Manchester City took a lot of skill and a little bit of luck to see out this Premier League season. In the end, they did just enough to eke out their second title in three years, finishing two points above a resurgent Liverpool.
Oh, how different things could have been.
After the 3-2 defeat at Anfield on April 13, City found themselves seven points behind the Reds with their ever-lingering two games in hand still to play. The first was supposed to provide the quick bounce-back: They returned to the Etihad to face relegation-threatened Sunderland.
There came the wrench.
The Black Cats, led by Connor Wickham, were mere minutes away from stealing three crucial points. But Vito Mannone summoned his inner Rob Green (start at 52 seconds), allowing Samir Nasri's dribbler to give the hosts a rather undeserved point. This put them six behind Liverpool, with just a single extra game.
They would have to hope for a massive slip by Liverpool to even think about having a chance, and they got, well, just that.
Chelsea's 2-0 win at Anfield a mere two weeks after City's loss there cut the gap between the Citizens and the Reds to a manageable three points—after City beat Crystal Palace later that day—with that game still in hand. It was the boost they needed to push them through to the end.
City would win out from there, Liverpool blew a three-goal lead to Palace to drop two more points, and we eventually wound up at our final table. City had done the job: Hold out, hope for the best and raise that trophy.
But really, this late-season stretch might not have been quite so crucial given what happened far earlier in the season.
Think back to August. City were coming off a second-place league finish, some 11 points behind bitter rivals Manchester United. Roberto Mancini was sacked on the anniversary of Sergio Aguero's league-winning goal. Manuel Pellegrini, after much speculation, was brought in to replace the Italian.
The first goal, as discussed here over the summer, was to make waves in the transfer market, and boy, did he ever do just that. Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic bolstered an already massively talented squad, countering departures like Carlos Tevez and Gareth Barry (loan).
The Premier League season got off to about as good of a start as you could ask for with a 4-0 home win over Newcastle United. A trip to Wales to take on recently promoted side Cardiff City was supposed to be a mere formality: These all-powerful, world-class Citizens against a side whose "star" was a 34-year-old former City attacker.
Alas, it ended up being all Fraizer Campbell all the time as the home side stunned the football world with a 3-2 win. It was certainly not what anyone could have expected, and yet, it seemed to set the stage for what would end up being a somewhat recurring theme over the first handful of matches.
City would bounce back at home with a 2-0 win over Hull, and then, they promptly traveled to Stoke and were held to a scoreless draw. Then came the 4-1 derby drubbing at the Etihad, followed by a trip to Aston Villa and yet another stunning 3-2 loss.
One point from a possible nine to start the away half of the fixture list—less than ideal, obviously. The shaky start saw City lead the league with 14 goals scored, yet they sat seventh, five points adrift of then-leaders Arsenal.
It also didn't help that just days after the Villa loss, Bayern Munich strolled into the Etihad and put on a one-sided spectacle for the ages with a 3-1 win.
The first away league win would finally come on October 19, a 3-1 win over West Ham. City would then pick up a second Champions League away win, beating CSKA Moscow, before traveling to Stamford Bridge and being outfoxed by Chelsea in a 2-1 loss.
A third away loss in five attempts kept City rooted in seventh, despite still leading the league in scoring.
The 7-0 destruction of Norwich at home followed a Capital One Cup away win against Newcastle. A performance of that caliber, even against Norwich, was surely the sign that things would be fine for City thereafter.
Oh, how wrong that was.
Because here came another away trip to take on the persistent bogey team that was Sunderland. Now under Gus Poyet, the Black Cats had just gotten their first league win of the season over bitter rivals Newcastle. Sure enough, Sunderland came away 1-0 winners.
City's official match report summed things up quite nicely:
Will the real Manchester City please stand up?
Devastating, irresistible and unstoppable at home, the Sky Blues’ form on the road is on par with the teams in the bottom three after yet another galling defeat on the road, this time at Sunderland.
...Road trips are following a depressingly familiar pattern with City dominant in possession but prone to the odd lapse in concentration that ultimately proves to be their undoing.
...[T]his was a chance spurned by a team who need to find a way of winning away from the Etihad quickly.
...Pellegrini must find a cure to his team’s travel sickness soon because four points from a possible 18 is not the form of a team challenging for the title.
In the end, City finished that weekend eighth in the table, six goals clear of Arsenal in the scoring charts but six points behind the Gunners where it matters.
A 1-1 draw away to Southampton came on December 7, but the Sunderland loss would be City's last in all competitions until February. After Chelsea won 1-0 at the Etihad on February 3, City stood in second place, a mere two points adrift of Arsenal.
A scoreless draw at Norwich—yes, the same Norwich that shipped a touchdown and the extra point at the Etihad—further dampened momentum. It was the seventh time City had dropped points away from home. Four losses and three draws: That's 18 points gone out the window.
If you give hypothetical points back for matches like Cardiff, Villa, Stoke and Sunderland, this league could have been a lot more comfortable. There's nothing wrong with the twisting and turning of a dramatic finish like we saw, but City could've dodged it all so easily.
Looking back, though, credit must be given to Pellegrini here. He knew that these results were unacceptable, but he never let his side give up. Even when things looked bleak after the Sunderland draw, the chase was still on.
This tweet from City's account puts the simple yet important words into perspective:
City indeed fought to the end. They didn't let the calamity of losing four away games before Thanksgiving stop them. They didn't let blowing their big chance at Anfield stop them. They didn't let the subsequent stunner at home stop them.
They were duly rewarded.
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