In Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City had the right man for the job
Manchester City won the English Premier League title on Sunday in an outcome that wasn't the romantic one or the sentimental one or even the one that people came to expect over the course of nine dramatic and tumultuous months.
It was, however, the right one.
A 2-0 victory at home over West Ham United on the final day of the campaign was more than enough to clinch City's second title in three seasons and was the ultimate reward for one man who might finally get the credit he deserves.
Much of the chatter this season has been about the difficulties faced by new managers. David Moyes could not cope with the pressure at Manchester United and was unceremoniously sacked after being anointed as the Chosen One to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. Jose Mourinho regularly asserted it would take longer than a single campaign to adapt his Chelsea players to his own distinctive tactical style.
But Manuel Pellegrini, the Chilean coach in his first year in English soccer, was able to handle the change and roll with the punches of the most entertaining season in recent memory. After a slow start, City picked up momentum that, by the end, was simply unstoppable.
Of course, Pellegrini had a few things working in his favor. City's cash-laden ownership group has facilitated spending on a squad so deep that injuries and loss of form to key players is quickly resolved by bringing in ready-made replacements. In that sense, City, like so many other recent champions, effectively won this title in December and January by going on a strong run during the bleakest middle winter months when others stumbled around them.
A banner at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday read "Oops, We Did It Again" and from the outside it was easy to think that City had stumbled over the finish line somehow, especially given Liverpool's much-publicized slip-ups over the closing two weeks. Yet this was no accident. Man City had a manager who knew his squad and held his nerve and boasted a group of players who might (for the neutrals) lack the feel-good factor of Liverpool's story but was clinically efficient and necessarily ruthless down the stretch.
The future for City is not entirely certain. There is a very real possibility that the club could face sanctions as European soccer chiefs aim to curb rampant spending funded by uber-wealthy owners. However, a core is in place. And that should ensure at least short-term stability with players like captain Vincent Kompany, veteran defender Pablo Zabaleta and, perhaps most of all, marauding midfielder Yaya Toure.
Greg Dyke, chairman of the Football Association, said last week it would be "pretty depressing" if City won the title featuring just two Englishmen regularly in the starting lineup. But there was no depression on the blue side of Manchester on Sunday as the final whistle blew and fans flooded onto the field to celebrate with the players. After a joyous but exhausting battle through the throng to reach the locker room, goalkeeper Joe Hart quipped that this was the hardest he'd had to work over the last five games.
He may not have been joking. City was as clutch as can be while powering to five straight victories to complete a two-point advantage over Liverpool in the final Premier League standings.
Liverpool still had a chance going into the final afternoon, but that depended on West Ham pulling off a shock win at the Etihad. Once Samir Nasri eased the tension for City with a goal after 39 minutes, the confetti could be taken out of the box. And once Kompany added a second four minutes after halftime the champagne could be put on ice.
Liverpool overturned a first-half deficit to beat Newcastle 2-1, but it didn't make any difference. Brendan Rodgers' side had to console themselves with the kudos of a job well done but an opportunity missed.
In the end, City led the title race for only 14 days but rounded into form when it mattered most. It also showed that this squad is more than a collection of expensive superstars.
"We cherish every moment of it, it is unbelievable really," Kompany said. "We have come from far. People can say what they want but I see it from the inside. We are building a club with heart and soul."
When City won its first title in 44 years in 2012, it took two goals in the final moments of the campaign, a conclusion of indescribable drama. This time, it was much more straightforward at the end, a sign perhaps that City are getting used to being in this position.
"We are a team that is ready for more," Toure said.
Manchester City most certainly looks like it.