x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Champions by default? No, Manchester City were worthy Premier League winners

Manchester United may have been the last men standing at the end of a 'brilliantly illogical season' writes Richard Jolly, but that doesn't mean they didn't earn their place.

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is thrown into the air by his team as they celebrate winning the Premier League title on Sunday. Nigle Roddis / Reuters / May 11, 2014
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is thrown into the air by his team as they celebrate winning the Premier League title on Sunday. Nigle Roddis / Reuters / May 11, 2014

Time and again, this has felt a brilliantly illogical season. It is one of the paradoxes of the year that, while Manchester City scored 156 goals, none of the three strikes that seemed to determine the title race came from any of their players.

There was Branislav Ivanovic’s February winner at the Etihad Stadium, seeming to suggest Chelsea had the power and the tactical nous to carry all before them.

Then came Philippe Coutinho’s decider in City’s five-goal thriller at Anfield, the moment when Liverpool’s momentum appeared irresistible.

It was followed two weeks later, crucially and cruelly, by the slip that inspired a song, when Steven Gerrard lost his balance and Liverpool lost control of their own fate. Demba Ba scored for Chelsea and Manuel Pellegrini was propelled to glory, in part, by his old enemy, Jose Mourinho.

Viewed that way, City became champions by default. They were the side left standing when others stumbled.

It is, of course, hugely unfair. Not just because the league table famously never lies, but because they were the second-highest scorers in Premier League history and, unlike Liverpool, they married a prolific return with acceptable levels of defending. City were not as frugal as Chelsea, but they were far more adventurous.

They were a side equipped to hold their nerve. Roberto Mancini’s team won their final six games to become champions two years ago. Manuel Pellegrini’s side finished with five straight wins. Many of the personnel involved were the same and some of the others, such as Fernandinho, Martin Demichelis and Javi Garcia, had the experience of navigating a path to victory in title races abroad. It meant City’s was not as romantic a tale as Liverpool’s remarkable renaissance.

Ultimately, however, there was that vital extra element of substance to underpin the style. Hard-fought victories at Crystal Palace and Everton acquired extra meaning.

Both were notable for Yaya Toure’s considerable contributions. The Ivorian decided the game at Selhurst Park on his own. He supplied Sergio Aguero’s equaliser at Goodison Park. While the individual accolades went the way of Luis Suarez, and there is no doubt that the double Footballer of the Year had an outstanding season, the City midfielder might have been a worthier winner.

There is a statistical case for both. Suarez scored 31 league goals, the record in a 38-game season. Toure became only the second midfielder in the Premier League era to reach 20; factor in his nine assists and he was almost providing a goal a game from a deeper position.

There is a broader issue, too. Suarez has a capacity to overshadow everyone around him, whereas the spotlight has been shared at City.

There was a stage earlier in the season, when Aguero was at his sharpest and was threatening to outscore even Suarez, when Pellegrini described the Argentine as one of the world’s top three players. Teammate Samir Nasri made similar claims on Toure’s behalf more recently.

The Frenchman, too, has been revitalised, a resurgence that merited more recognition than he received. Instead, the spots on the flanks in the various teams of the season have tended to be occupied by Eden Hazard, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling or David Silva.

The Spaniard is another cause celebre at the Etihad Stadium; his unassuming manner means outsiders sometimes overlook him. A City-supporting colleague, asked who had stood out in a recent game, replied simply: “David Silva is the man of every match.”

The accumulation of talent can deprive any of a Suarez-esque billing. Fernandinho proved the most significant signing of the season – at least as far as the title race was concerned, anyway – and Pellegrini’s decisions to bring in Alvaro Negredo and keep Edin Dzeko were vindicated. The Spaniard was startling good for a while but, when his goals dried up, the Bosnian chipped in at the business end of the campaign.

His close friend, Aleksandar Kolarov, was similarly disgruntled a year ago. Like Dzeko, the Serb has been placated and, like him, he has performed. Goalkeeper Joe Hart experienced the embarrassment of being dropped. He returned, recovered and delivered the pivotal save of the run-in, to deny Everton’s Steven Naismith. The indefatigable Pablo Zabaleta’s excellence tends to be taken for granted, but it should not escape unnoticed.

Then there are the central defenders. Vincent Kompany should be able to empathise with Gerrard: the Belgian has his own tale of Anfield errors, his sliced clearance leading to Coutinho’s winner. He was struggling then, but when fully fit, he is the most complete defender in the country.

Few would make the same claims of his sidekick. Demichelis has seemed like Pellegrini’s folly at times, culpable in part for City’s exits from the FA Cup and the Champions League and, in the manner of many a defender in the club’s impoverished, pratfall-prone past, looking an accident waiting to happen.

Yet in the final two months of the league season, he transformed into a bastion of dependability. In the final reckoning, the substandard centre-back named Martin was Liverpool’s Skrtel, not City’s Demichelis.

Together, they have been the league’s outstanding unit.

If there wasn’t one deciding, defining moment, it was because, over the course of the season, plenty of players contributed to make them the strongest side. In a wonderful year, they were worthy winners.

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