Somebody, at some point in time, will compile a history of the English Premier League. And when they do so, season 2011-2012 will surely feature as a very special vintage.
Manchester City’s tumultuous win over Manchester United on Monday night has hauled them back on top of affairs when three weeks ago they looked a spent force. With just two rounds of matches to go, these two fierce rivals are level on points once again, but City’s +61 goal difference effectively counts as an extra half point.
Their fans were a mixture of impassioned noisiness and can’t-look-now nervousness, but the City players themselves were coolly focused and played a calculated brand of football – not committing too much to attack or defence – and importantly not allowing Paul Scholes to dictate play in the middle.
Indeed, by playing in enterprising fashion throughout – both before and after scoring the game’s only goal – City gave every impression that they have the mental fortitude to go on and seal their first Championship since 1968.
The lasting impression was the remarkable energy with which they seized on the loose balls, cut out United’s counter-attacks and pushed defenders up to tackle United deep in their own half. This happened from the opening, frantic exchanges when United were briefly dominant to the last few gasps of injury time when Yaya Toure, who gave the game’s outstanding performance, was still embarking on lung-bursting runs up and down the pitch.
Toure was ably assisted by Gareth Barry, with the three more advanced midfielders – Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez and David Silva – probing away relentlessly at United’s defenders, ready to unleash Sergio Aguero at any opportune moment.
On the other hand, United had a caginess about them, from the moment a team was announced that shouted the word caution. There was no Antonio Valencia, no Ashley Young, no Danny Welbeck, no Javier Hernandez. It was a team that had no cut and thrust to it, a team built for survival rather than creativity or expression, with a 4-5-1 formation that had an antiquated feel to it and left Wayne Rooney as isolated as Robinson Crusoe.
The timing of Vincent Kompany’s headed goal from a corner, on the stroke of half-time, and the lack of any change in the match dynamics afterwards, finally prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to throw on an extra attacker – Welbeck replacing the largely anonymous Park Ji-Sung.
But now Roberto Mancini was able to counter with a defensive move: off came Carlos Tevez, in came the reliable Dutchman Nigel de Jong. And yet City were still pushing United so impressively. The visitors must have been surprised themselves at how difficult it was to simply build an attack that might worry the home team’s defence in the slightest.
In a night full of statistics, this was my favourite: for the first time in three years, United went through a Premier League game without putting a shot on target. Here’s another stat, if that’s your thing: Scholes only misplaced one of his 48 passes. But how many split City’s defence and set up a chance? None.
And so, on we go, to the final two weekends of the season. Mancini still has one very tough assignment left – a trip to the Sports Direct Arena to take on one of this season’s big over-achievers, Newcastle United, who have a Champions League place to play for.
City have very rarely played the same way away from home as they have within the sanctity of the Etihad Stadium, especially in the second half of the season. But this time they have to shut out the doubts and keep the team ethic strong. United still have more than a fighting chance of winning the title, but there won’t be anything they can do about it if City keep their cool and close out the deal by taking the last six points on offer.
That’s the agonising reality for Ferguson and co now. Two wins might not be enough.