The Beautiful Game breaks through in EPL

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.

7 comments about "The Beautiful Game breaks through in EPL".
  1. jason jack, May 14, 2012 at 2:48 a.m.

    MILAN (AP)—Nike - Jnr Mercurial Victory II AG sliver Red AC Milan held Barcelona to an entertaining 0-0 draw on Wednesday from the opening leg in the quarterfinals, the earliest time in 30 fixtures and much over two many years the fact that Spanish set experienced been held scoreless from the Champions League. The last time Barcelona failed to rating from the Champions League was from the 0-0 draw with Rubin Kazan in November 2009

  2. Daniel Clifton, May 14, 2012 at 10:42 a.m.

    A positive column from PG. I am in shock!

  3. Carl Walther, May 14, 2012 at 10:53 a.m.

    A beautiful game with Barton playing? Surely you jest.

  4. Robert Currie, May 14, 2012 at 11:48 p.m.

    Well, a friend shared this with me. Paul Gardner sounds like a bitter, old man, who has overstayed his welcome. Lots of scoring doesn't make a beautiful game, to wit the NBA. Anyway, this will likely be my first and last post, because the commentary had done nothing to enhance my appreciation for the game.

  5. Carlos Thys, May 15, 2012 at 12:06 p.m.

    Well, for those who have not seen it, I do recommend watching the second half of play of the Man. City - QPR match. One has to listen closely to the game commentary because for some reason the TV feed stopped showing visually the results in other stadia, e.g. Stoke - Bolton or the Arsenal match, as the clock ticks along toward 90 minutes full time. The climax is only a climax for both Man. City and QPR when one grasps what is going on simultaneously in the other league matches. Can anyone tell me, though, why the match referee for City - QPR decided on five minutes of extra time? 5? Also -- let me throw in a little spoiler here. Carlos Tevez is not known as a gentleman on the pitch. He never has been. Tevez did indeed kick Barton. Barton's subsequent elbow was dumb, for sure. But we'd all be rather naive to think that players (and the coaches) don't plot as to who they might get easily into yellow card trouble or sent off. So, it bears asking, would Man City have been able to win if 11 QPR players were still on the pitch at the end? (and if they did not get such generous stoppage time? -- I'd say 3 minutes was legit, not 5.) Or did the remaining 10 QPR players not allow themselves a respite from relentless defending when they knew the Stoke-Bolton result at the 90th minute? Sure, it is good for the sport that another team wins other than Manchester United or Chelsea. But this will only bring more grotesque sums of money into the game as Man. City's claim to this title is only due to the 1.5 billion pounds pumped into them in just a very few years. (After all -- where did they get Nasri? Da Silva? Edwin Djecko? Aguero? None of City's players are homegrown or that long at all in the club.) Man. City wins the EPL with princely oil monies; Chelsea wins a CL title (quite possibly) with Roman Abromovich's oil, thuggery, corruption, mafia-style and illegal monies. The vast, vast sums of money making the difference is not a win for the Game.

  6. beautiful game, May 16, 2012 at 10:43 a.m.

    There is merit to Mr. Thys's argument....Barton got caught with an obvious elbow when he should have bid his time to retaliate in a more opaque situation...outstanding contest, yet QPR failed to put everyone behind the ball 24 yds. from goal in added time. At least three players were too far upfield on the winning goal and passing lanes were not manned.

  7. Carlos Thys, May 17, 2012 at 3:34 p.m.

    Does anyone else catch a very serious inconsistency here?

    Last week, on May 8, Mr. Gardner wrote in this column space, "Yet we have a situation in soccer where the game itself, the very rules of the game, work to destroy the vital element of hope in a game. Where the rules decree that the paying fans shall not see an 11 vs. 11 game. But rather 11 vs. 10 - or even 11 vs. 9, as happened the other night in the (MLS) game between Dallas and Colorado."

    His entire article last week used that Dallas versus C. Rapids match as justification that "Something must be done!" i.e. rule changes when players get sent off. Commenters below Mr. Gardner's article wrote to agree with him. Oh yes they did. But yet, here, in this lively Man. City - QPR EPL contest on the final day of the season, we have Mr. Gardner rightly praising a game that had ups and downs, twists and turns and a very dramatic finish. The inconsistency: A week ago a 11 players versus only 10 players scenario was decried as improper, as stealing "hope" from the Game. Well, the paying fans at Man. City and watching on TV got a real thriller when QPR, with only 10 players (after the Barton red card sending off) went up with 2 goals to 1 due to a magnificent counterattacking cross and header by Jamie Mackie. Talk about a shocker! To the Man. City players, coaching staff, and to those City fans in disbelief. Forty-four years waiting for a title and one within their graps -- except a 10-man QPR was going to spoil the show. QPR did not just have "hope" they created their own "hope" by playing on very well a man down. Here, in this article on May 14th, Mr. Gardner directly praises all that wonderful drama in the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. Yet wasn't that drama heightened immeasurably because a 10-man QPR playing away to the supremely dominating, unbeaten at home Manchester City squad of posh player they almost pulled off the upset of the season...with only 10 players still on the field? (What? The Game of soccer has never seen where sides with fewer players pull off the win or the tie?) Ah, consistency. Maybe this Man. City - Queens Park Rangers season finale taught us a lesson about this? vis a vis last week's "Soccer Talk" topic? Maybe just a little?

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