By Paul Gardner
If you watched the ManCity-QPR game yesterday, you saw one of the most extraordinary games you’re ever likely to see. Trying to describe it is sheer anticlimax -- bound to be, so high did the emotions rise one minute, so low did they sink the next. And these wrenching reversals of delight and despair seemed to go on throughout the whole game, as ManCity fought to win its first title in 44 years, and QPR struggled desperately to hold on to its EPL status.
Hovering over the events were the results from two other stadiums. From Sunderland, where ManU won 1-0, and would therefore be champion if ManCity failed to win. And from Stoke, where a win for Bolton would mean that QPR would have to win to avoid relegation.
And how likely was that, anyway, what with ManCity having the league’s best home record, and QPR having the worst away record?
QPR made the impossible seem possible with unexpected, unthinkable, goals from Djibril Cisse and James Mackie. Those goals answered the one ManCity goal from defender Pablo Zabaleta -- hardly the guy you expected to score for ManCity, but the QPR defenders were lying deep, clogging up the game whenever the ball got in or around their penalty area -- which it did for most of the game.
ManCity needed help. Divine intervention would have been nice, but it was a more satanic episode that arguably came to City’s rescue. Into what was a wonderfully tense and exciting game involving nothing but honest endeavor and plenty of soccer skill, the QPR captain, the awful Joey Barton, thrust his ugly personality.
Red-carded for elbowing Carlos Tevez in the face in the 54th minute, Barton tried the old, sordid trick of trying to get an opponent sent off with him by viciously kicking Sergio Aguero. A series of utterly obscene, unsportsmanlike -- and dangerous -- actions from Barton. Which prompted the utterly feeble and inadequate verdict from TV commentator Ian Darke that Barton had been “stupid.”
The score was 1-1. It remained for ManCity, now facing only 10 men, to finish the job. Yet it was QPR that scored, a deflating goal as far as the ManCity fans were concerned. The telecast (always excepting the dreadfully synthetic hype -- for a game that needed absolutely no hype at all -- from Ian Darke and Steve McManaman) did a superb job of showing the opposing groups of fans in the stadium, and their faces that reflected the repeated see-saw of their emotions.
This looked like the last of the heart-breaking changes of fortune, as the clock ticked mercilessly on to 90 minutes, and then into the 5 minutes of added time. But there was more. At the 92nd minute Edin Dzeko made it 2-2, heading in from a corner kick. Then, at 93:21 came what has to be one of the most dramatic finishes to any championship, anywhere, ever.
Sergio Aguero started things, maneuvering the ball through to Mario Balotelli at the edge of the QPR penalty area; Balotelli, falling, somehow managed to prod the ball back to Aguero as he sprinted forward. Aguero’s instant control took him past a lunging defender ... and then came the violent right-foot rocket into the net, the shot that finally settled matters, after all the crazy ups and downs of this extraordinary game, the shot that won the championship for ManCity.
If this has been the EPL’s most exciting season for years, maybe ever, then a lot of that can be put down to goalscoring. The season’s rate was 2.8 per game, which is high by the meager standards of the modern game. In fact, it is the highest average that the EPL has ever recorded in its 19 seasons of play. The closest was 2.79 in 1999-2000. The EPL average since 1995 (when it reduced the number of its teams from 22 to 20) is 2.6.
The statistical differences seem minimal, but there is considerable reason to be thankful whenever the inexorable decline in scoring in the sport is reversed -- and one can again hope that the magical target of 3 goals per game can be achieved.
Although the Premier League -- and British soccer in general -- cannot be criticized as having a defensive mentality (certainly not in the tactical sense) the British admiration for defenders, preferably rugged ones, is never far away. It surfaced when the EPL chose its star player awards.
The EPL could have done what the ManCity fans did for their award, and chosen as its Player of the Year, Sergio Aguero, scorer of 24 goals in his first season, including, as it turned out, the championship winner.
But the EPL preferred a more conventional approach. It anointed the ManCity captain Vincent Kompany. Kompany is ... a rugged defender, who will never win any points for his style. After being red-carded against Manchester United earlier this year, he told the world “I’m not going to change my tackling style” the sort of unrepentant tough-guy remark that goes down well in England.
It was not defending that won the day yesterday. Defending was what QPR tried to do, clogging up the area around their goal, frustrating the attack-bent ManCity. In the end, and with a lot of help from Barton, it was attacking skills -- particularly those of Aguero -- that made the difference.
There was also a lesson here from the sport itself. How it doesn’t lend itself too easily to promotion. When soccer arranges itself into tournament format, when it announces in advance that there will be a great final game on such-and-such a date, how often does it disappoint, how often does it simply refuse to sparkle?
Here was the unexpected, a final that no one could possibly have predicted, an unappointed day on which the game rebelled against the way in which it is so frequently manipulated by the synthetic requirements of television, by the hype of the marketeers, the banalities of the salesmen, the tactics of the coaches. A day in which the sport struck back with its array of infuriating tics, tantrums, quirks and contradictions and its outrageous absurdities and ran roughshod over its comforting certainties.
Ground to shreds in this frantic activity were the hopes of ManU, which had to make do with second place in the EPL, and Bolton, which departs for the lower division Championship.
The sport teased us right down to the end of this emotional maelstrom -- and until that moment, it was an end that was too utterly cruel for ManCity fans -- when the Beautiful Game was allowed to break through. We got Aguero’s lovely goal. ManCity got its championship. And QPR, thanks to Bolton’s failure to beat Stoke, got to stay in the Premier League.
And they all lived happily ever after. Until next season, that is.