You might have heard by now that Manchester City are the Champions of England. It’s the second time in three seasons the Blues have topped the pile in England and, to be quite honest, it’s still sinking in.
Having suffered a damaging defeat at Liverpool with six games to play, followed by a disappointing and seemingly disastrous draw against Sunderland in the next game, City’s chances seemed to be rapidly vanishing. However, just like in 2012 the Blues had other ideas and came back to pull off a feat that had looked somewhat unlikely in mid-April.
The common narrative is that Liverpool lost the title when Steven Gerrard slipped against Chelsea to give Demba Ba a free-run at goal in front of The Kop. Or you may assert that City won the league with an impressive five wins from five on the home straight.
These things are true and are obviously important, but it over-simplifies things a great deal. The accepted narrative is usually the one that makes the best story. I’ve decided instead to look for three games across the season that you could argue turned the campaign for the Blues at different stages. So, in chronological order (and certainly not order of importance), here are the three games that jump out at me as really setting City on their title march.
Sunday 10th November, 2013; Sunderland 1 – 0 Manchester City
We all knew this was coming, right? City’s 1-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light is becoming as traditional on the English football calendar as The FA Cup Final, or City winning at Old Trafford. When this season’s customary loss was delivered, there was talk that it had killed City’s title bid. It was their fourth defeat from six away games and it certainly left the supporters in low spirits. Fortunately, Pellegrini didn’t see it that way. What transpired has been one of the most told stories of the last few days; the manager apparently sat his players down and told them they needed to trust him and continue playing the same way. He believed in his methods and, evidently, so did his charges.
After this defeat the Blues never really looked back. What followed was a run of 20 games without loss in all competitions (the next defeat not arriving until February). Everything seemed to fall into place and provided the springboard that saw City regain their tag as favourites for the title.
I’d also argue that this was the game where everybody learned just how important Fernandinho had already become to his team – his absence was keenly felt as City failed to get any kind of grip on the game. Since then, Pellegrini has understandably been loath to split up the Brazilian’s outstanding midfield partnership with Yaya Toure and City have benefitted greatly from their time together.
This was a thoroughly disappointing result but looking back, it was City reaching a nadir and living out one of life’s greatest cliché’s – “It’s always darkest before the dawn”. What a dawn it was.
Saturday 15th March, 2014; Hull City 0 – 2 Manchester City
More so than the Sunderland game, I think this one felt huge at the time. It was one of the most thoroughly satisfying victories of the season for several reasons, chief amongst them being that the visitors were reduced to ten men barely 10 minutes into the match when captain Vincent Kompany was dismissed. The feeling in the away end was not particularly positive at that point.
City changed that almost instantly. Less than five minutes later David Silva scored with a delicious 25 yard strike that is up there with the very best scored in the Premier League this season. The rest of the game wasn’t exactly vintage City, but we did get to see a side to the team that hadn’t necessarily been on show prior to this contest. Basically, we saw the steel City had. They dug their heels in and held firm against a tide of Hull City attacks.
For me, there are three players whose star turns at the KC Stadium stand out as being among of the best we witnessed all year. In a game where the whole team impressed, David Silva, Martin Demichelis and Javi Garcia shone brighter than the rest. Silva was at his mercurial best, dancing around the battlefield with a grace and elegance unmatched by any other footballer in the country. His wonder-goal was the headline grabber but there was so much more to this performance – he was the architect of all creativity the Blues could muster.
After Kompany’s dismissal, the much maligned Demichelis and Garcia were partnered at the back and produced a titanic defensive display of unbelievable discipline to keep the Tigers at bay. They carried on their impressive form for the rest of the season, but Demichelis in particular grew in stature from this game to become one of his team’s most important players in the run in.
When you throw into the mix that this game came at the end of the week in which City had been knocked out of the Champions League and FA Cup (a seven day period that their own official website describes as ‘vexing’), it only further highlights the mental strength the team showed to win it in testing circumstances. You have to showcase a hell of a lot of different talents to win the league – this game was where City showed they could do the lot.
Saturday 3rd May, 2014; Everton 2 – 3 Manchester City
Three games from the end of the season City had to visit their ultimate ‘bogey ground’, knowing that a win would leave them in the perfect position to win back the Premier League trophy they’d surrendered a year earlier. They knew if they won this one they had two very-winnable home games to seal the deal. I’d say this is the most nervous I was about any game all season. The stakes were high and there was plenty of anxiety in the away end, though that didn’t prevent the Blues following creating plenty of noise (including a debut for that Steven Gerrard chant).
City being City, this one could never go completely according to plan. If anybody at Everton wanted City to win this game to keep the title away from Anfield then they did a good job of hiding it when Ross Barkley bent a peach of a goal over Joe Hart to give The Toffees the lead.
You all know the result, I’m sure. City pulled off a nail-biting 3-2 win to leave everything well and truly in their own hands. They made it nervy and occasionally threatened to let the lead slip, but overall it was another game in which they displayed outstanding resolve, even if it was too backs-to-the-wall at times.
Clearly, this game didn’t ‘turn’ the season in City’s favour as they already held the advantage over the flagging contenders Liverpool and Chelsea, but it was significant that they won a difficult match, proving their ability to hold their nerve in the final throes of the season. The relief at the final whistle was immense and the celebrations told you all you needed to know about the significance of the result. City were on course to be Champions and having weathered some stormy conditions, nothing would be able to blow them off course now.
written by Richard Burns