The thing with football, like life, is that there are always parallels to be found with events. No matter how crazy something seems, it has probably happened sometime, somewhere before. Just like in 1999, when Manchester United entered injury time needing two goals to become European champions, Manchester City needed two goals after 90 minutes to become Premiership champions. Both times, they did it.
It is a fitting end to what has been a crazy season in England. The manner of City’s 6-1 victory at Old Trafford in October had some talking about a power shift, but an 8 point lead became an 8 point deficit with 6 games to go, as they walked off the pitch at the Emirates a beaten, and perhaps broken team. The very next day, United scored twice in the last ten minutes to win at Ewood Park, and it seemed the Citizens would have to wait for another season. They were let back into it through a combination of several factors: the return of Carlos Tevez for one, and complacency, poor selection and utter gutlessness from United.
Time will tell whether Sergio Aguero’s strike is a sign of things to come: we have been here before. Sort of. Mourinho’s Premiership double was only a precursor to United’s most successful three year cycle ever, and Ancellotti’s league and cup double was built on a foundation that needed rejuvenation, but never got it. All the signs are there that City could be a far tougher test than either. A young, hungry squad full of quality has been built on the back of massive investment over four seasons by the Abu Dhabi United Group, which took over the club in August 2008. Indeed, they didn’t have much of a choice. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules mean we might never see a story like City’s again. In the first season of the takeover, they finished 10th, then 5th, then 3rd, now they are champions.
It could all have been so different. first Carlos Tevez, then Mario Balotelli nearly conspired to deny their team the title. In the end, both played key roles in City’s eventual triumph and perhaps secure personal redemption in the process. A lot of people will say they bought the title, but apart from the fact that no team can win titles without significant and sustained investment, in the last 9 months City have had to dig deep and stick together as a team to be victorious. No amount of money can buy that.
They must now march on. Their new found popularity will open up several commercial avenues, all of which will be maximally exploited without a doubt. They also possess the resources to further strengthen what is an already formidable squad, and try again in the Champions’ League after a difficult first season.
Manchester United came so close to getting their 20th league title, and City’s ‘Camp Nou moment’ will have left them devastated, but it might be what they need to come out of the minimalism that has characterised the last few years. Since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in 2009, they have won the title once, and taken the race to the final day on the other two occasions. Add in a Champions’ League final and League Cup, and it is clear that Alex Ferguson has done very well. After losing 3-1 to Barcelona in Wembley last May, the talk of trying to catch them. Right now, they don’t even have a better squad than City. They finish the season empty-handed even though they are 9 points better off than last season making it even harder to swallow.
It can be said that such a galling disappointment is just desserts: 4-2 up against Everton at home, into the last 10 minutes, should have seen them win the game. The manner of their defeat at the Etihad – without a shot on target – left many wondering if it was the same team that opened up an 8 point lead less than a month before.
Now, they must respond to the challenge by bringing in the kind of quality – especially in midfield – that they have lacked. It is telling that they have not bought a central midfielder since 2007. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, for all their enduring quality, should not be relied on so much. Tom Cleverley and Anderson are either injured or left out of the squad, Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba have departed, Darren Fletcher’s career may be at an end due to illness. United are a team in transition, and how this is handled will determine how Alex Ferguson will end his time as coach.
There is no telling how much yesterday’s dramatic finale will have strengthened the Premier League’s claim to be the best league in the world. While the teams from Spain have done better in Europe this season, the sheer drama that occurs so regularly in England – with its most vivid manifestation yesterday – can only add to the commercial value. It is why so many people bother with the Premiership: you never know what could happen next.
Months ago, some said the title race will go down to the wire. We had no idea.