One year ago, tension was seriously mounting as the countdown to the Premier League finale kicked into gear, as the league title itself had to be decided on the final day—as did the final relegation spot, two Champions League places and a whole host of mid-table positions, often worth millions of pounds to clubs for a single positive result.
The 2011-12 campaign had proved as intriguing as always, but the last-day drama was set to be more intense than ever before.
Setting the Scene: The League Title Battle
Heading into the final game, the race for the title was the closest in many a long year. Manchester City led the league standings, with 86 points from their 37 games, while rival Manchester United were in second place—also with 86 points from 37 matches!
City in fact led the table on goal difference, with a plus-63 record giving them a marginal lead over United's plus-55.
Roberto Mancini and his players knew they simply had to match United's result on the final day to crown their first ever Premier League title, assuming the Red Devils didn't win by than eight goals more than the Citizens did, anyway. Manchester City were facing Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad Stadium, giving them an amazing chance to win the title on home turf.
United were away in their own fixture, playing against Sunderland.
Ninety minutes, and one huge domestic championship title to play for.
Setting the Scene: European Spots for Grabs
With a total of four Champions League places for clubs to aim for, the final day saw Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United all arrive still in with a shot of claiming the last two places alongside the two Manchester clubs tussling for the title.
The Gunners had a long history of consistently qualifying for the biggest cup competition in the world and had overcome a difficult start to the season to place third going into the last day. With a vastly superior goal difference to fifth-place Newcastle, Arsenal knew that even a point would be enough for them to secure a Top Four finish—though to put a spanner in the works, third place had become ever more important this season with Chelsea reaching the Champions League final.
If the Blues were to win that match, they would qualify as holders for next season's competition, despite already being guaranteed only a sixth-place finish in the league, thereby rendering a fourth-place finish in the Premier League only good enough to qualify for the Europa League this time around.
With the Premier League being awarded three Europa League places, Liverpool had already claimed one earlier in the season courtesy of their League Cup trophy win, and Chelsea had won the FA Cup the previous week to claim another. Since they would also be qualifying for European competition through their league place or through their next cup final appearance, it meant that two Premier League places could yield Europa League spots.
Fifth place would get one, and Chelsea in sixth or the fourth-placed team (if Chelsea won the Champions League) would get the other.
Setting the Scene: Battle at the Bottom to Beat the Drop
Two teams failed to last the course of the season, but there was still one relegation spot up for grabs—or better put, to avoid—on the last day.
Wolves had already been relegated and guaranteed last place after a poor season yielded just 25 points, while Blackburn also went down, managing just 31 up to that point.
The two teams who would battle it out to stay up were Bolton Wanderers, occupying 18th going into the last match on 35 points, and QPR on 37. Aston Villa could mathematically be caught on 38 points, but a far superior goal difference to Bolton meant they were effectively safe.
Bolton knew they simply had to win their game against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium; anything less and they were doomed. Even if they did win, a single point or better for QPR against Manchester City, big ask though it was, meant Bolton would still go down.
Titles and continental competition can mean riches and silverware, but a relegation can cost a club its soul, its best players and an awful lot of staff jobs besides.
Setting the Scene: Mid-table Madness
While some teams would be merely "seeing out the season," "playing for pride" or putting other such cliched nonsense to good use, there were certainly plenty of final league positions—and therefore prize money—up for grabs.
Everton, Liverpool and Fulham in seventh, eighth and ninth respectively were separated by just one point, while just three points, or in other words one final-day victory, separated 10th from 14th.
Norwich vs. Aston Villa (effectively), Fulham vs. Liverpool and Wigan vs. Wolves all had nothing tangible but positions riding on their outcomes.
From here on in, all references to points and positions are in the "as it stands" league table; snapshots of how goals immediately affect the placings and futures of clubs throughout England.
3:00 p.m., Kick Off
Nerves jangling all over the country, so much at stake and just shy of two hours to decide an entire season's worth of football—all the English top flight matches kick off more or less simultaneously, and fans of all clubs anxiously tune into their team's game while keeping more than half an eye on the scores of other matches which directly affect them.
Incredibly, the first five minutes sees two goals hit the back of the net, and both are in matches featuring Champions League-chasing sides.
Emmanuel Adebayor takes just two minutes to put Spurs ahead against Fulham, running onto a Rafael van der Vaart through-ball and firing into the far corner. It sent Tottenham to 69 points and third place—advantage Spurs in the race to guarantee Champions League football next season.
The emotion and confidence at White Hart Lane takes just two more minutes to ebb away though, as Arsenal fire in a strike of their own at West Brom, Yossi Benayoun doing the damage from close range. 70 points Arsenal, and they bounce back up into third, Spurs down to fourth.
Some games start slowly, taking their time to set fully alight smouldering embers which have burned brightly all season long, but other matches are like fireworks set off inside a metal dustbin. Crack, bang, wallop—seven more goals have gone in since the opening moments of the 10 games.
Grant Holt has put Norwich ahead against Villa in one dead-rubber match, while Wigan vs. Wolves makes itself an early candidate for game of the day with three goals inside five minutes; Matt Jarvis curls in a Wolves opener before they show exactly why they're going down and poor defending contributing to Franco di Santo and Emerson Boyce netting within two minutes of each other to turn the match around.
Elsewhere there's been an important goal at Stoke, and it's looking bleak, really bleak, for Bolton, who have conceded to Jon Walters. It's 1-0 to the home side, and Bolton need two without reply over the rest of the game, or they are going to be relegated.
The biggest shock comes at the Hawthorns, where West Brom recover from that early Benayoun goal to strike back with not just one, but two of their own. Shane Long and Graeme Dorrans both hit the target, and Arsenal's Champions League celebrations are very much on hold. Their position of defeat means that Spurs have leap-frogged them into third once more, making the Gunners' European destiny out of their own hands.
To put it into context, finishing that one place lower might end up costing Arsenal anywhere in the region of £20 to £40 million, as well as the indignity of failing to finish higher than their rivals Spurs and continue their history and tradition of playing in Europe's biggest competition.
Spurs fans are delirious with hope again, but one more goal could change everything.
At the top of the table, there is no change in either United's or City's scorelines, meaning City are on course to win the league title—but they're not doing enough to guarantee it.
3:45 p.m., Half Time Around the Grounds
The half time whistles sound around the Premier League, and fans, players and coaches alike have one final chance to assess their needs for the season. This is the last chance for managers to get their points and ideas clearly across to the players, the final opportunity for relative sanity and clarity of thought without 30,000 or 70,000, interfering voices stopping their wishes behind heard.
A good substitution or tactical note at this juncture could make the difference between glory and despair, salvation and damnation...a new contract or the sack.
Chelsea appear to have buried Blackburn with a two-goal lead courtesy of John Terry and Raul Meireles. Norwich still lead 2-0, while Swansea and Liverpool are drawing 0-0. Wigan still lead Wolves 2-1 after those early goals.
The race for the Top Three or Top Four is getting tense indeed; Newcastle look out of the running now as they trail 2-0 to Everton. Fifth place would still represent a great campaign for Newcastle, but their season looks to be over with a bit of a whimper on the final day.
Tottenham have been unable to add to their early Adebayor goal but still lead 1-0, but the West Brom-Arsenal match continues to enthral. The much-maligned Andre Santos is the unlikely hero this time, netting from 20 yards with his left foot to level up the scores at 2-2. As it stands, it's not enough for the Gunners, who are on 68 points, one place and one point behind Spurs, who hold third spot.
Down at the bottom, things are happening.
Bolton were a goal down to Stoke but have shown incredible resilience and tenacity to score not just once, but twice during the course of the first half, meaning they are headed for three points and a thoroughly unlikely survival if they can hold onto the lead and QPR lose.
Which, as of right now, they are doing.
Manchester United got their title bid on track by taking a 20th-minute lead at the Stadium of Light; Wayne Rooney proved the man for the big occasion by finding the net for United against Sunderland. With City still drawing 0-0 with QPR at that point, it put United on top of the Premier League table—but Pablo Zabaleta showed his continuing importance with a looped strike on 39 minutes to break the deadlock and put City ahead, both in their game and in the league table.
As It Stands at Half Time:
|Title Race||UCL spots||Relegation Battle|
|1.||Man City||89 pts||3.||Tottenham||69 pts||17.||Bolton Wanderers||38 pts|
|2.||Man United||89 pts||4.||Arsenal||68 pts||18.||Queens Park Rangers||37 pts|
4:03 p.m., Barely Into the Second Half
Big goal. Huge. What on earth is Joleon Lescott thinking?
He attempts a back-header despite being 20 yards outside his own penalty area, and Djibril Cisse races onto the loose ball completely unmarked and batters the ball past Joe Hart.
It's Manchester City 1, QPR 1, and City drop down into second place.
The worst possible start imaginable to the half for the home side.
4:10 p.m., 10 minutes After the Break
Wowwww! Incidents at the top and the bottom. Keep your eyes on multiple screens, folks.
The topsy-turvy game at West Brom takes another rollercoaster turn, as Laurent Koscielny pops up for Arsenal to put the Gunners back in front. It's 3-2 there, and it means that they are once more up into third above Spurs.
Just 10 minutes since half time and already there has been major movement in all three key areas of the table:
|Title Race||UCL spots||Relegation Battle|
The 55th-minute madness isn't over yet, as Joey Barton wrecks whatever little goodwill he had left amongst those involved with the reputation and respect of the Premier League as he commits a sickening triple-assault on Manchester City's stunned players, receiving a red card and leaving his relegation-threatened team massively in the lurch.
Crazy, crazy scenes at the Etihad Stadium...but City still need that second goal if they are going to win the league title. They've now got about 35 minutes to find it.
4:25 p.m., 70 Minutes on the Clock
Pointless, distracting goals go in everywhere. By this time, there's no pretence about the mid-table clashes being of any relevance. This is all about the very top and the very bottom, today.
Chelsea concede to Blackburn but still lead 2-1, Everton have put a third past Newcastle and just a few moments ago, Jermain Defoe looks to have made Spurs' victory secure by making it 2-0 against Fulham—but Tottenham will be relying on Chelsea not winning the European Cup at this rate, with Arsenal still 3-2 up at West Brom.
Bolton still lead but are still heading down, and nobody even cares that Swansea and Liverpool is 0-0.
BUT AT THE ETIHAD STADIUM.
Manchester City, chasing their first Premier League title and needing just a win against 10-man, relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers, have fallen behind. It's momentous, it's magnificent, it's unprecedented and it's oh-so-Manchester City.
QPR break down the left in the 66th minute, and City have five defenders racing back to cover one attacker in the penalty box—but somehow, inexplicably, Jamie Mackie is left completely alone to head down and past Joe Hart and into the back of the net.
It's City 1, QPR 2, and the league title teeters on the brink. City are throwing the trophy at their bitter rivals in the most gut-wrenchingly naive way possible.
4:32 p.m., 77 Minutes
Big goal...at the bottom of the league table. Goalkeeper Adam Bogdan has brought down Peter Crouch in the area, and Jon Walters steps up to drill home the penalty. It's Stoke 2, Bolton 2, and regardless of results elsewhere, this scoreline is going to send Bolton down into the Championship unless they can find a late winner.
4:40 p.m., Five Minutes of the Season Remaining...Plus Injury Time
Everton have conceded one, a Tony Hibbert own goal. Wigan have scored a third, Emerson Boyce, and Woves make it 3-2 minutes later, Steven Fletcher. Swansea take the lead against Liverpool, Danny Graham. None of it changes anything.
Bolton are looking doomed losing as they are, and QPR is within sight of three points and safety.
That result is the shocker of the day; it's going to cost City the title and United have done their bit, too. They still lead courtesy of that Rooney goal. Arsenal and Spurs are both leading, but the Gunners know a third goal conceded will cost them third place with Spurs comfortably in front.
4:44 p.m., 89 on the Clock
Tears are falling in the stands at City. They've thrown it away to their biggest, nearest rivals. They've come so close, they've led the table and on the last day they've committed the most basic errors of anxiousness and shown a lack of clinical edge when it mattered.
4:45 p.m. 90 Minutes Are Up
Manchester City have a corner. It's just another in a game they'll have a total of 19 in, a game they'll have a total of 44 shots in, but they are still losing 2-1 in a match they need to win heading into injury time.
Mario Balotelli gets his head to the ball...but Paddy Kenny makes another save. Another one.
Five minutes of time are added on to the end of the game. It's more than you usually see in a league game, but it'll feel like the quickest time ever for City fans.
Elsewhere, Tim Cahill fittingly ends his Everton career by getting sent off against Newcastle. There is no late turnaround on the horizon at Bolton and they'll be playing Championship football next season.
4:46 p.m., 91:12 on the Clock
Another corner. Silva to take, he whips it in left-footed...
And Edin Dzeko heads in the corner!
The Etihad Stadium absolutely erupts. Fans go ballistic, screaming and jumping and grasping each other with vice grips, wild-eyed and believing while disbelieving. Fear, hope and belief are suddenly rekindled where hopelessness and despair had been knotted in the stomach only moments beforehand.
News of the goal reaches fans in the away section of the Stadium of Light within seconds, and a very real chill shudders down the spines of the most hardcore and homegrown of the Manchester United support.
Four minutes to save themselves! scream the Sky Sports commentators, while the whole world forgets about Europe, relegation and everything in between and focuses on this one match.These 240 seconds could make all the difference in the sporting world to two groups of supporters and their clubs.
4:48 p.m., Three Minutes of Injury Time are Up
Full-time results roll in from around the league. Barely any carry significance now. Arsenal held onto their win—they take third. Bolton failed to win—down they go.
Sunderland against Manchester United comes to its conclusion; with the entirety of the Red Devils' season played out, they are top of the Premier League. Nervous claps and cheers abound; they've done it, done their part, won enough points to win the league. But so have City, if they find a late goal, and they've got a better goal difference.
Points, this year, won't be enough.
United can do no more though; now it's all about the horrid, horrible, interminable wait.
4:49 p.m., 93:10 at the Etihad Stadium
Clint Hill repels the ball. Wright-Phillips runs it down the field. It's Paddy Kenny in goal, and nine defenders for QPR against wave after wave of Manchester City attacks. It's a relentless, desperate and once-in-a-generation moment of opportunity, as fans and players alike try to force the ball into the net one more time by pure willpower.
The league table reads Manchester United, first, 89 points. Manchester City, second, 87 points.
4:49 p.m, 93:21: Less than 100 Seconds of the Season Remaining
Full time: A Day of Emotion, Glory and Despair
Incredible scenes dominate the landscape of the English Premier League.
At the very peak of it all sit Manchester City, proudly, amazingly, inexplicably having scored two injury-time goals to wrestle the title out of both hands of Manchester United and claim it as their own.
Extraordinary ranges of emotions can be found around the grounds, from the unforgettable utopia of the City fans to the inconsolable ache of the Bolton supporters and everything in between, including the "thank god that's over with" disinterest from Blackburn, Wolves or Villa followers.
A wonderful league championship comes to a close, with so many changes in final standings having taken place over the previous 90 minutes. Arsenal, along with City and QPR, achieve their objectives. Spurs do what they set out to do at the start of the season by securing a Top Four finish, but the forthcoming Champions League win for Chelsea will render that success meaningless.
Bolton go down, and United come second, and the difference in the feelings in the pit of supporters' stomachs won't be too dissimilar.
For Manchester City though, for their fans and players, coaches and directors and medical staff and kit men, for everybody involved at the club, the ultimate delirium of winning the 2011-12 Premier League title will live forever in the memory, and no part of it more so than that final mad-cap, unrepeatable, amazing five minutes of play.
Bleacher Report's Premier League coverage has been nominated in the 2012-13 EPLTalk awards. Cast your vote here.
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