The scars from 2012 run deep at Manchester City. It all came good in the end, courtesy of Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero, but the psychological anguish of the preceding 93 mins and 20 seconds left a mark that even the procession of trophy triumphs in the 10 years since has failed to erase.
That is why City fans were watching from behind their sofas when Nathan Redmond scored against Liverpool on Tuesday night, raising the prospect that Sunday might be a relaxed, happy day from start to finish, the title already decided before a ball was kicked. They should know that the Blues – even the 2022, super-efficient, record-breaking Blues – do not always take the easy route.
Liverpool struck back with two goals of their own to ensure that they moved to within a point of City once more, and to take the season down to its final day, forcing City to beat Aston Villa to be 100 per cent sure of being champions. On the face of it, that should be no problem to a team that has been exceptional all season and has scored 17 goals, and conceded four – three of them to Real Madrid – in their last four home games.
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But the nagging memory of May 13, 2012, when Queens Park Rangers arrived at the Etihad Stadium needing a point to ensure they were safe from relegation, will not go away. There are even narratives to be gleaned from City vs Aston Villa every bit as rich as those which surrounded that fateful day 10 years ago.
The QPR manager that day was Mark Hughes, burning with revenge after being discarded by City’s new ownership. In his team that day were three former Blues in Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Nedum Onuoha and only the latter had no real reason to want to put one over on the club hierarchy that day.
Fast forward 10 years and the focus is slightly different but no less intriguing. Villa are led by Steven Gerrard, who famously slipped to hand Demba Ba the goal that changed the course of the 2013-14 title race, denying himself his only real chance of a Premier League winner’s medal and ensuring Liverpool’s wait for a title continued for another six years.
In his team are former City man Douglas Luiz, who will be out to prove a point after never getting a chance with the Blues, and two former Liverpool men in Philippe Coutinho and Danny Ings. Such details only increase the tension, especially for those City fans who believe in fate, that these incredible league stories are scripted out in advance.
But this is a new City. They have made a nonsense of notions of fate and have, in recent seasons, crushed any ideas of romance – other than the delight of their own supporters – around winning trophies, through their relentless efficiency.
The 2011-12 City team always bore an air of vulnerability. The fact that needed a victory on the final day was down to their tendency to drop points they should not – defeats at Sunderland, Everton and Swansea, and a 3-3 home draw with Sunderland, rescued with two vitally important late goals, spring to mind.
Today’s City fans might point to this seem home defeats by Crystal Palace and Spurs as a similar tendency, but Pep Guardiola’s Blues rarely mess up when the chips are down. The Champions League semi-final defeat by Real Madrid might contradict that statement, but that was Real Madrid, on their home turf, and the nature of the defeat bordered on freakish.
Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League title race has only gone to the final day nine times, and City have been involved in four of those – it’s as if they enjoy putting their support through the emotional wringer. The fourth will be Sunday, but City prevailed in the other three – through Aguero in 2012, a 2-0 win over West Ham to deny Liverpool their maiden Premier League title in 2014 and three years ago when they came from behind to win 4- 1 at Brighton, while Liverpool were beating Wolves and praying.
That 2019 triumph will be remembered in the City squad, with 11 of the players involved that day still with the Blues – although club legends Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kompany are among those who have departed. The traveling City support, basking in sultry sunshine on the south coast, well remember Glenn Murray giving the Seagulls the lead with a header from a corner.
The ripple of excitement at that shock news was still spreading around Anfield when Aguero went up the other end and levelled things – before Aymeric Laporte’s header, a Riyad Mahrez stunner and a brilliant Ilkay Gundogan free kick put it beyond doubt. That is the ruthless nature of this City team, raised on success.
And such steely-eyed determination is the spirit on which the current team draws, not the nervy uncertainty of 2012.
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