Forty-four years of underachievement – during which time the Red half of Manchester became the byword for footballing success in England – ended in the crazy theatre that played out at Etihad Stadium in faraway, but still throbbingly close, Manchester on Sunday.
As Sergio Aguero, Maradona’s earnest son-in-law, scored the last-gasp winner against Queen’s Park Rangers, years and years of hurt and daily ridicule were put to rest. It was a heart-stopper of a game, a giant rollercoaster that the players and millions of fans rode on, exulting, despairing and – in the end – screaming their hearts out.
Needing to beat QPR to edge out Manchester United on goal difference, City faced the prospect of being heartbreakingly denied right at the end. QPR – down to 10 men and battling to avoid relegation – led 2-1 as regulation time ended and the game went into the last five minutes of stoppage time.
United had already downed Sunderland 1-0. Their legendary manager, Alex Ferguson, had spoken in the last few days of the possibility of Manchester City imploding. That had seemed like gamesmanship, an attempt to mess with the minds of the City team. But suddenly, it began to seem worrying probable.
Then, Edin Dzeko headed the Blues level in the 92nd minute before Sergio Aguero collected Mario Balotelli’s return pass and drove home arguably the most important goal in the club’s history, with barely a minute to go.
Never had a Premiership title been decided on goal difference. Back in 1989, Michael Thomas’ injury time goal for Arsenal against Liverpool was the closest it had ever got. The EPL wasn’t even an idea back then. On Sunday, Aguero reprised Thomas’ goal – in such sweet fashion.
The last time Manchester City won English football’s top prize – in 1968 – ‘Hey Jude’ had raced to the top of the British charts. As United raced to unimaginable heights in the period, the Beatles’ number was relegated to a terrace chant in the Blue half. On Sunday, as Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher led the singing, the song had an unforgettable lilt to it. It had been a long time coming.
But what a game! That is the magic of football – it holds you, sucks you in and then lets you free in a release that few sports can equal. When French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre airily observed that “In football everything is complicated by the presence of the other team,” he was probably talking about City’s predicament against Queen’s Park Rangers on Sunday.
At the break, when City bounded out of the turf, spring in their step and purpose in their eyes, after wresting the lead back in the Premiership race, you couldn’t help wondering what held more dear. Was it the first title in 44 years, their’s to be in a matter of three quarters of an hour and some injury time, or did QPR’s maddening desperation to stay on in the elite possess more ardent appeal?
Pablo Zabaleta, the doughty Argentine, had neutralised Wayne Rooney’s lead at Sunderland, but it was news of Bolton’s lead against Stoke away, that made battling QPR so much more dangerous. Somehow, the battle against relegation is so much more tantalising than a hunt for a title that’s eluded a club for nearly half a century.
In the end, both ends were achieved – Alex Ferguson’s noisy neighbours earned the right to be all the more noisier now, while QPR, earned their much-deserved exempt from the drop after Stoke finally came back to hold Bolton.
QPR were down to ten men after Joey Barton had suffered a bout of John Terry-titis and the easy-paced, unhurried Mario Ballotelli making his entry, the feeling still didn’t go away that you wouldn’t want to be a Manchester Blue when the sun rose on Monday. It was the best day to be neutral – even if those with a kink for sadism would have secretly wished to be around when the Mancunians of different hues ran into each other on way to work.
Barton’s sending off, though, made the QPR so much more determined. And in their fightback, they exposed the frailty of England’s Euro midfield via running past Lescott and Barry clean.
Someone had rightly remarked that had Carlos Tevez and Roberto Mancini kissed and made up earlier, things wouldn’t have gotten so heart-stopping close. Thank god, for football – and good theatre’s sake – their reunion happened just when it did.