Monday, 14 May 2012

The Perfect Storm

By Shane Thomas

For regular football viewers, the hard-sell we have to endure from television companies borders on the maddening side of tedious. The amount of times we hear the word "best" misused in the name of trying to convince the public that the next match of football is "must-see", and the "greatest ever" is an affront to all intelligent people and the English language. David Mitchell once summed it up beautifully, thus.

The simple fact is that football, sport, and life are often ordinary. And yet, every once in a while, events coalesce to produce something extraordinary. The final day of the 2011/12 Premier League season was a perfect storm of feverish delirium. A febrile chimera that raged, roared, and rocked back and forth as Bolton & QPR, Arsenal & Tottenham, and Manchester City & Manchester United all had possession of their own personal goals, be it avoiding relegation, qualifying for next season's Champions League, or winning the title. And ultimately, it was QPR, Arsenal and - most memorably - Man. City that ended the season in a mixture of joy and relief, while Bolton, Man United and Tottenham suffered disappointment (which could be exacerbated for Spurs if Chelsea win the Champions League next weekend).

Bolton recovered from a woeful refereeing decision against Stoke to lead their game 2-1. Given QPR's defeat to City, this would have kept Bolton up, and sent the West Londonders down. However, a late penalty from Jon Walters earned Stoke a draw, which wasn't enough for Bolton. The Lancashire outfit will be plying their trade in the Championship next season.

Meanwhile, the fight between the two North London clubs to grab the 3rd league position - and guarantee participation in next season's Champions League - was also a tense affair. The battle started as it meant to go on, as Emmanuel Adebayor gave Spurs the lead over Fulham inside two minutes, pushing them into third spot. But not to be outdone, Arsenal scored seconds later, with Yossi Benayoun profiting from a howler from Marton Fulop to put the Gunners ahead. Now Arsenal were in third place.

11 minutes later, Arsenal went from 1-0 up to 2-1 down. A combination of an appalling offside call and a fine goal from Graham Dorrans meant that Tottenham were back into third. In the end, West Brom (specifically Fulop) gifted Arsenal the match. So much so, that in another country whispers would abound about conspiracies and nefarious activity, such were the inexplicable errors from Fulop that contributed to the two goals that culminated in a 3-2 Arsenal win. From a personal standpoint, I was glad to see Laurent Koscielny get the match's decisive goal, as along with Robin Van Persie, he's been the club's outstanding player this season. Spurs ended up defeating Fulham 2-0, but they also needed their local rivals to drop points. And after a crucial late tackle from Kieran Gibbs, Arsenal narrowly held on to their lead, and secured third place in the table. However, this clip shows just how fraught it was for Arsenal late on.

And then, the title race. Manchester United did as expected and beat Sunderland 1-0 with a Wayne Rooney goal. This meant that Manchester City had to match this result to win their first league championship in 44 years. What happened summed up the last nine months, not only for City, but for the Premier League as a whole.

While possessing an expensively assembled squad, and looking as if they'd win the title at a canter at the turn of the year, City have always had a reputation for putting their fans through heartache and disappointment, and being a "sad-sack" of a club, the English football equivalent of Eeyore.

Despite having man-for-man the most accomplished squad in the country, the prevailing atmosphere of high anxiety has been present throughout City's season. Their football has at times been magnificent, a coruscating supernova of swift passing, fluid movement and ruthless finishing. Yet when coming up against well organised defences that pack their penalty box - especially in Europe - they've looked lumpen and listless.

And while Robert Mancini has done a fine job of assorting his talents into a cohesive unit, he has had tempestuous relationships with some of his attacking players. From Carlos Tevez going A.W.O.L to Mario Balotelli's erratic behaviour, both on and off the pitch, at times Mancini hasn't helped matters. From saying that both Tevez and Balotelli would never play for the club again, he brought them both back into the team to contribute to the title run-in. After their moribund performance when losing 1-0 to Arsenal, he declared that Man. United had won the league, and didn't change this maxim, even as they gradually ate into the points surplus of the (then) defending champions.

Often, Mancini's public utterances are redolent of the rhetoric of the average fan. Full of emotion and exaggeration. This isn't much of a surprise for those who have followed the Italian's earlier management career in Serie A. But all of these aspects combined to give a feeling of capricious uncertainty. These are not the things that many regard as conducive to success; Where was the stability? The machine-like progress to glory?

Well, for this season at least, City have taken their volatility and alchemised it into a league title. The craziness, the drip-feed of controversy. They took their ship into choppy waters and used it as fuel.

But it's a high-wire act, and after going 2-1 down to QPR, it looked as if City's ship was going to be torn asunder. Down to 10 men after Joey Barton's senseless red card, QPR defended superbly, and City's tactics seemed to lack imagination. Cross, cross cleared; Cross, cross cleared; Cross again, cross blocked for corner; Take corner, corner cleared.

As the game drifted into five minutes of stoppage time (for which Barton was largely responsible) City were banging on the door until their hands bled. And finally, after near misses, they found an equaliser. Substitute Edin Dzeko evaded some slack marking from Nedum Onouha to head in, leaving four minutes for City to find one more goal to be champions. The home crowd roared, they cajoled, they pleaded.

And then...

Sergio Aguero picked the ball up, about 35 yards from goal. He played the ball to Balotelli - on as a substitute. For all the trouble he can bring, Balotelli deserves huge credit for what happened next. Despite being on the floor, he didn't appeal for a free-kick or give up the ghost. Still prone, he outstretched his right foot and managed to squeeze the ball to Aguero, who made a run into the penalty area.

Nine months, thirty-eight matches. In all the madness, City finally had a sight of goal. And then came the calm. Taye Taiwo was still in between the Argentine and a clear shot. With the stakes so high, and the pressure at its most intense, Aguero could have been forgiven for trying to shoot, most people would have done so in his situation.

But this was no time for stormy thinking. Kun remained calm. With enough presence of mind to realise that he was running onto the ball at pace, while Taiwo only had a standing start, Aguero used his speed to dribble past Taiwo. Now he had a clear shot at goal. This was the moment when time seems to slow down, noises become dulled, and all you can hear is a sharp intake of breath, and a discernible thud of one's own heartbeat. Forgive the cliche, but yes, this moment was the calm before the storm.

And then, bang! Aguero unleashed all he had on the ball, and it whistled past Paddy Kenny to win the match, and the title, in the season's closing moments. It was Manchester City's 44th attempt on goal.

Bedlam ensued on the Man City bench, as well as in the stands. Aguero tore his shirt off, and was mobbed by his teammates. Joe Hart ran around the penalty area before hugging Gael Clichy. All connected with the club at that moment were delirious with joy. The journalist Daniel Taylor likened it to being in a mosh pit. Somehow Sky commentator Martin Tyler kept his head, as he hollered, "I swear you'll never see anything like this ever again!"

And that's why this day will be spoken about as long as football matters to people. Many believed, me included, that nothing would surpass the drama of 1988/89, when Arsenal took the league title from Liverpool in the last minute of the season. But somehow, it's been managed. City didn't need to score once at the death, but twice. As I've stated, normally these things have ordinary endings. But every once in a while, something happens that is extraordinary.

And given the fluctuating fortunes surrounding these six clubs, it's not hyperbolic to brand May 13th 2012 as the most dramatic day in the history of English football. And despite being a season that has been blighted by racism scandals, vile Twitter abuse, personal tragedies befalling players, and a lot of unpleasantness all round, it was a day that affirmed just why so many of us love this game.

AND IN OTHER NEWS (yes, other things did happen this weekend)...

- While the Italian title was settled last weekend, the season's final day ended being something of a farewell for a crop of players who have been a major part of Serie A for a generation. Alessandro Del Piero, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi, Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Nesta all took their leave from Juventus and AC Milan respectively. Both Del Piero and Inzaghi managed to delight their fans after scoring on their final appearances.

It was an emotional day all round. After being substituted to a standing ovation, Del Piero went on numerous laps of honour, and for a while the Juve fans were more focused on him than the action on the pitch.

Inzaghi, Gattuso and Zambrotta were all in tears as they waved farewell to the fans of the Rossoneri, with SuperPippo scoring the winner late on for Milan. This isn't only the end of an era for AC Milan and Juventus, but also for Italian football. The aforementioned players have been part of European football's "who's who" for a generation, and all played a part in the Italy squad that won the World Cup in 2006 (Nesta missed the tournament with injury).

I'm sure similar things will be said when the likes of Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole end their careers, but this group of Italians deserve a salute from all who follow football. They truly were a golden generation, and they have the medals to prove it.

- After an erratic season last year, there were rumours that Lewis Hamilton was looking to leave McLaren to drive for another Formula 1 team. However, he received little sympathy as a lot of his problems last season were largely ones of his own making.

However, this time around, Lewis has looked a lot more impressive, and more controlled. But his struggles have continued. However, this time it's been due to incompetence from his team. The nadir may have been reached in Catalunya this weekend, after a fuel error led him to start the race from the back of the grid after qualifying in pole position. This was compounded by a shoddy pit stop during the race itself. However, Hamilton managed to get his car in 8th place with a superb drive.

While Hamilton hasn't publicly singled out his pit team or team principal, Martin Whitmarsh for opprobrium, you have to wonder how long Hamilton will be willing to tolerate this ineptitude from his colleagues before he looks for employment elsewhere.

- This year, women's tennis has had a new heiress apparent. Victoria Azarenka won the season's first Grand Slam at the Australian Open, and has cut a swathe through her competition, spending most of 2012 as the World Number 1, losing only two matches all year.

And then she ran into Serena Williams. While the American no longer competes in enough tournaments to threaten the top of the world rankings, she still remains a force of nature at her best. And Williams has been at her very best in the Madrid Open this week, as she crushed Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 in Sunday's final.

Let's be clear. This was not a contest between two equals. This was the meanest girl in the playground bullying the new kid. Williams' post-match comments seem to indicate that she still believes herself the pre-eminent player in the women's game, regardless of what the rankings say.

And as of now, the results back that up. A few weeks ago, Azarenka had looked a lock to win this year's French Open. But if Serena continues in this vein, then it's tough to imagine anyone stopping her.

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