By Justin McCahren
It’s three days later, and it still feels surreal. It was the kind of finish that will echo through sporting lure for decades to come. Manchester City’s first title in 44 years was earned in a fashion that was both dramatic and poetic. Only the Citizens could live up to a script like this. Supporters of every other English football club will tell you that they were the best team money could by. Yet, scoring two goals in stoppage time was concrete evidence that the Blues collective heart was greater than the sum of their paychecks.
It was never going to be easy. For City, easy, is just never in the cards. Their previous two matches included a 1-0 slugfest victory in the Manchester Derby and a 2-0 win at Newcastle, needing two late goals by Yaya Toure. While QPR, on paper, seemed to be a breeze in comparison, City supporters knew they were not to be taken lightly.
Sure enough, Queens Park Rangers came to play. Their defense was flawless for the better portion of 95 minutes. Led by former Manchester City manager Mark Hughes and three former City players in their starting eleven, QPR had no shortage of motivation. Their prior club affiliations aside, QPR was also playing to avoid relegation.
From opening kickoff, you could see that QPR had extra incentive in their strides. Hughes elected to start his most attacking eleven, yet stopping City was their main priority. Manchester City had an overwhelming advantage in ball possession throughout the match. QPR seemed to block every angle for much of it, however. In the 39th minute, Pablo Zabaleta finally put one in the net for City. Set up by a nifty pass from a hobbled Yaya Toure, Zabaleta’s shot was initially stopped by QPR keeper Patrick Kenny. He attempted to clear the ball up and over, yet the ball hit the left goal post and bounced into the net. Etihad Stadium exploded. Surely, it was going to be nothing but a celebration from there.
City supporters would have to hold off on the parade. The next 45 minutes were anxious and uncomfortable at Etihad. At halftime, City’s lead combined with Bolton’s lead over Stoke City meant QPR was on the verge of relegation. Whatever Mark Hughes said to his team at halftime inspired a massive swing in momentum and some doubt for the Citizens. Djibril Cisse scored for QPR in the 48th minute to stun the Blues and their faithful. The goal was set up by City defender Joleon Lescott who attempted to head the ball away from harm. Instead, the ball bounced right to the feet of Cisse. Cisse cashed in and a hush fell over Etihad.
In the 53rd minute , chaos ensued. Upset with a Carlos Tevez jab to his back just seconds earlier, Joey Barton dropped Tevez with an elbow at the top of the box. The former Manchester City player then escalated the situation. While awaiting his fate from the referee, he began jawing with City players and nearly insighted a full-on brawl. Once he was shown his redcard, Barton decided that he’d leave with a bang. He kicked Sergio Aguero in the back of the leg just before he began to walk off the pitch. As he was leaving he continued to shout at the City bench, which nearly started an altercation with City’s Mario Balotelli. Luckily, keeper Joe Hart was there to maintain order and keep the Italian bad boy away from Barton. When all was said and done, QPR was a man down and stoppage time was now sure to be a factor.
By the 66th minute, all of England was in shock. QPR had a breakaway and Armand Traore, who entered in the 59th for goal scorer Djibril Cisse, sent a beautiful cross to the feet of Jaime Mackie. The Scotish International buried the ball into the back of the net. Joe Hart had no chance to stop it, and suddenly the celebration seemed more like a funeral at Etihad. With only 10 men, QPR continued to play inspired defense for the next 20 minutes plus. The frustration for City was building.
You could feel the disbelief in the crowd. The tension was palpable on the sidelines as well, Roberto Mancini, usually calm and collected, looked to be on the brink of a meltdown. By the 76th minute, Mancini had used all three of his substitutions. Forced to bring in Nigel DeJong early due to Yaya Toure’s injury, Mancini went offensive with his last two. He’d bring in Edin Dzeko in the 69th and Mario Balotelli in the 76th. Both would have legendary roles in the final act at Etihad.
In the stands at Etihad Stadium you saw tears, frustration and looks of pure pain on the faces of the City supporters. The clock was ticking. Time was evaporating rapidly. To make matters worse, Sunderland was down a goal to Manchester United. Wayne Rooney’s early goal seemed to now be enough to earn Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devil’s yet another Premier League crown. QPR meanwhile, just kept plugging every gap and shutting off every angle. The possession was staggering, 81% for City to just 19% for Rangers, yet the scoreboard was the only statistic that mattered. By the 89th minute, it was announced that there would by 5 minutes of stoppage time.
As the game rolled into stoppage time, it was all but over. Tevez, Aguero and Balotelli all had oportunities to score at different points in the match. QPR seemed to be everywhere. Suddenly, in the 90th minute, on their 19th corner kick of the game, a breakthrough came. Carlos Silva’s corner found the head of Edin Dzeko and the ball found the back of the net, the contest was now tied. The City faithful errupted, slightly subdued however, knowing that they needed more than a tie to escape with Premier League glory.
Manchester City would need one final miracle. Just 120 seconds after Dzeko’s header, the prayers of every City supporter were answered. Nigel Dejong crossed midfield with 93:09 on the clock. He fed the ball to Sergio Aguero at 93:15, about 30 yards from goal. Aguero made a nifty move to complete a pass to Mario Balotelli at the top of the box. Balotelli, while falling down at 93:17 had enough vision to see that Aguero was charging hard to the outside. As he fell to the ground he sent a pass Aguero’s way with just enough pace to find the Argentine’s feet. At 93:20 Aguero found just enough space to fire perhaps one last attempt at the improbable. By 93:21, the Aguero shot ripped the back of the net behind Patty Kenny. The fans at Etihad and City supporters all over the globe had just witnessed the unbelievable.
Aguero removed his shirt and swung his jersey over his head in celebration. The 48,000 in attendence, minus a small contingent of QPR backers, rejoiced. For me, all the way in Northern Virginia, it was no different. A staunch City supporter, I swung my shirt proudly right along with Aguero. Much to the horror of my family, as I have a lot more body to circulate than that of the City goal scorer. The finish was one that rivaled any Hollywood script. It wrapped up Manchester City’s first title in 44 years and it put a stamp on perhaps the greatest season in Premier League history.
Queens Park didn’t go home empty handed. Stoke City did them a favor and tied the Bolton Wanderers 2-2. The tie relegated Bolton and kept the feisty QPR squad in the Premier League for next season. Not a bad consolation prize for a team that fought it’s heart out. For nearly 40 minutes, Rangers had to fight with just ten men. The Bolton tie saved QPR from relegation and also Joey Barton from the wrath of his teammates.
With every Premier League fixture starting at the same time Sunday, the drama at Etihad played out all over England. At the Stadium of Light in Sunderland, Manchester United was on the verge of celebrating a title themselves. Merely waiting for the City game to finish, until they received news of Sergio Aguero’s miracle goal. Sir Alex Ferguson was graceful in defeat, congratulating City and pointing out that all is not lost for his United side. As good as the Blues were this season, United still managed to tie them in points. Losing out to the noisy neighbors on goal differential.
The difference this season was the growth of City. They managed to pull off a double against United. The second victory three weeks ago returned the Blues to top of the table. They persevered after losing a nearly season long lead. They reclaimed the lead, and fought all the way through the 95th minute Sunday. Manchester City earned it.
All the faces from this seasons title team won’t be back next season. Questions surround the return of Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez and with some news from today, possibly Yaya Toure. Toure’s agent indicated that perhaps Yaya would move on. A rock in the midfield for City no matter what role he’s been asked to play, Toure’s loss would be a tough one. No one will feel sorry for Man City however, because they have all the resources needed to add and replace if need be. And while news of Toure’s departure is a bit sobering, the names of who City may go after in the summer transfer window is an all-star cast. Namely, Dutch striker supreme and Arsenal front man, Robin Van Persie.
All of that will be decided in time. For now, it’s all about revelling in the moment of a title that seemed long overdue. When Captain Vincent Kompany hoisted the Barclay’s Premier League trophy, it was the sum of a lot of hard work. Both on the pitch and behind the scenes. It was a total team effort. While at times, the team seemed discombobulated, the teams heart found a way to shine through.