The most incredible finish in English Premier League history came at the end of a final day packed with a season’s worth of drama and saw Manchester City lift the championship trophy thanks to the most extraordinary conclusion imaginable.
City’s first ever EPL title could not have been sweeter, coming courtesy of two goals deep into injury time and breaking the hearts of hated rival and perennial big brother Manchester United in the process.
A Sunday afternoon that had begun with the simplest of tasks for City, which needed just a win at home over the weak Queens Park Rangers, had turned into a nightmare. Despite the Rangers going down to 10 men, its staunch rearguard effort and two stunning goals on the break meant City was in danger of suffering a collapse for the ages.
Then, with its fans in tears and frustration raging through the Etihad Stadium, City, trailing 2-1 and having been unable to break down the QPR defense for the previous 51 minutes, did so twice in the space of a few seconds.
Edin Dzeko’s header pulled things level before Sergio Aguero, with time almost done, made it 3-2 with a right-foot strike that will go down in City lore as the moment when Manchester’s little brother flexed his muscles.
United, which beat Sunderland 1-0 to match City’s 89 points, was left to wait for the news 150 miles away. A few minutes earlier, Sir Alex Ferguson and his men were lined up at the side of the pitch, ready to accept the EPL trophy for the 13th time. They were scarcely able to believe their fortune. A phone call from Manchester later, Ferguson’s side could only trudge off as second-place finishers on goal difference.
Meanwhile, the Etihad erupted with joy, all those light blue streamers and banners and bunting that had looked destined for cold storage were unfurled and flown with pride. Fans invaded the field after the final whistle to revel in the moment.
City had not been champion of English soccer for 44 years and never in the EPL era. Its recent resurgence has been built largely on the cash of its Arabian investment group, but this was an afternoon where logic and history and power of statistics counted for nothing.
After 17 wins and one draw from its previous home games this season, this should have been the most routine of victories against a QPR team that had been useless on the road and faced relegation if Bolton Wanderers won their final game at Stoke.
City’s first goal after 39 minutes seemed to ease the nerves. Pablo Zabaleta struck after being fed by the injured Yaya Toure, his strike careening off goalkeeper Paddy Kenny and into the net. However, Toure was forced to limp off just before halftime and City returned after the break far too casually. In the 48th minute, a rare defensive slip from Joleon Lescott allowed Djibril Cisse to pounce and put City behind United, which kept an early lead at Sunderland.
More mayhem followed.
QPR captain Joey Barton’s famous temper got the better of him and ended with the latest sorry chapter in his controversial career. Clipped from behind by Carlos Tevez in an off-the-ball incident, Barton responded by stupidly elbowing Tevez in the jugular. Referee Mike Dean didn’t spot the infraction but his assistant did, and Barton was sent packing with a straight red card.
Down to 10 men, QPR was left with no choice but to defend for its life, and for the most part it did so. However, with one rare attack, the London side caught the City defense napping. The fast advancing Jamie Mackie, whose transfer fee of $150,000 is less than the weekly wage of many City players, amazingly put QPR ahead by strongly getting his head on a fine cross from substitute Armand Traore.
As the minutes ticked by, City seemed destined for pain of the deepest kind and a reminder that, in soccer, all the money in the world may not trump fate’s cruel touch. Heading into injury time, City was fractured and worn down by the pressure and the frustration of this most unexpected development.
QPR’s defensive heroes such as Kenny and veterans Clint Hill and Shaun Derry repelled wave after attacking wave, with every City player pushed forward. And even when QPR cracked enough to allow Dzeko’s equalizer, it looked like it was too little. Dzeko’s introduction from the bench provided height that had previously been lacking and the giant Bosnian was able to turn in a corner with a powerful header.
[Dirty Tackle: David Beckham scores with a vintage David Beckham free kick]
But with injury time already two minutes deep there wasn’t enough time. Or was there?
As QPR’s bench started to celebrate their own survival with Stoke and Bolton having ended 2-2, City mounted one final desperate attack. Like so many others before, it looked set to crack in the face of QPR’s defensive wall. But then Mario Balotelli, a pariah just a few weeks ago after fighting with teammates and earning a lengthy suspension for being sent off at Arsenal, redeemed himself.
The young Italian, lying prone on the turf after colliding with a defender, still managed to stick out a foot and clip the ball into the path of Aguero, the brilliant Argentinean striker and son-in-law of Diego Maradona. Aguero had scored 21 league goals during the season but he may never hit a more meaningful one than the moment when he kept his nerve, beat Kenny and clinched the title.
Suddenly, misery turned to rapture and English soccer had a new champion, only the fifth different name on the trophy in the 20 years of the EPL. On such small margins titles, and careers, turn.
City boss Roberto Mancini, who might have been fired had he failed to deliver the championship, is now a hero. United, just tantalizing moments away from securing another piece of silverware, must now realize the pressing need to spend in the summer.
They say the first title is the hardest to win and City made the breakthrough Sunday by the narrowest and most thrilling method possible. It would be no shock if the club goes on to claim more titles in the ensuing years, but it is hard to imagine that any could be more dramatic, more exciting or more satisfying.
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