PICTURE SPECIAL BY BILL HEANEY OF THE DEMOCRAT
Manchester City retain Premier League crown after stunning comeback
David Hytner reports for The Guardian from the Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 3 Aston Villa 2
Gündogaaaan. It was a moment of the highest drama, the wildest of celebrations and it was impossible to ignore the parallels. Manchester City looked goosed, two goals down against Aston Villa with 76 minutes on the clock, knowing they needed three because, well, did anybody really think Liverpool would not beat Wolves at Anfield?
The Etihad Stadium was an angsty place. It had been since kick-off time.
Villa had lost their previous 11 league matches at City; the longest such sequence away from home against an opponent in their league history. But they were ready to buck the trend. Steven Gerrard, their manager, was about to help his beloved Liverpool to secure the title.
City had their own script in mind. Just as they had in 2012, when they needed two goals in stoppage-time to pinch the title from Manchester United against Queens Park Rangers. Everybody remembers what happened then. The club had unveiled a statue to Sergio Agüeroooo on the Friday before last to mark the 10-year anniversary.
City did not leave it quite so late this time. But their solution was nonetheless epic. Three goals in five minutes, culminating in a burst from Kevin De Bruyne – who always finds a way – a low cross from him and a finish from Ilkay Gündogan at the far post on 81 minutes.
Gündogan, who had only come on as a substitute in the 68th minute, had started the fightback with a towering header from a cross from another replacement, Raheem Sterling. Rodri threaded home the equaliser after fine work from Pep Guardiola’s other change, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and when Gündogan got his second City saw the path to a fourth title in five seasons under Guardiola.
The full-time whistle brought a pitch invasion and the dismantling of one of the goal-frames. For Guardiola and his players, there was relief and exquisite pleasure.
There had been pyrotechnics before kick-off, the smoke from them hanging in the air during the early minutes, although it had cleared by the time that Wolves took their early lead at Liverpool. There were cheers at that point from the home crowd but City had to think they needed to author their own destiny, to find a way through the pressure.
Jürgen Klopp had claimed that it was all on City; Gerrard referenced it, too. Klopp also said Liverpool had nothing to lose and everything to gain but the idea that the reverse was true for City was ridiculous. They had a title to win, a season to define but, after the wobble at West Ham last Sunday, it was not entirely surprising that there were nerves at the outset.
Fernandinho started in central defence and no City fan wanted to see too many foot races between him and Ollie Watkins. It was apparent from the first one in the opening exchanges that it was a serious mismatch. An accident waiting to happen?
Each missed pass from those in sky blue, every stalled move, drew sharp howls while Guardiola went through his usual agonies. The manager wanted his players to raise the tempo and there was a moment just after the half-hour when the ball went out and there was not another one immediately available.
Guardiola looked around frantically before bellowing to the heavens, gesturing in frustration. Could we kindly play?
Villa had wanted to manage the tempo, as Gerrard would have it; to waste time, as the City support would argue. Michael Oliver spoke to the Villa captain, Tyrone Mings, after the goalkeeper, Robin Olsen, took an age over a clearance in the 32nd minute. But Villa quickened the pace when they worked a move up the left-hand side and, when Lucas Digne crossed, Matty Cash got the run on Joao Cancelo to flash a header past Ederson. How were Guardiola’s nerves now?
City offered little before the interval, save for a Phil Foden shot that went just wide. Gabriel Jesus also miskicked after cutting in from the right. City repeatedly ran into walls and it was Villa who finished the first half in the ascendancy. Watkins twice got away from Fernandinho only to be checked by him first time (no foul, surprisingly) and bailed out by John Stones on the second. Watkins also saw a shot blocked by Aymeric Laporte.
Guardiola withdrew Fernandinho at half-time. It was a selection that simply had not worked. On came Zinchenko at left back, Cancelo swapping sides and Stones coming into the middle. Olsen was making his first Villa appearance of the season, with Emi Martínez injured, and City had to ask some questions of him.
They began the second half with greater purpose, De Bruyne lashed high and Digne jumped into a saving block on Riyad Mahrez after a lovely Zinchenko run. When Cancelo crossed from the right, Jesus stretched only to lift over the crossbar.
City diced with disaster. From an Olsen clearance, Watkins ran clean through from halfway, away from Laporte, only to direct his finish just wide. It was a heart-in-the-mouth moment for the home fans which entirely caught the mood.
Jesus had a shot blocked by Calum Chambers; De Bruyne wasted a free-kick.
But it was hard to ignore City’s vulnerability at the back. Villa certainly did not and, when Watkins headed on a high Olsen ball, the scene was set for Philippe Coutinho. The first touch was impeccable, on the bounce with the outside of the boot, taking him inside Laporte and the finish was rifled low into the near corner.
It felt as though the action at Anfield would now assume primary importance but City dug deeper, their champion courage written across the pitch. When Gündogan scored the winner, the City substitutes sprinted on to the field in delirium. There was nothing that Liverpool could do. – Guardian