Manchester City moved to the brink of the Premier League title with an emphatic 4-0 win over Aston Villa on Wednesday as Edin Dzeko scored twice to leave them needing just a point from the final game of the season.
Dzeko’s double midway through the second half relieved the pressure that had gripped the Etihad Stadium and late strikes by Stevan Jovetic and Yaya Toure, his 20th of the season, secured a comfortable victory.
City, who brought up 100 league goals for the campaign, realistically need just a point from Sunday’s home game against West Ham United to win their second league title in three years.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side moved two points clear of Liverpool at the top of the table but, with a superior goal difference of 13, a draw would be enough for City to be crowned champions while Chelsea’s title hopes are over.
At the other end of the standings, Sunderland guaranteed their Premier League survival when goals by Jack Colback and Fabio Borini sealed a 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion which effectively ended Norwich City’s hopes of remaining in the top flight.
With Sunderland moving to 38 points and West Brom one place above the relegation zone on 36, Norwich are three points further adrift with a vastly inferior goal difference.
Within seconds of the kickoff at the Etihad Stadium, it became apparent that Villa would look to stifle and frustrate rather than go toe-to-toe with their talent-packed opponents.
With all 11 men consistently withdrawn behind the ball, the visitors set out to catch City on the break, but they rarely made it out of their own half as the title challengers launched wave after wave of attacks.
“I was absolutely sure if we continued to play the same way we would find the space to score a goal,” Pellegrini told Sky Sports.
“Now we can talk about the title. We must win the last game against West Ham.”
City’s best chance of the first half fell to Toure, whose shot from close range was turned wide by the outstretched foot of Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan, and the first 45 minutes ended with Samir Nasri poking James Milner’s cross wide.
As the rain beat down incessantly in Manchester after the restart, palpable tension gripped the home fans with memories of Liverpool’s stunning collapse from three goals up to draw 3-3 against Crystal Palace on Monday still fresh.
Dzeko rode to the rescue, however, in the 64th minute when he poked home Pablo Zabaleta’s cross from close range before wheeling away in euphoric celebration.
City then cast off the shackles and Dzeko pounced to tuck away a rebound eight minutes before Jovetic powerfully side-footed past Guzan with a minute remaining.
The coup de grace arrived in stoppage-time when Toure turned on the afterburners to stride clear of the Villa backline and powerfully finish, becoming only the second central midfielder to score 20 goals in a Premier League season after Frank Lampard in 2009-10.
“It was tough in the first half because there was no space,” Dzeko said. “At halftime Manuel Pellegrini said just to be calm and we would get there in the end.
“When a team defends with 10 players, it is always about the first goal. They opened up a bit and then we scored another and another.”
City will go into Sunday’s clash buoyed by their stunning home record, having won 16 of their 18 league games at the Etihad this season, with their only defeat inflicted by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in February.
“(Against West Ham) We have to concentrate, we did our job today. We have to take it more than seriously.”
Sunderland boss Gus Poyet had claimed they would need a miracle to escape the drop when his side lost 5-1 to Tottenham Hotspur in April, a defeat that left them bottom of the table and seven points adrift of safety.
His prayers were answered, however, as his side went on a remarkable run, culminating in victory over West Brom which gave them 13 points from their five matches.
Poyet was punching the air in delight when his side took the lead through Colback on 13 minutes, the midfielder stabbing Marcos Alonso’s cross past Ben Foster.
They doubled the advantage through Liverpool loanee Borini, who exchanged passes with Seb Larsson before poking in his ninth goal of the season in all competitions.
“I don’t know if you will see something similar ever again,” Poyet said.
“We are the second team in the Premier League to be bottom at Christmas and stay up. With City, Chelsea and United away from home, to be seven points away from safety and to do it with a game to spare is amazing.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult season. For moments it looked like we were going down. I will start believing in miracles from now.”