was swamped a little, out-hustled, once lashing out with the sole of a boot at Kieran Trippier. A shift to a back three brought De Bruyne further to the front of things. And by the end, with a third goal tucked away, they were cruising again.
Silva will be around for at least another two years to prompt this soon-to-be-champion team. But as City refresh and recruit there is a slight valedictory feeling to nights like these for a player who will be impossible to replace fully, if only because his talents are so rare in every sense.