Manchester City and the Holy Grail

Manchester City reached the Promised Land in 2011-12, although their journey was far more challenging than had seemed likely halfway through the season.

Football News: Roberto Mancini, Vincent Kompany
Abhishek Mehrotra

By Abhishek Mehrotra

Part of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If" reads: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster / And treat those imposters just the same."

Had Mr. Kipling been present at the Etihad May 13, and happened to mention these words to the Manchester City fans as their team's game against QPR entered injury time, he would undoubtedly have been the victim of the most violent homicide in history.

City had been teetering on the brink of the disaster ever since Jamie Mackie's header had put Rangers in the lead 24 minutes earlier, and there were no signs of the fans taking comfort in the poet's philosophy as they saw dreams of a first English championship title since before man landed on the moon recede into the distance.

Desolation, despair and dejection - the atmosphere could not have been more sombre. One fan even took off his shirt and started thrashing his chair with it in an exhibition of crazed anger. The display have landed him in the nearest mental asylum had he done it anywhere else other than at the Etihad at 4.45pm on Sunday, May 13.


Five crucial City comebacks

January 22: Mario Balotelli wins and converts a penalty in injury time against Tottenham as City beat Spurs 3-2

March 21: Carlos Tevez returns with a goal and an 85th minute assist as City come back from one down to beat Chelsea 2-1

March 24: With City trailing 1-0 to Stoke, Yaya Toure thunderous 76th minute strike grabs a point for City

March 31: Aleksandar Kolarov slams in an injury time free-kick as City complete a remarkable comeback from 3-1 down to draw with Sunderland

May 13: Sergio Aguero finds the back of the net with virtually the last kick of the season as City beat QPR 3-2 to win the title


And then, in the course of 122 coruscating seconds that will be replayed for years to come, those emotions turned to ecstasy as first Edin Dzeko and then Sergio Aguero struck to win City the trophy. It was the most dramatic finish to a title race since Michael Thomas scored in the final minute of the final day of the season against Liverpool in 1989 as Arsenal pipped the Reds to the post on more goals scored.

There are those who will argue that with all the talent at their disposal, City should have raced to the title. Maybe so. But the fact that they struggled over the line rather than gallop over it might, in hindsight, be a blessing for them. Having banished all comers in the first half of the season, they looked like a well-oiled juggernaut that would crush all those who stood in its way. That they had to claw and fight all the way, especially after their Feb-March meltdown, makes their victory more endearing than it otherwise would have been.

Not everyone will be convinced, of course. The fact remains that Roberto Mancini was handed a blank cheque with which he could purchase anyone who took his fancy. But few can argue that this team had it easy, or that it was made up solely of prima donnas who crumbled at the first sign of things going against them.

For every Carlos Tevez, you had a Joe Hart. For every Mario Balotelli, you had a Sergio Aguero. For every Samir Nasri, you had a David Silva. And then there was Vincent Kompany - defender par excellence and leader by example. Take away the glitz and the glamour, the crazy money and the insatiable egos - and at the heart of the team you had a meagre £6 million signing, a plain old centre-back who held it all together for his side.

That's not to say Balotelli and Tevez didn't contribute to the cause - far from it. Amongst other useful strikes, Balotelli got the wonder goal that sparked City's comeback from 3-1 down against Sunderland, a point that proved vital in the final reckoning, as well as providing that assist (his only one of the season) for Aguero against QPR. Tevez revitalised the club upon his return, just when the title seemed to have slipped away.

But the fact is - each of them is crazier than the mad hatter. Combine the two, and you have a psychiatrist's wet dream. To stop the dressing room from turning into a loony bin, City needed someone with dignity, drive and sheer bloody-mindedness. Kompany ticked all those boxes, and for that he has to be their most valuable player of the season - ahead of Aguero (23 goals) and the irrepressible Silva (6 goals, 15 assists).


Other ESPNSTAR.com Team Reviews

Red Devils found lacking this season

Liverpool: A desolate campaign

A season to remember for Chelsea

The secret behind Newcastle's success

A prickly season for Tottenham


Although a far more high-profile signing than his Belgian skipper, Yaya Toure conducted himself with the same grace, and stepped up at vital moments. There was the match-winning brace against Newcastle, a magnificent midfield performance against United in the Manchester derby and before that, an all-important late equaliser against Stoke to earn his team a point.

Toure has made a habit of scoring crucial goals for City. The FA Cup win in 2011 - City's first silverware in 35 years - came courtesy of two match-winning goals from the Ivorian against United and Stoke in the semi-final and final respectively. It's a surprise then that Toure's agent admitted his client could move elsewhere in the transfer window, in search of "a new challenge."  

Mancini's new challenge would be to keep his old guard (it's not that old actually - Mancini himself has only been in charge for 30 months) together, and this could be yet another test for the Italian's man-management skills - the respect for which is at an all-time high after City's win on May 13. Critics will still argue that his decision to bring Tevez back and to put up with Balotelli's antics showed weakness, but it's difficult to point the finger when the man in charge has just brought an end to nearly half a century of misery - albeit by the skin of his teeth.

If Mancini can keep the vital cogs in place while keeping the squad players happy, it would further add to his growing reputation as an astute handler of inflated egos. As the City players soak in their success - the job of handling them will become harder. 

Nasri showed his crassness with some distasteful remarks in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's game. (To be fair - he was asked a leading question, but a classier person would have dealt with it in, well, a classier manner). Balotelli showed yet again his world and reality do not intersect when asking his critics to shut up after handing them an armoury laden with ammunition through the season, while Tevez, by holding up the "RIP Fergie" poster, showed the maturity of a pre-pubescent.

Mancini knows some of the players who took him to the title can also lose it for him (they almost did). His continuing ability to alternate between strict headmaster and cooing nanny will be essential if City are to take the next step - the Champions League.   

For a squad as big and as talented as theirs, the Etihad outfit should at least have made it past the group stages of Europe's showpiece tournament this season. That they could not is a black mark, Premier League or no Premier League. 

Good European showings on a regular basis are a must for any club that wants to be mentioned in the same breath as other continental bigwigs. No doubt Mancini understands that, and equally, there is no doubt he will yet again dip into the transfer market as City prepare to defend their title and take another shot at the Champions League.

So far, Mancini's continental record is middling at best. Notwithstanding last season's failure with City, Mancini failed to lead Inter Milan past the last eight in four seasons with the club. A semi-final place would represent a personal accomplishment for the 47-year-old and yet another ground-breaking feat for the club.

Whether they can do so is the subject for another article after the dust from the transfer window has settled. For now, Mancini and his merry men can enjoy winning one of the most riveting title races of all time.



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