Goodison Park’s version of the ‘SAS’ may well have determined the destiny of the Premier League trophy a week today.
For months now the media have been hailing Anfield’s sensational strike force of Suarez and Sturridge as the specialist service that would land Liverpool the title.
The blue half of Merseyside, desperate to deny the red side its first ever Premier League crown, instead opted for a combination of the surreal and subdued in a strange spectacle, with the home crowd almost willing Manchester City to prevail over their Everton favourites.
So often a graveyard for City, Goodison was still far from a scene of tranquillity as the muted benevolence adopted by the normally vociferous fans did not extend to Roberto Martinez’s team.
With 5th place assured and 4th place out of reach, Everton were going nowhere fast…but Ross Barkley had clearly missed the memo.
The prodigious England attacking midfielder shook the game from its early lethargy with a ‘worldy’ – a beautifully crafted, curving shot from 35 yards out.
Joe Hart didn’t stand a chance. It was a goal of the month contender and was rapturously received, before the Toffee support, ever mindful of the bigger picture, reflected on the benefits to the folk across Stanley Park.
Having come out at Crystal Palace all fire and brimstone, knowing that their fate was once again in their own hands, City were infuriatingly pedestrian.
Sergio Aguero came to the rescue in more ways than one, with a sizzling low drive, beating Tim Howard at his near post. In doing so the injury-plagued Argentine, damaged his groin and was substituted five minutes later.
It looked a bitter blow to City’s hopes. In reality it enabled Manuel Pellegrini to address a tactical imbalance. Instead of replacing Aguero, like-for-like with Jovetic, the wily Chilean sent Fernandinho on to counter Everton’s midfield superiority.
Perversely City, shorn of their world class talismanic hero, started to function better as a whole – The Engineer had successfully tinkered with his machine.
Proof positive came when the enigmatic Edin Dzeko gave City the lead in the run up to half-time.
The Bosnian planted a precise header beyond Tim Howard for his 13th league goal of the campaign.
Clearly trusted by Pellegrini – more so than Roberto Mancini, who splashed £27m of Sheikh Mansour’s pocket change on the Wolfsburg striker – Dzeko continues to divide opinion among City supporters.
His goals-to-minutes ratio in the Premier League bears favourable comparison with the best at 136 minutes per goal – comparable with Daniel Sturridge, better than Luis Suarez, but not as good as the all-time leader, Sergio Aguero.
He’s hit 24 goals in 46 games (12 as substitute) this campaign, and 64 in 155 full and sub appearances for City. His goals are often vital strikes, not just the icing on the cake in a five or six-goal romp.
And yet he still manages to incur the ire of so many fans. There’s a perception that he often lacks the appropriate work ethic and is too profligate when chances come his way.
The two-goal hero yesterday, Dzeko was curiously booked by referee Lee Probert after lying prone for several minutes. It was a bizarre, farcical episode and one where Edin didn’t emerge in the most favourable of lights.
It may be that his true worth will only be recognised when he no longer plays for City, albeit he was flavour of the month, when he steered home a Samir Nasri cross to put his team 3-1 up on 48 minutes.
The two goal buffer was established moments after Barkley had burst forth with a Yaya-esque 70-yard run, before slipping the ball to Naismith who looked nailed on to equalise.
Joe Hart produced a world class finger tip save, diverting the Scottish forward’s ground shot inches past the post.
It was Hart who preserved City’s advantage when, at 3-2, he pushed a Deulofeu effort the right side of his near post. Lukaku’s free header had eluded Hart in the 65th minute and signalled a mass Mancunian nail-biting exercise.
Doubtless City are going to spend, and spend big in the summer on improving key areas, but with Hart now back to his best, Pellegrini need not worry about who should keep goal.
By all means intensify the competition for the position – go and buy a very competent English number two to help out with ‘homegrown’ needs – but forget big budget acquisitions such as Iker Casillas or a now stricken Victor Valdes.
Hart is top drawer, English and the best is still yet to come. He won’t however, be picking up his fourth consecutive Golden Glove Award for the highest number of clean sheets this season.
It reflects Pellegrini’s emphasis on attacking football, with City having to sacrifice the title as the best defence in the league.
Conceding at the rate of a goal-a-game (37 to date) City have made scoring goals the priority.
Dzeko’s second was City’s 150th in all competition’s this season and the 96th in the PL – level with Liverpool.
The Sky Blues have smashed the previous season-long scoring record of 143 held, by Sir Matt Busby’s Babes back in the 1950s.
With Aston Villa and West Ham still to visit the Etihad, City could equal or even surpass another record, that of Chelsea’s 103 goal PL haul in 2009/10.
But points make prizes and City need to focus firmly on boosting their total to 86. If it comes down to goal difference their +59 advantage is nine better than Liverpool’s and 16 in excess of Chelsea’s.
As 2012 champions, City had a GD of +64 and 89 points.
They edged closer to regaining their crown when, after nearly eight minutes of torturous added time, City emerged with only their second away win at Everton in 16 attempts.
David Silva’s introduction in the 74th minute – after the enforced withdrawals of Toure and Nasri – was influential. His ability to pick a pass and retain the ball helped quell Everton momentum when City were fraying around the edges.
The relief among the City team, the subs bench, management and stressed out supporters, was palpable – the on-field hugs and yelps of triumph were in abundance.
City are now facing the equivalent of a duo of QPR, May 13th 2012 matches to close out a most unpredictable season.
Ever cautious and pragmatic, Pellegrini doesn’t take it for granted that the title is heading back to the Etihad.
It’s imperative the players are in synch, any lapses or cock-ups in concentration from hereon would be criminal.
The sniping has already begun from the football columnists and putrid pundits as they seem resigned to a City triumph.
For years Manchester United and Chelsea were able to grind out wins in a less than stylish fashion – apparently it was the measure of true champions.
As City hit top spot for only the fifth time this season, with goal scoring records aplenty, they are labelled as ‘unbecoming’ having not played ‘magnificent free flowing football’ since the turn of the year.
It’s pathetic and reeks of hypocrisy from so many dark quarters of the football fraternity.
Chelsea’s failure to cope with the Canaries effectively means it’s either City or Liverpool to rule England. If the Scousers were to lose at the Palace on Monday evening, City could wrap matters up as early as Wednesday night.
Oh what a joy if the last day of the season was to be a party, devoid of any cliff hangers and cardiac arrests…but lest we forget WE ARE CITY!
The best form of revenge is huge success and Manuel Pellegrini and City are on the cusp of delivering it at the double – two more wins (possibly one) and a twin trophy haul will be their reward.
By David Walker
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