Part 1: The Dramatic Final Day
One of the greatest days in sport is the final day of the English Premier League season when there is so much on the line. All 20 teams are in action at once with the 10 fixtures of the weekend kicking off at once. Going into the final day this year, Manchester United and City were locked in a battle for local bragging rights and the small matter of the Premier League title. United were going for the 20th league title in their history and 12th of the Premier League era (1992-1993 season) while City were looking for their first top flight league trophy in 44 years. Both teams were locked on 86 points but City held the tiebreaker advantage thanks to their superior goal difference of +63 to United’s +55. City hosted relegation battlers Queens Park Rangers (QPR) who needed a draw to guarantee safety while United travelled to Sunderland who were assured of a mid-table finish and would have little to play for.
While the Manchester clubs were fighting for the title, QPR had to fight to make sure that they would stay in the top flight and they needed to match or better the result of Bolton Wanderers who were sitting two points behind QPR and in the final relegation slot. Bolton sat in 18th place with 35 points and a -31 goal difference while QPR had earned 37 points and a -22 goal difference which meant that if Bolton were to survive, they would need a result at Stoke, which is one of the toughest trips in English football and hope that City would take care of business against QPR.
You would think that the action at the top and bottom of the table would be enough for fans on the final day but there was one more area of the table to keep an eye on as teams battled for 3rd spot and an automatic spot in next year’s UEFA Champions League competition. Aside from the extra prize money from a higher finishing position in the league, making the group stage of Europe’s top club competition is worth at least a further €8m (~US$10.33m) to every club. In England the top 3 clubs in the league receive automatic entry into the Champions League group stage with the fourth placed team earning a spot in the qualifying rounds. Due to Chelsea making the Champions League final this year, fourth spot was potentially meaningless as a victory in Munich would earn them one of England’s spots taking it away from whoever finished fourth. Three teams were battling for the crucial third spot including two of the Premier League’s fiercest rivals. Arsenal held the upper hand going into the final day sitting on 67 points (+24) and faced a trip to The Hawthorns to face West Brom. They were trailed by Tottenham on 66 points (+23) who had a home game against Fulham to close out the season. Newcastle travelled to Everton sitting on 65 points (+7) hoping that a final day miracle could happen and the two teams above them would drop points.So with all of that and so much more to play for, fans around the world settled in for the culmination of the twentieth season of the best domestic football league in the world. Of course with the smorgasbord of football on offer fans had to find the best way to follow the games. In the US every game was available on different networks with Fox holding rights to 9 of the fixtures and the Man City game being shown on ESPN2. Showing their dedication to growing football, Fox opted to rope in channels that are aimed at other audiences such as FX and Speed to show games live. Meanwhile in Australia we received the 7 meaningful games live across the Fox Sports network and the other 3 on delay. Football fans were in for a massive treat.
You could think of a million different scenarios as to how the final day would play out and even with the added help of hallucinogenic drugs, you could not have imagined the final day playing out the way it did. At 3pm UK time the games kicked off and over the next 2 hours, there would be a real life soap opera playing out, just with more believable acting and more drama.
In the first 12 minutes there were 7 goals scored across the 10 games and that was just the beginning. The race for 3rd place gave us the first bit of drama for the day as Tottenham’s Emmanuel Adebayor scored after 90 seconds to put Spurs into the Champions League spots. That would only stand for 60 seconds though as Yossi Benayoun (pictured) took advantage of some calamitous goalkeeping from West Brom’s stand in Martin Fulop, who ran out of his box and failed to clear it, Benayoun stole possession and was left with an open net to put Arsenal up 1-0 and back into the Champions League placings. Of course that would not be the end of the drama in this little position battle. The tide would be turned once again in the 11th minute at The Hawthorns as Shane Long received a through ball (from a marginally offside position) and fired a shot past the Arsenal keeper to level the scores. Four minutes later West Brom again stunned the Gunners defense with a great shot to put West Brom up 2-1 and have Arsenal on the ropes as they were now looking up at Spurs in third place with 75 minutes to play in the season. Newcastle had fallen behind in the race for 3rd as Everton managed to score a 16th minute goal thanks to Steven Pienaar (who was doing a massive favour for his parent club Spurs).
The attention was turned to Sunderland’s Stadium of Light in the 20th minute as the title race got turned on its head. While City and QPR remained scoreless, Wayne Rooney gave Manchester United the lead thanks to a well timed, back post run where he nodded United into a title-winning position. When Everton scored a second goal in the 27th minute Newcastle’s Champions League hopes were effectively crushed and it became a two team race for the safety of 3rd place. Arsenal put themselves back in contention thanks to Andre Santos firing them level with West Brom on the half hour. The races on the top and bottom of the table were thrown into chaos in the 6 minutes before halftime. Pablo Zabaleta, City’s right back, made a run into the box exchanging passes with Yaya Toure (who was on one leg by this stage) and fired a shot at Paddy Kenny who could just palm the ball in the air. For a second it looked like the ball would float over the bar for a corner but it dipped into the far post to give City a 1-0 lead. At the same time the relegation battle turned on its head as Bolton levelled the scores against Stoke. Right on the stroke of halftime Bolton went up 2-1 and that score meant that going into halftime, QPR would be relegated and Manchester City would win the title.
Relevant Halftime Scores: Man City 1-0 QPR, Man United 1-0 Sunderland, Arsenal 2-2 WBA, Tottenham 1-0 Fulham, Everton 2-0 Newcastle, Stoke 2-2 Bolton.
During the halftime break fans were afforded the chance to catch their breath and find out information from around the country as the league year wrapped up. The referees received the instructions to restart their matches and we were underway for the final 45 minutes of the season. Almost straight away, the title race and relegation battle were thrown into chaos as Djibril Cisse pounced on a misplaced header by Joleon Lescott and smashed the ball into the back of the net to level things at the Etihad 1-1, needless to say, that goal not only sent the QPR fans into rapture but the United fans as well as it put them back on top as well.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the day’s most dramatic game had a little bit extra tension added to it thanks to a brain snap from the QPR captain, and notorious hothead, Joey Barton. The linesman spotted Barton swinging an elbow to the head of Carlos Tevez, flagged the referee and reported Barton, who received a straight red card for the indiscretion. That should have been the end of it, but things only got more bizarre from there. After being shown his red, Barton proceeded to knee Sergio Aguero in the back of the leg (itself a sending off offence) and then attempted to headbutt the City captain Vincent Kompany. He eventually was ushered from the field but not before City substitute (and crazy man himself) Mario Balotelli had some words with Barton. The general consensus on twitter at the time was that Barton had just handed the title to City, his QPR side had been struggling to keep pace with 11 men on the pitch, they had no hope with 10. Of course with Bolton leading 2-1 in the other relegation game, that red card cost QPR their Premier League survival as City would likely run away with the game now.
While all this was going on the critical moment in the race for third place happened, Arsenal had been pressing the West Brom defense and had earned themselves a corner, Robin van Persie sent an in-swinging ball straight to the hands of Marton Fulop who looked to punch the ball clear. For some reason though, Fulop had not been having the best of games and as a result of that, punched the ball straight towards Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny who poked the ball home to strike a massive blow to Spurs’s third place hopes. In the 63rd minute of their game, Spurs scored a goal to put them up 2-0 and give themselves some insurance in the event of both Fulham and West Brom getting a goal back. With just under 30 minutes left in the season now, the nails were starting to be worn down.
City needed a goal, desperately. They continued to press forward but were denied time and time again by Paddy Kenny who was more than making up for his earlier error that lead to the first City goal. When I saw what happened next I did not quite believe it, QPR broke down the left on the counter attack and created an overlap in the box. The cross was launched in and Jamie Mackie got on the end of it at the back post. His header was driven into the ground to lower Joe Hart’s chances of saving it and it found its way over the line as City players scrambled to try and block it. It was 2-1 QPR in the 66th minute, they were safe and City needed 2 goals to win the title.
Just 10 minutes later QPR got another lifeline as Stoke levelled their match against Bolton meaning that they were once again in trouble. City continued to press forward but QPR put on a defensive display that would have made the 2004 Greek side proud as the repelled attack after attack. Over the course of the game, City had 81% of possession and 44 shots to 3 which says it all about the team mentality. Across the country the clocks began to show 90:00 which meant that only stoppage time was left around the grounds. City still needed 2 goals, United needed to hold on and Arsenal needed to avoid another defensive lapse and QPR needed to hold on or hope Bolton did not score. Arsenal managed to hold onto their 3-2 lead and therefore booked their spot in next season’s Champions League while Tottenham won 2-0 ensuring they finished in 4th. Newcastle had a disappointing 3-1 loss to end the season on meaning they finished in 5th place which is still respectable for only their second season back in the top division.
There were 5 minutes of stoppage time for City while United only had 3 minutes to play. As the final whistle was about to be blown for United, City managed to level their game thanks to their 19th corner. Eden Dzeko powered a header straight into the back of the net and the ball was rushed back to halfway for the restart with 3 minutes remaining. By this stage the United players had finished their game as word spread of City’s equaliser, they were now forced to wait for the final whistle from the Etihad and they would have won the club’s 20th league title. City pushed forward once more, looking for that crucial goal and all of a sudden there was an opening. Sergio Aguero received a pass on the edge of the box, took a touch to go outside of the defender marking him and fired a shot towards the near post. It flew past the keeper who had no time to move and bulged the back of the net sending the Etihad into near riot scenes as the crowd went ballistic. The effects microphones on the sideline were overwhelmed by the noise level and struggled to capture it all. The noisy neighbours were on top, and now just seconds away from ending their 44 year league title drought and finally able to exit the shadow of their big brothers from down the road. By this time the 5 minutes was up and it was now up to the referee to blow the whistle and end the season. QPR had received word they were safe thanks to Bolton and Stoke finishing 2-2 so there was no need to try anything crazy. They took the kickoff and sent the ball down to the corner. The three blasts of the whistle sounded to signal full time and the blue half of Manchester could finally celebrate. Fans stormed the field hugging players and anyone else they could find enjoying the ecstasy of their club’s first Premier League trophy. See City lifting the trophy here.
Whoever said football is boring because nothing happens has never seen the drama of the final day. Whoever says that money can’t buy happiness or a championship did not see the Etihad erupting on full time. Whoever said the passion was gone in football had not seen the sheer joy in the City players faces as they celebrated one of the best moments of their career and what they had achieved as a playing group. Days like this remind us why football is the world’s game, why it has billions of fans around the world and why it the Premier League is a great advertisement for the sport.