Last April I went to the Emirates and saw Mario Balotelli get sent off.
I saw Arsenal win 1-0 with a late Mikel Arteta goal, blasted beyond Joe Hart from outside the box. I saw Roberto Mancini wash his hands of Balotelli in a furious post-match press conference, and I pronounced the race for the Premier League over: Manchester United’s eight-point lead was too big to lose.
Three weeks later I was at Eastlands to see Vincent Kompany head the winning goal against United that meant City only needed to win their last two matches to win the title. In a way the QPR match was a kind of sideshow; that derby match was the real title decider, and you could never forget the fervour of the night, the steely sense of mission about Manchester City.
It turns out that winning the title was enough for that team. Now they remind you of one of those creatures — a salmon maybe — that spawns once and promptly dies, its mission in life accomplished. Balotelli’s already gone, Tevez and Dzeko have been rotated to mediocrity, Kompany has lost his edge, Silva and Aguero are visibly pining for Spain. Somewhere along the line, Javi Garcia arrived for £15m.
All season they have looked diffident and vulnerable, without any of the intensity that carried them past United last spring. At this remove, the main effect of their title win has been to make Alex Ferguson look even better for somehow sustaining the competitive fire in his teams, year after year after year.
Yesterday’s match against Liverpool was better than most of the matches City have been involved in this season, thanks largely to the visitors, who were not intimidated by a City side that featured Dzeko up front and a quite literally pedestrian midfield chassis of Gareth Barry and Javi Garcia.
Indeed Liverpool, for the first time under Brendan Rodgers, have begun to look like a team that can intimidate others. One of Bill Shankly’s more mystifying aphorisms is that “a football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.”
Actually a piano is not a three-man instrument; you need only one man to play it. But if Shankly was driving at the idea that if you have three really good players and eight workhorses, you have the basis of a team, then with the addition of Sturridge to Suarez and Gerrard, Liverpool have attained that critical mass.
This is not to ignore the contribution of Glen Johnson, who is having a superb season at right-back, or Lucas, who was, as ever, understatedly efficient at the base of midfield. But everyone can see that Suarez and Gerrard look less lonely with Sturridge there.
A case can therefore be made that the club is making progress under Brendan Rodgers, even though they have one fewer point after 25 games than they did at the same stage last season, and still have not beaten a side in the top half of the table. With Sturridge they will surely not repeat the disastrous run-in which saw them lose eight of their last 13 matches.
It must be noted, however, that Liverpool’s new attacking identity rests on the contributions of a player who will be 33 in May, and another who will be a target for all of the richest clubs in the Champions League come June. Who knows how long the foundations of this progress can last?
At this point Rodgers looks likely to outlast Roberto Mancini, who must know that the 13 games remaining could be his last in charge of Manchester City. If he leaves after this season without winning anything, critics will say that he is a drag-chute, chequebook manager who has won titles only because he has managed teams where it would be harder to lose.
Jose Mourinho has also achieved nearly all of his success with the biggest-spending clubs in whatever league he’s been managing in at the time, but nobody says this about Mourinho. The difference is that Mourinho won those two European titles with Porto, and these are managerial miracles no critic can gainsay. If Mancini somehow brings this team back to life in time to steal another title from under the nose of United, he’ll have a miracle of his own.
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