EITHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER — When Calum Chambers crashed the ball into Lucas Digne’s face from a couple of yards away to briefly poleaxe his Aston Villa teammate, it felt like a weirdly fitting conclusion to a chaotic opening 10 minutes.
Manchester City were not playing well, but they were winning the league and handily. There was an unusual overlap of sound when Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen began time-wasting from his first goal-kick, with jeers over his inaction turning to cheers that rippled around the stadium, Mexican-wave style.
Pedro Neto had scored for Wolves, Liverpool were losing a game they had to win to have any chance of snatching glory from Pep Guardiola’s side, and positivity coursed through the masses in sky blue.
Belief and confidence hasn’t always come naturally in east Manchester. Even in this era of City being a billionaire behemoth on the global stage, with the most celebrated coach around and a set of high-end players he has spent half a decade refining to near-perfection.
There remains something in the bones of this club, something in the collective memory. The numbing disease former manager Joe Royle dubbed “Cityitis” as they plummeted down the divisions in the mid-to-late 1990s.
How many times have Man City won the Premier League on the final day?
That shared history can take a lot of work to override, but City entered their latest day of destiny in the Premier League as final-day specialists. Of their five previous titles in the Premier League era, three had been secured on the concluding weekend.
Sure, there were Sergio Aguero’s heroics – the circumstances preceding them on that berserk afternoon against Queens Park Rangers very much of the Cityitis lineage – in 2012, but a 2-0 win over West Ham United on this ground in 2014 and a 4-1 win at Brighton & Hove Albion in 2019 were far more routine. Throw in the narrative flourish that Liverpool were the vanquished rival on each occasion.
1 hour away pic.twitter.com/2HzagCkZjR
— Dom Farrell (@DomFarrell1986) May 22, 2022
That was the context for the increasingly buoyant mood as City fans began congregating at the stadium more than two hours before kick-off. The team bus received a raucous reception amid plumes of flare smoke. There was a party atmosphere as the City team emerged, some of them with their children, for the pre-match pleasantries. News of the Wolves goal simply ramped that up a few notches.
But some time between that 10th-minute stoppage and Sadio Mane’s equaliser on Merseyside, a full-throated atmosphere began to stick in the throat. Kevin De Bruyne looked in the mood and Gabriel Jesus was jackhammering around in his typical style, but City had little of their usual rhythm.
The blame for that, in part, lay with Guardiola. Not for the first time in his career, he had turned in an unusual team-sheet for a huge game. In mitigation, City’s defensive ranks have resembled a hospital emergency room over recent weeks, so the City manager might have done the best he could according to the medical reports.
But centre-back John Stones returning at right-back so Fernandinho could carry out unfamiliar centre-back duties on his City farewell felt off-kilter. It hindered the team’s usually-smooth build-up play. When Stones didn’t get out to stop Digne’s 37th-minute cross and right-sided left-back Joao Cancelo lost Matty Cash for the opening goal, it was clearly compromising City defensively as well.
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What is Cityitis?
As the grip on their crown loosened, City looked like they needed half-time. A montage preceding the second period on the stadium screens showed Paul Dickov’s clutch equaliser against Gillingham in the 1999 Division Two playoff final and Jon Macken’s stoppage-time winner when 10-man City came from 3-0 down to beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-3 in a 2004 FA Cup tie (yes, they used to beat Spurs then!).
It felt like an acknowledgement that “Typical City” territory had arrived. Why not lean into the mood music?
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 22, 2022
Oleksandr Zinchenko duly turned into Georgi Kinkladze with a mazy dribble through Villa challenges in the box. Almost instantly he looked like City’s best player, further underlining Guardiola’s earlier folly.
Jesus should have converted from a Cancelo cross, the Portugal international now firing in successive darts from the right flank. In a taster for later on, Rodri fired just wide.
But City fell away after their early second-half frenzy and did that most fatal of final-day things. They tempted The Narrative™.
Philippe Coutinho produced a wonderful first touch and dispatched an assured finish to put Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa 2-0 up. Two former heroes of the Kop had set up an Anfield party.
City were bereft, out of ideas and their manager was in a stupor of perpetual gesticulation on the sideline. The club had already turned out a home strip that nodded towards their 2011/12 kit, and unveiled a statue of Aguero outside the ground. Dicing with catastrophe in what felt like a live-action re-enactment of their QPR suffering was just a little on the nose.
💯 percent win rate on the final day! 🔥
— 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐒𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐍𝐞𝐰𝐬 UK 🇬🇧 (@sportingnewsuk) May 22, 2022
How did Man City beat Aston Villa?
In the 76th minute, the strands began to diverge. In 2012, the combustible enigma that was Mario Balotelli helped to spark the revival as a substitute. Here, it was Ilkay Gundogan – a man you could stick next to the term “model professional” in the dictionary of football cliches.
A wonderfully-adaptable midfielder, who was City’s top scorer last season but reverted to a more familiar possession-retaining role this time around, Gundogan has an innate sense of what the situation requires.
Somehow, he located zen-like calmness, picking through a crowded Villa penalty area to head home with all the poise of Edin Dzeko from Raheem Sterling’s cross.
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Calmness was contagious as Rodri, possessor of one of the most ferocious right boots in the Premier League, opted for a controlled side-footed shot from outside the box after Zinchenko rolled the ball his way.
Just before Gundogan smuggled home from the indomitable De Bruyne and everyone in the ground lost all semblance of the plot, Guardiola was on the pitch doing something resembling a deranged Haka. Did it have any impact? It’s impossible to know. It was one of those mind-bending spells of sport where it was impossible to know, trust or believe any reality.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, Mohamed Salah scored and thought he’d won the league for Liverpool, only to be told he hadn’t. That was as close as Liverpool got to being Phil Jones topless on the pitch at Sunderland. City had done it with nine minutes plus stoppage time to spare this time. They’re losing their edge.
At full-time, Guardiola collapsed into tears and the only victim of a joyous pitch invasion appeared to be the goalposts where City gorged themselves, although Gerrard worryingly reported Olsen had been attacked afterwards.
Surely, after this latest adrenaline-soaked heist, City’s fans will have reason to confidently swagger into such occasions next time. Concurrently, why on earth would they fully trust anyone associated with a club that refuses to relinquish its appetite for chaos? Perhaps we’ll find out in about 10 years.