MANCHESTER, England — No one does final day drama like Manchester City.
Ten years on from that unforgettable moment from Sergio Aguero at Queen’s Park Rangers, City picked themselves up off the floor again and mustered another late comeback to beat Aston Villa 3-2 and clinch the Premier League title. This time, they didn’t need a goal with the last kick of the game, but they did need to rally from 2-0 down to get the points required to hold off Liverpool‘s challenge and clear the final hurdle of the thrilling race.
When Philippe Coutinho, once Anfield’s favourite son, scored Villa’s second in the 69th minute, some home fans decided it was time to leave. Most, however, had raced back in by the time Ilkay Gundogan, on as a second-half substitute, had scored his second of the afternoon to complete a barely believable five-minute spell during which City scored three times.
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After a breathless, chaotic and dramatic day in Manchester, Pep Guardiola’s team are champions for the fourth time in five years. But only just.
“The last game is always special,” Guardiola said after the match. “Aston Villa gave everything but the moment we find a goal, it changed everything.
“These guys, we are legends. To do it in this country, in the Premier League, four times in five years, it’s because these guys are so special. We will be remembered.”
The way they did it won’t be forgotten, either. A week after the anniversary of that Aguero goal, maybe there was always going to be a twist somewhere, and it came courtesy of Coutinho and Matty Cash.
The “Typical City” tag — the historical phenomenon of seemingly always being able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — will never allow their fans to completely relax on days like this, but when news filtered through that Robin Olsen, who last played a club game for Sheffield United in November, was starting in goal for Villa ahead of No. 1 Emiliano Martinez, there was optimism it might be a straightforward afternoon. Not a chance.
The atmosphere inside the Etihad Stadium had already started to become fraught when Lucas Digne crossed for his opposite full-back Cash to head past Ederson and stun the home fans just before half-time. The mood became so flat that Oleksandr Zinchenko got up off his seat on the bench to try to lift the supporters around the tunnel, but at the break the television cameras had no problem seeking out fans in blue slumped in their seats with heads in hands.
By the time Coutinho made it 2-0 midway through the second half, some had seen enough and began to head for the exits. They will have regretted it almost immediately.
Olsen had not been tested at all before Gundogan, thrown on ahead of £100 million forward Jack Grealish, headed in the first at the back post on 76 minutes before Rodri found the net two minutes later from Zinchenko’s pass. It prompted bedlam in the stands, and only another three minutes had passed when Kevin De Bruyne surged into the box and found Gundogan at the back post to tap in the winner.
The noise — a combination of celebration and relief — nearly lifted the roof off the Etihad, and it took a while for the game to restart after almost everyone on the City bench found their way onto the pitch. It was nothing compared to the celebrations at the end.
When Michael Oliver blew the final whistle, supporters raced onto the pitch as the players tried to race off. De Bruyne, surrounded by a ring of police, allowed himself a scream of joy and a huge fist pump as he headed down the tunnel. One of the goals was torn down. Olsen emerged from the crowd holding his head, with City soon after issuing a statement apologising to the goalkeeper for the assault.
The City fans who gathered around the benches started singing about Villa manager Steven Gerrard’s famous slip that cost Liverpool the title in 2014 — a nod to how close he had come to winning the trophy for his old employers.
“The players were remarkable for 70 minutes,” said Gerrard. “Everything we asked of them they did and more. The game plan was working and we had the game exactly where we wanted it, but we decided to go into protection mode too soon and we stopped playing.”
For all the beautiful, hypnotic football played by Guardiola’s team this season, City, a shadow of themselves for three quarters of the game, provided evidence of their resilience when they needed it most. Twice during the final week of the season they found themselves 2-0 down and twice fought back to pick up a win and a draw to pip Liverpool by a point.
A thrilling title race got a fitting conclusion and City are champions again.