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A Backup Goalkeeper Might Have Ended The Premier League Title Race

Stefan Ortega of Manchester City saves from Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur with the score a 0-1 during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 14, 2024 in London, England.
Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Stefan Ortega wasn't supposed to be in there. The Manchester City backup goalie has seen some game time this season, but in what was the most important match of his club's title hunt, he was, perhaps gladly, on the bench for 69 minutes. Only when Ederson, City's usual starter, was knocked out of Tuesday's match against Tottenham did Ortega have to come in, cold and with a 1-0 lead to protect.

Just 16 minutes after his substitution, Ortega had probably the hardest task he could have faced against this Tottenham team. Heung-min Son, the host's speedy star attacker, latched on to the ball after a City turnover and raced ahead of City's Rúben Dias with a clear path to goal. Son has done this many times in his career, and with only a backup goalkeeper in front of him, an equalizer of momentous importance looked to be in the cards.

Ortega had other ideas, though:

That save not only preserved City's lead, setting the stage for Erling Haaland's late penalty kick to seal the three points, but also it might have decided the Premier League title race. Entering Tuesday's match, City, with one game in hand, trailed Arsenal by a point, and was behind on goal difference. A draw for the reigning champions against Tottenham would put the title firmly in the Gunners' hands; sure, no club in England is more suited to making up a three-goal difference than City, but it would've been hard. If Son had scored, and if Tottenham had held on to the draw, then Arsenal would've been in prime position to win its first Premier League trophy since the Invincibles in 2004.

Instead, Ortega stepped up and into City lore with the save, just as Vincent Kompany did with his screamer in 2019, or Ilkay Gündogan with his title-winning goal in 2022. Losing Ederson, even for just 20 minutes of this match, could have been a death knell against a Tottenham team with all to play for, but it was City's least-heralded reinforcement that saved its bacon.

About that Tottenham "all to play for" situation: While some Spurs fans might have wanted their team to lose, in order to screw over their hated North London rivals at Arsenal, Tuesday's loss knocked Tottenham out of Champions League contention next year. The club needed to beat City in order to have a chance of catching Aston Villanot a mirage, after all!—on the last weekend of the season, but instead will be held to fifth place and a spot in the Europa League. Because soccer is a funny game, this is partly Arsenal's fault: Thanks in part to the club's loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinal, Germany passed England in UEFA's coefficient rankings, which cost the Premier League a possible fifth spot in next year's tournament, which would have been Tottenham's.

The Premier League season is long and arduous, but Ortega's save (or Son's miss, if you want to be less generous) had cataclysmic implications for four different teams (only Liverpool didn't care all that much out of the top five teams; it will finish in third no matter what). Tottenham's season, at least the impactful part, is over now thanks in part to not scoring on that breakaway, to the cheers at Aston Villa. Meanwhile, there's still a scenario where City draws West Ham, or even loses, on Sunday and Arsenal beats Everton; that would hand the title to the Gunners.

If this were any other team than City, I would maybe believe in the chaos scenarios above. But as a Pool Boy, I've wishfully thought through two last days of the season, only for City to stomp all over those hopes. If I were to console an Arsenal fan, I would tell them that it's already over. It's been over, ever since City took back its own destiny in April, thanks to slip-ups from both Liverpool and Arsenal on the same day. Arsenal will rue that loss to Aston Villa maybe most of all, because to beat City in a full season race, a team has to be perfect, or at least closer to perfection than Pep Guardiola's machine. Arsenal gave up control by not winning every single game, which has proven to be an untenable position for anyone but City to be in.

Even in a down season for City like this one—after last season's treble win, the club is playing just for the Premier League title and the FA Cup trophy—Arsenal, and Liverpool for that matter, couldn't hold on long enough to rip the title away. Barring something that just does not happen to City in this era (a last-day collapse), Arsenal will also likely have another reason to hate Tottenham and Son, specifically. One goal there, on a play that the South Korean sharpshooter has converted many times, and the narrative heading into Sunday would be completely different. Instead, it's the same old story: Manchester City is just one match away from the Premier League title.

CORRECTION (1:30 p.m.) - If City drops points to West Ham on Sunday, Arsenal needs to beat Everton for the title. The article previously stated a draw would be enough for Arsenal if City lost. This has been corrected above.

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