Title After Nearly Kicking It Away
Three second-half goals capped a dramatic final day, and denied Liverpool an improbable championship.
MANCHESTER, England — In that wild, euphoric moment, as the stands rattled and shook, Manchester City felt it again, that sensation it had known once, not all that long ago, the one enshrined in a shimmering statue on the plaza outside the Etihad Stadium. They would, they had been told, never see its like again. They could, it turned out, come very close indeed.
The depiction of Sergio Agüero, his torso bared, jersey twirling around his head, unveiled earlier this month dates back only 10 years, but it already has the air not so much of history but of folklore; that instant, the last-gasp goal that secured the first title of Manchester City’s new era, has come to serve as the modern club’s origin story.
It is the high by which all others are judged. The decade since has brought a great flood of trophies and honors, records and glory, to the Etihad; City has been transformed into the pre-eminent force of its time in English soccer, home of the most celebrated coach of his generation, a cutting-edge European giant.
None of it, though, has felt quite as primal, quite as visceral, as that. That is no slight; what even the club has come to call “93:20” set the bar insurmountably high. It was too perfect, too dramatic, too storybook. How could anything else match it? Nothing else could even come close. Or so it seemed.
With 15 minutes to go Sunday, the final day of the Premier League season, Manchester City was two goals down, at home, to Aston Villa, and on the brink of allowing the league title it has seemed destined to win for months to slip from its grasp. The Etihad had started the day in a buoyant, confident mood, but now it was filled with silence and dread.
The only solace, at that point, was that Liverpool — starting the day a point behind — was not winning, either. It was in a tie game at home against Wolves. The threat, though, hung in the air: If Liverpool scored one more, and Pep Guardiola’s team could not find a way to win, the title would go to Anfield.
City and Liverpool had, in recent weeks, started to show signs of strain. They have been imperious, fearsome for much of the season, a class above even their most highly regarded domestic rivals. City had not so much as fallen behind in a league game since February. Liverpool had not lost in the Premier League in 2022.
As the mercury rose, though, cracks started to appear. Liverpool, with an admittedly depleted team, played to a draw at home against Tottenham, then needed to come from behind to beat Villa and Southampton. City had clawed its way back from 2-0 down to West Ham last weekend to salvage a point. Guardiola has spent a slightly strange amount of time claiming, against decades of available evidence, that the entire British nation stood in Liverpool’s corner.
With the whole season hinging on the final day, on a single game, the nerves frayed yet further. Liverpool fell behind first, after just three minutes, a delirious roar spreading like a smile around the Etihad. But City seemed inhibited, too, surprisingly daunted by the task in front of it. Liverpool had equalized by the time Matty Cash gave Villa the lead before halftime. After an hour, Anfield was celebrating as the news filtered through that its alumnus, Philippe Coutinho, had doubled City’s deficit.
Character is not a word often associated with Manchester City. So slick, so serene is the machine that Guardiola has crafted in his six years with City that it rarely has to dip into its reserves of courage, mettle and resilience. Much of the time, the unrivaled technique and talent at Guardiola’s disposal are more than sufficient.
But with its season unraveling and only 15 minutes to save it, that is precisely what carried City through, just as it had allowed Guardiola’s team to save a point at West Ham last week: its ability to remain cool and collected under the most intense pressure. That is not an easy thing to capture in a statue, but if anyone is to try, the work should probably depict Rodri, scorer of the goal that drew City level.
When the ball arrived at his feet, a few paces outside the penalty area, the Etihad was in tumult. Ilkay Gundogan had scored two minutes or so earlier, heading home a cross from Raheem Sterling, but still, the clock was ticking, and City needed to score — to be certain — not once, but twice. Rodri, though, seemed blissfully unhurried.
As the ball rolled to him, he shaped as if to strike it as hard as he possibly could; that, after all, would be the surest way to beat Robin Olsen, the Villa goalkeeper. In the blink of an eye, though, he changed his mind. He had spotted a gap. He shifted his weight slightly, and passed the ball — not softly, but with deliberate care — into the bottom corner, beyond Olsen’s outstretched arm.
Three minutes later, Gundogan had scored again — another candidate for that statue, if anyone is in the market — and the Etihad was rattling and shaking, and the club, its players, its staff and its fans, felt that sensation again, the one that it thought it could enjoy only once in a lifetime.
In the space of five minutes, City had transformed its despair into something raw and urgent and delirious. It was not quite the same as Agüero’s title-clinching strike 10 years ago, what City’s fans now refer to simply as “93:20,” but nor was it some pale imitation, some ersatz version. It was something close to an equivalent, and that was more than enough.
When, a few minutes later, the final whistle blew, Guardiola’s eyes had welled with tears. Liverpool had won, too, but it did not matter. For all the stress and the strain, perhaps it is better this way. Perhaps it is easier to parse just how much something means when it has almost been snatched away.