Sir Alex in Wonderland
United may be on its knees facing death by goal differential, but if you listened to Sir Alex Ferguson you'd think it was about to pull off the greatest miracle on grass since Liverpool showed up for the second half in Istanbul.
In spin so delusional that it was worthy of the former Iraqi information minister Comical Ali, His Fergieness said he was looking forward "to the biggest celebration of our lives" next Sunday at Sunderland.
Even for someone whose belief in his own omnipotence is staggering in its consistency, Ferguson is simply asking too much this time. United travels to the Stadium of Light where their manager faces perhaps the toughest challenge of his imperious 25-year reign. Going into the final game of this strange and twisted season, Sir Alex's side finds itself staring at a seemingly insurmountable goal difference of eight, essentially the result of the world's longest-lasting hangover from the Sky Blues' early-season 6-1 smackdown at Old Trafford.
With its gutsy 2-0 win over formidable Newcastle, the other Manchester has now placed a Vincent Kompany-sized paw on the prize, a cup that the City captain will surely lift next Sunday, barring a seismic rip in the space/time continuum (or Joey Barton putting out a lit cigar in Yaya Toure's eye on his way to Etihad Stadium).
Yet despite the almost funereal silence that enveloped Old Trafford in the wake of City's victory, Sir Alex remained unable to hear the penultimate nail being pounded into United's title coffin. Maybe that's because he's so focused on his team's David Blaine-like escape on the final day of the season. Or perhaps he's just hard of hearing.
As much as he'd like to think that his men can beat Sunderland 9-0 -- with ex-Red Devils Wes Brown and John O'Shea marshaling the back line, anything is possible -- he needs a huge favor from another United old boy, Mark Hughes, a player Fergie brought back to Old Trafford in 1988 and helped mold into one of the most devastating strikers ever to grace a United shirt.
Even without Ferguson cooing in his ear and offering up a bottle of rare Bordeaux, Hughes, the current manager of relegation-threatened QPR, is not about to lie down for City -- a club that he feels stuck the shiv in his back when it played footsie with Roberto Mancini while the Welshman was still in charge. Of course, the odds of QPR actually winning the match are roughly the same as me calling Hughes "Sparky" to his face and him responding "Let's grab a pint afterward, Hirsh." But if there was ever a season that deserved at least one final O. Henry-esque twist, it's this one.
It has to gall Hughes that City's graceless dismissal of him turned out to be precisely the right move for City's titular aspirations. And of course, QPR needs at least a draw to ensure it doesn't plummet right back into the Championship abyss.
But Ferguson shouldn't take for granted that Hughes is in a mood to do him a solid. For one thing, the Wrexham-born Hughes is, in his way, as fiercely combative as the gruff Glaswegian, and he has an elephantine memory. Hughes has maintained a refrigerator-sized chip on his shoulder since the end of the 1994-95 season, when Ferguson Beckham'd him out the United door to make room for Andy Cole.
In fact, the last time Sir Alex saw his old protégé, spittle was flying from Hughes' lips as he raged at both Fergie and referee Lee Mason for giving the requisite soft penalty against QPR at Old Trafford in April. Lest anyone forget -- and be assured that Hughes hasn't -- that was the game in which Ashley Young famously succumbed to the laws of gravity and toppled over in the box when Rangers' prematurely gray-haired captain, Shaun Derry, brushed the back of his jersey with his hand. Mason pointed to the spot, Derry was sent off, and Hughes looked like he wanted to end Ferguson's eight decades on the planet.
Any rational United soccer fan (both of them) understands that their only realistic chance at the title disappeared in the second half at Whatchamacallit, Inc. Stadium, when Toure dragged City to its win over the Magpies. It's not so much that United now needs to beat Sunderland by a margin wider than Gervinho's forehead. Rather, it's the weight of history and destiny that have combined to all but guarantee City its first league championship since 1968 and United its first trophy-less season since 2004-05. Say what you want about Liverpool's disastrous league campaign -- at least King Kenny has a cup (even if it's of the cheap plastic Carling variety) in his cupboard. Sir Alex just has a lot of wine glasses and a jeroboam of regrets.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
That moment arrived in the 70th minute, when Sergio Aguero's sublime pass released Toure in the Newcastle penalty area, and the return on investment from the $300,000-a-week ex-Barca midfielder was inevitable. Toure is a man mountain for the big occasion -- he scored the dramatic winner for City in last season's FA Cup final -- and curled a shot past the despairing dive of Toon keeper Tim Krul. Although Aguero crafted the goal, Mancini deserves an assist. The Italian is often unfairly derided as a "conservative" manager, someone who feels you can never have too many men behind the ball. That theory, however, is belied by the fact that City has scored more goals than any other club in the league. And in the 62nd minute, he showed his attacking intent with a brilliant tactical masterstroke. By removing the former Arsenal weasel Samir Nasri and bringing on his ankle-snapping (and leg-breaking, in Ben Arfa's case) Dutch enforcer Nigel De Jong, he gave Toure the freedom to maraud forward from his holding midfield slot. Toure added a second goal in the final minute of regulation when another ex-Arsenal defender, Gael Clichy (somehow I can't muster the same bile toward him that I feel toward Nasri, probably because I never really cared whether he stayed at the Emirates), picked the Ivorian out in the box for a thumping finish that prompted scenes of tearful joy in the City end and just tearfulness at Old Trafford.
All this combined to remind me, as just about everything usually does, of Toure's failed audition with Arsenal early in 2003. The self-proclaimed genius talent-spotter himself, Arsene Wenger, brought the Ivorian in for a tryout, hoping to kick the tires before signing him. He even played him as a second striker in a preseason game against second-tier Barnet only to decide, in his infinite wisdom, that Toure was an "average player." Unfortunately, Wenger didn't play Aaron Ramsey in that match and come to the same conclusion.
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Given Wenger's snub of him, you wouldn't have thought that Toure would want to do the Frenchman any favors. But by beating Newcastle, Toure & Co. effectively ensured that Newcastle is out of contention for third place in the Prem. The day before, Arsenal had all but put that "trophy" up for sale on Craigslist, as the Gunners wasted a brace from Robin van Persie (goals 30 and 31 for the season) and choked away a 3-2 lead against Norwich with five minutes remaining to end up drawing 3-3. Coupled with Spurs' spineless draw at Aston Villa (thank you, Alex McLeish -- I don't care what anyone says, you're a great manager in my book), an Arsenal win would have clinched a Champions League spot and kept me from slamming my fist into the wood-paneled wall at Kinsale Tavern amid wails of frustration. Fortunately, it wasn't exactly a full Stoudemire, since no glass was involved and the only damage done was to my non-drinking hand.
Enjoy your coronation next Sunday, City. Just keep your filthy, oil-slicked hands off RvP.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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