Monday, 14 May 2012

A reflection on the run-in: How the title was won and lost

Vincent Kompany holds the Barclays Premier League title aloft
Manchester City were crowned Barclays Premier League champions on Sunday after possibly the most dramatic end to a season ever witnessed in the history of English football. Within thirteen seconds of the final whistle blowing at the Stadium of Light, where Manchester United beat Sunderland 1-0, Sergio Aguero fired the ball into the back of Queens Park Rangers' net to grant City the title and turn the Etihad Stadium into absolute bedlam.

On Monday 12th March - the day after United capitalised on City's 1-0 defeat away at Swansea to beat West Brom 2-0 and go to the top of the table - I put my neck on the line and confidently predicted that United would go onto claim their 20th league title. To my disappointment, I was proved wrong. 

With ten games remaining, I put together the following game-by-game prediction for both sides:

Manchester United
18 March Wolves (A) W
26 March Fulham (H) W

2 April Blackburn (A) D (Actual result: W)
8 April QPR (H) W

11 April Wigan (A) W (Actual result: L)
15 April Aston Villa (H) W

22 April Everton (H) W (Actual result: D)
30 April Manchester City (A) D (Actual result: L)
6 May Swansea (H) W

13 May Sunderland (A) D (Actual result: W)
Points tally ahead of the derby: 86 (Actual points tally: 83)
Final points tally: 91 (Actual points tally: 89)

Manchester City
21 March Chelsea (H) W
24 March Stoke (A) D

31 March Sunderland (H) W (Actual result: D)
8 April Arsenal (A) L
11 April West Brom (H) W

14 April Norwich (A) D (Actual result: W)
22 April Wolves (A) W

30 April Manchester United (H) D (Actual result: W)
6 May Newcastle (A) W
13 May QPR (H) W
Points tally ahead of the derby: 80 (Actual points tally: 80) 

Final points tally: 87 (Actual points tally: 89)

*Key: Correctly predicted results in bold

To put it simply, I slightly over-estimated United's capabilities and slightly under-estimated City's. Five of United's results and seven of City's results matched up to my prediction. As for the others, just how big an impact did they have on the title race?

United's surprise 1-0 defeat away at Wigan was somewhat compensated for by a hard-fought 2-0 victory away at Blackburn just over a week earlier. Roberto Martinez's men thoroughly deserved the three points on the night and even so, United left the DW Stadium safe in the knowledge that they had the cushion of a five-point lead at the summit.

The two results that ultimately cost the Red Devils were those against Everton and City. United were leading 4-2 against the Merseysiders with only ten minutes remaining when Patrice Evra struck the post. By the 85th minute, Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar had both got their names on the scoresheet to level the match at 4-4 and United were unable to respond.

All of a sudden the Manchester derby had simply become a must-not-lose game for United. The seemingly unassailable eight-point lead had been cut down to three and their inferior goal difference meant that a defeat would see them drop below City into second place. Vincent Kompany was in no mood to let the champions leave Eastlands with the result they required and it was the Belgian's towering header which inspired City to a well-deserved 1-0 win. The result sparked genuine belief amongst the blue half of Manchester that they could end their 44-year wait for the title.

Although I correctly predicted that City would draw away at Stoke and lose away at Arsenal, a 3-3 draw at home to Sunderland, in between the two, appeared to be a damaging result beyond repair. As such, the 6-1 win away at Norwich and the manner in which it was achieved was massive. Carlos Tevez firmly re-announced himself in City colours with a devastating hat-trick and the hefty scoreline gave the Blues an eight goal advantage over United; the margin which would ultimately separate the two sides come the end of the season.

City's crucial derby victory was sandwiched by wins away at Wolves and Newcastle to set up the final day showdown. And what a showdown it was. Incredibly, QPR's Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie both scored after the break to cancel out Pablo Zabaleta's first-half opener while United led 1-0 at Sunderland through Rooney's 20th minute header. With the clock ticking, it seemed that United had somehow snatched the title from under their bitter rivals' noses. 

But in an incredible season of twists and turns there was inevitably set to be one more. Edin Dzeko headed home in the 92nd minute to give City a lifeline at 2-2. The final whistle blew at the Stadium of Light in the 94th minute leaving United to wait anxiously for the news from the Etihad. Thirteen seconds later, Aguero smashed the ball past Paddy Kenny to secure the title for City and finally bring them out of the shadows of their Manchester counterparts. An unbelievable end to an unbelievable season.

The 2011/12 Premier League campaign was officially voted as the best in its 20-year history. The drama which unfolded on Sunday afternoon is justification for that alone. There's no doubt that the best team over the course of the season came out on top, however, they will have to be even better next time round if they're to retain their trophy. City are the champions for now but United will have revenge on their minds.

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