x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A Premier League season that tested every team's mettle

This is a league where comebacks count, where it is not how you start that matters but how you respond. It is a permanent examination of fortitude.

Manchester City's players and supporters celebrate on the pitch after their 3-2 victory over Queens Park Rangers in the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers at The Etihad stadium in Manchester, north-west England on May 13, 2012. Manchester City won the game 3-2 to secure their first title since 1968. This is the first time that the Premier league title has been decided on goal-difference, Manchester City and Manchester United both finishing on 89 points. AFP PHOTO/PAUL ELLIS

RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.
 *** Local Caption *** 507753-01-08.jpg
Manchester City's players and supporters celebrate on the pitch after their 3-2 victory over Queens Park Rangers in the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers at The Etihad stadium in Manchester, north-west England on May 13, 2012. Manchester City won the game 3-2 to secure their first title since 1968. This is the first time that the Premier league title has been decided on goal-difference, Manchester City and Manchester United both finishing on 89 points. AFP PHOTO/PAUL ELLIS RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. *** Local Caption *** 507753-01-08.jpg

Destinies were determined in the 87th minute of the final game of last season. It was still later this year, the title decided in the 94th minute of the campaign.

Twelve months ago, a consolation goal, scored by Wolverhampton Wanderers' Stephen Hunt against Blackburn Rovers, thrust Birmingham City into the relegation places. They were not able to extricate themselves.

On Sunday, Sergio Aguero's injury-time winner against Queens Park Rangers meant that Manchester United, who ended their season as champions-elect, were denied the crown by the added-time events at the Etihad Stadium.

Such is the beauty and the cruelty of the final day. This year's was a season in microcosm in 90, mad minutes.

"A crazy end to a crazy season," Roberto Mancini called it. He was talking about Manchester City, but his comments applied to the division as a whole. This was a ludicrous season.

Look at the score lines when the top teams met: 8-2, 1-6, 1-5, 3-5, 5-2. Consider the swings in the balance of power in a title race when United acquired, and then squandered, an eight-point lead.

Think of a relegation battle where Wigan Athletic and QPR survived principally because of their ability to defeat the top teams.

And reflect on an extraordinary afternoon at the Etihad Stadium. While the ice-cool Aguero held his nerve when it mattered most, much of the excitement came from errors, such as Paddy Kenny's limp-wristed flap when Pablo Zabaleta put City ahead, or Joleon Lescott's stray header to allow Djibril Cisse to equalise for Rangers.

That the title was contested by two teams who were knocked out of the Uefa Champions League in the group stages says something, but it is a division of entertaining imperfections.

And yet sporting perfection is not always compelling viewing. Certainly the watertight defence Jose Mourinho constructed at Chelsea brought fewer thrills than the rather leakier rearguards many a modern-day side boasts.

Even Barcelona's intricate passing game, admirable, even unique, as it is, can seem bloodless. Plenty of accusations can be levelled at the Premier League, but not that: with its blood and thunder, its thud and blunder, it has rarely provided more drama.

This is a league where comebacks count, where it is not how you start that matters but how you respond. It is a permanent examination of mettle.

There was something symbolic in City becoming champions by digging themselves into, and then out of, trouble in such exhilarating fashion. It was the latest, greatest comeback of all, but while they are placed on a pedestal, they are not alone.

Arsenal and Wigan both summed up their season in the space of 90 minutes. Each endured difficult starts, each rallied superbly. After going behind, each emerged victors.

The Gunners, supposedly a club in crisis early in the campaign, qualified for the Champions League for a 15th successive year. The Latics, seemingly dead and buried, became deadly and brilliant when it mattered most. Having taken 22 points from 29 games, they then picked up 21 from the last nine.

English football's appeal has always been predicated on a never-say-die spirit and, while imports have raised standards and brought some wonderful talents, they have adopted the same approach.

Like the endearing overachievers of Swansea City and Norwich City, like the unfancied Newcastle United team who gatecrashed the private party in the top five, Arsenal and Wigan served up the unexpected.

Along the way, they illustrated why sport is rarely portrayed well in fiction or on film.

When an artificial creation, stories often seem either corny and cliched or utterly implausible. There are no plot lines as rich, no twists as sharp and sudden as those on the Premier League pitches. There is no cast of characters as big, or one where almost any can make a decisive intervention.

Look at the men who, Aguero apart, denied Manchester United their 20th title: Grant Hanley, who brought Blackburn victory at Old Trafford, relegated at the end of the season and arguably Rovers' fifth-choice central defender in the autumn had everyone else been fit; Shaun Maloney, scorer of Wigan's winner against the defending champions and a man who had languished on the sidelines for most of the six months after his low-profile move from Celtic; Steven Pienaar, who capped Everton's fightback with an equaliser against United, a bit-part player at Tottenham Hotspur but revisiting his past by being transformed into the Merseysiders' creative fulcrum.

There was little logical about their involvement, nothing rational about much of what went on. It was why, even before the final day, this season was voted the greatest in the Premier League's 20-year history.

In terms of consistent quality, it was not. If the criteria include relentless, remorseless winners who dominate in Europe, it falls short.

But for attacking verve and great goals, for displays of character in unprepossessing situations, for a title race and a relegation battle that went to the last game (not to mention a quest for Champions League places that extends beyond the domestic season's end), it was the finest.

Greatness comes in many guises, but if credibility defying comebacks, ridiculous results and endless excitement are the determining factors, this was a great, great season.

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