The Man City miracle

Two late goals gave City the title and capped the wildest-ever finish to a Prem season

Updated: May 14, 2012, 4:29 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to

Roberto ManciniPaul Ellis/Getty ImagesIn claiming the Prem, Roberto Mancini laid to rest the stresses of a wild season.

It was just a coincidence that the mother of all bizarre and psychotic endings to a Premier League season took place on Mother's Day, but what a gift it was. It took every bit of the 44 years, 93 minutes and 20 seconds for Manchester City to end the agony of being the No. 2 team in a town where traditionally only one has ever really mattered.

Until that epoch-defining moment when Sergio Aguero slashed through the QPR penalty area, collected Mario Balotelli's layoff, sidestepped a defender and buried the ball in the back of the net, United were still the Lords of Manchester as well as champions of all they surveyed in English soccer. Sir Alex's men had done their part -- defeating Sunderland 1-0 -- to go two points clear of their crosstown rivals, who were tied 2-2 with less than two minutes to go at the Etihad. But there was to be one final convulsion before the whistle blew on this seismic season of twists and turns. And the sheer improbable force of it carried the league trophy from one end of Manchester to the other.

Now the pain is being felt on the red side of Manchester, and it promises to last all summer long -- or until the Glazers let Fergie buy a player that we've actually heard of. (Say goodbye to London, Luka Modric.)

It didn't even seem to make a difference that City was hosting QPR, as useless a team as it could have handpicked to play at home. After all, Sky Blues fans know what it is to hope and lose -- they'd been perfecting it since 1968 -- and after 90 minutes in City's 38th and final league game, the cruel wheel of negative karma had them spinning into the abyss of legendary runners-up. But the five minute insane-a-thon of stoppage time turned out to be sufficient to not only topple a dynasty and exorcise decades of existential misery, but to make even the notoriously sullen Liam Gallagher smile. (Although not at his brother.)

Or, to put it less philosophically, City finally knocked United off their perch.

The United faithful reacted to the last five breath-stopping minutes at the Etihad as if they had been nutted by Joey B not once but twice (in what shall henceforth be referred to as "The Full Barton"). Edin Dzeko's goal in the first minute of extra time brought City irrelevantly level at 2-2, but that was a mere feathery tickle compared to the full-frontal assault that Aguero delivered with his 94th-minute goal -- an effort that gave City the three points needed to tie United on points and win on goal differential. That was the strike that made Sir Alex's face deflate like a hot air balloon (only redder, saggier and with more hot air). And for City to win it in Fergie time, normally the exclusive preserve of United, made it all that much sweeter.

"Everybody expected City to win, but they did it against 10 men for half an hour and with five extra minutes to help them", Ferguson conceded afterwards, as gracious as ever.

[+] EnlargeJoey Barton
Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesIt wouldn't be a big Prem occasion without Joey Barton trying to main the opposition, but his 1-2-3 assault on Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany was unprecedented.

Meanwhle, it's surely Barton whom City owes for extending the game because the self-proclaimed reformed thug didn't go gently (or quickly) into the good night after being red-carded for Metta World Peacing Carlos Tevez in the neck and following up by John Terrying Aguero in the back. At one point, in a potentially UFC worthy matchup of unhinged bad boys, it looked as if he would square off with Mario Balotelli. (Are you listening, Dana White?) The Barton versus Balotelli meeting of the mind was the appropriate denouement to a journey that began when the latter's horror tackle against Arsenal's Alex Song on April 8 had left City eight points back of United with only six matches remaining. Few, myself included, gave City a chance to catch United in the title race. It is a testament to City's resilience and determination that it not only closed the gap but surged ahead on goal difference to take the catbird seat heading into Sunday's games.

Then, in 125 nerve-shredding seconds, Mancini's men displayed the other Manchester's patented ability to snatch the miraculous from the jaws of the impossible. The agony that United once brought to Bayern Munich in the dying moments of the 1999 Champions League final was repaid to the title holders with interest. (And I am personally offering a $100 reward to the first reporter who asks Fergie to his face, "What's it like to lose an eight-point lead and finish as runner-up?" Should that reporter fail to live to hear his response, I promise to transfer those funds to his next of kin -- or for that matter, Kun.)

The fact is, City was simply worthier this season. The Sky Blues scored more goals, gave up fewer and made United look pedestrian and addled in both league fixtures (7-1 on aggregate.)

City's performance during the decisive run-in was brilliant: six games, 18 points to be had, 18 points collected and 18 goals scored with a mere three conceded. During that same key stretch, the 19-time league winners dropped eight points, managed to lose to Wigan and blew a two-goal home lead to Everton. They also conspired to choke, dive, (I'm looking at you, Ashley Young) and complain more than any erstwhile champion ever should.

[+] EnlargeFerguson
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesSir Alex Ferguson's sour grapes after learning of City's victory couldn't mask the obvious truth: his United side has been second best in Manchester all season.

But rather than pay homage to City's resolve, Ferguson chose to remind everyone that Sunday's result was just a hiccup in United's eternal hegemony. "It's a cruel way to lose out, but I have experienced many ups and downs in 26 years. I think we have a rich history, better than anyone and it will take [City] a century to get to our level of history."

Here's hoping that Sir Alex never has to drink a Cabernet made from his own brand of sour grapes. Or perhaps that's the germ of a new business venture? Since he won't have to worry about celebrating another title, Sir Alex could launch his own line of high-end potables under the label FERGUSON WHINES.

Congratulations, 'Arry, on not getting the job done

Though my beloved Gunners finished a distant third in the Prem, we can hoist our insufferable egos high above North London because Spurs are once again second best.

If, according to Wengerian calculus, fourth place is a trophy then third must be a new millennium double. And to do it without Cesc "No La Liga Title" Fabregas and Samir "Damn, he won the big one" Nasri makes all the anger and exasperation of our nightmarish start to the season nothing more than a Stella-soaked distant memory. After Sunday's 3-2 victory over West Brom ensured automatic qualification for Arsenal's 15th Champions League in a row (a mere 14 more than 'arry's band of overrated prima donnas and Gareth Bale), I'm already planning my routine for next Saturday's final. For me, it's a can't-lose sporting event. I think I'll just kick back on my golden divan with a cigar and a glass of Cristal while scantily clad nymphettes dressed in Lampard-inspired blue feed me Slim Jims and comb the champagne bubbles out of my mustache. In other words, just another weekend at Chez Hirshey.

If Bayern wins the CL, then Roman Abramovich, John Terry and the rest of the prawn-eating brigade will have endured their worst season since the lovable oligarch took over. Should Chelsea pull off another improbable Barca-like miracle, it will condemn Spurs to another season in Europa League purgatory. And how do you suppose Luka Modric and Bale will like dem apples?

And to think how different it all could have been when Spurs was cruising along, up 2-0 over Arsenal at the Emirates in late February with visions of a 13-point lead over their bitter rivals dancing in their little heads. Does anyone else remember the delirious Spurs fans crowing about how this was the best Tottenham side in ages? And how the Gunners were lucky to be above the relegation zone and could say goodbye to Robin Van Persie, who would be Nasri-ing off for Man City at the end of the season? Reality can be the harshest of mistresses.

Then Bacary Sagna, on hiatus between his two broken legs, scored a bullet header for Arsenal and the Spurs crumbled like so much stale feta cheese. (And by the way, they'll get to sample plenty of that should they end up playing some obscure Greek side next year on a Thursday night.) By the time Sunday rolled around, Tottenham's only hope of finishing above Arsenal was for Spurs to beat Fulham and Arsenal to draw or lose to West Brom. With New York City laws still prohibiting the sale of alcohol before noon and the games kicking off at 10 a.m., I was reduced to sneaking a bottle of citrus Vitamin Water spiked with vodka into my local pub in order to calm my jangled nerves.

For the neutral fan, the tension wasn't as great as it was in the City-QPR dual for the title, but I have been shamelessly biased since I was in utero. After years of being subjected to the Manual Almunia Comedy Goalkeeping Experience, imagine my delight to realize there was an even more hapless keeper in the league -- and for once he didn't play for Arsenal. In a delicious bit of irony, Marton Fulop, an ex-Spurs player, exacted cruel and vengeful payback on his former club with a hat trick of howlers that gift-wrapped all three Arsenal goals.

Even so, the Gunners, as has been their wont this season, made hard work of Fulop's largesse. Arsenal still had to overcome the stunning ineptitude of its own slapstick defense to keep the team's water bottle supply safe from Arsene Wenger. There was an indelible moment with about a half-hour remaining when all the unremitting frustration of the Gunners' schizoid season seemed to barrel into Wenger like a Ryan Shawcross tackle, and he burrowed his head into Pat Rice's chest like a little boy looking to pose for the cover of Time magazine.

[+] EnlargePat Rice
Stuart MacFarlane/Getty ImagesPat Rice's final game with Arsenal, after 48 accumulated years with the club, ended on a happy note as the Gunners clinched third place and another season of CL participation.

Rice, the longtime architect of Arsenal's defense (let's try to remember that for every Sebastien Squillaci and Johan Djourou, there was a Tony Adams and Sol Campbell) who is retiring after 48 accumulated years with the club, smiled benignly as if to say "In Fulop We Trust".

And sure enough, the Hungarian keeper came through for the Gunners one last time when on a corner kick he comically punched the ball backward toward his goal, where Laurent Koscielny was waiting to poke it home and make it 3-2. And yet such was the fragility of Arsenal's defending that hearts and knuckles were in Gooner mouths until the 92nd minute, when Kieren Gibbs made a perfectly timed, CL-saving sliding challenge in the box to snuff out the last West Brom threat. The sound of Arsenal fans exhaling could be heard all the way from the Hawthorns to the Kinsale Tavern in New York City.

So Arsenal finishes third, Tottenham fourth, and the power shift in London will have to wait until Redknapp becomes England manager.

Meanwhile, to my poor, deluded Spurs friends, I say this in all sincerity about next week's Champions League final: Enjoy the pain.

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."