by Daisy Cutter
Throughout this long, exhilarating and torturous title run-in the fact that Manchester City had to travel to Newcastle for the penultimate fixture was always the ace up the red sleeve, something produced with a flourish and a smile by United supporters every time pub talk turned to remaining games.
As United sprinted to the finish line with an eight point lead the prospect of a faltering City coming unstuck in a hostile, buzzing Sports Direct Arena was merely viewed as an insurance policy. In recent weeks however that perception noticeably changed to one of barely-disguised desperation as the blues got their groove back and it was the turn of their bitter rivals from down the road to experience the jitters.
Suddenly a great deal of hope was being pinned on a probable derailment of the City express in the north-east – with far more belief than was projected onto their own opportunity to do so six days earlier in the derby – and to be fair I can’t say that I blame them. With Ba and Cisse fast-forming a devastating front line and the ‘barcodes’ resiliently in the hunt for a deserved third spot that would guarantee Champion’s League football for the Toon next term a critical three points here was indeed an intimidating proposition.
Back in early November in these very pages I suggested that Newcastle’s assault on Europe would soon slide to a mid-table campaign of mediocrity. I even laid out my argument in a detailed five-point thesis. Reading it back now I have empathy for the studio exec who once famously dismissed a young Fred Astaire with a hopelessly misguided screen-test report. I was wrong tenfold.
Alan Pardew (can’t sing) has performed nothing short of a miracle this season forging a formidable outfit that work collectively for the cause whilst consistently playing sensational football. Founded on an imposing defence led by the colossus Coloccini (can’t act) they’ve battered and beguiled in equal measure with Ba (balding) particularly impressive blasting them in from every angle. At their heart lies the twinkling jewel of Cabaye (can dance a little) whose artful probing allied to a combative nature has replaced Nolan and Barton single-handedly.
Coming off the back of their fantastic Stamford Bridge win – concluded by an otherworldly strike by Cisse that dropped a nation’s jaw – they were flying but City too were in majestic form, their March stutter now firmly consigned to memory and their first title since 1968 steady in their crosshair.
It is common for a game of such magnitude to be strewn with mistakes as nerves reduce the spectacle to a bitty and ragged affair so it boded well for a potential firecracker when each side immediately imposed the arrogance formed from their recent performances. Both defences looked their usual imperious selves, the midfield sparred and hustled, while Aguero and Ba looked ready to explode into brilliance given half a yard of space.
As the first half inevitably settled into a pattern it was a very familiar one to blues – their dominance of possession resulting in the opposition huddled in a carapace around their box. This situation was City’s undoing in early Spring as their tippy-tappy fare proved incapable of breaking through the hard shell. Now though they have Tevez back and his constant scurrying and harrying and drifting into areas that opens up pockets of space for team-mates unsettles the rhythm of proceedings. Consequently City had the better of it during the first period but Newcastle carried a potent threat every time they countered.
On the hour mark De Jong was brought on for the reborn Nasri – a routine tactical switch for Mancini yet according to the dunderheads on MotD2 a masterstroke that seemingly had not been attempted before – that allowed Yaya to stretch his legs and venture forward. Ten minutes later the Ivorian Terminator stroked home an exquisite finish that prompted a Poznan from Swansea fans entering Old Trafford, jubilation for every ABU in the country and for me and every other blue to scream their tonsils out.
‘Typical Citeh’ these days dictates them closing the game out in these circumstances with Kompany and Lescott commanding and Barry immense sweeping and prowling ahead. Yet the array of missed gilt-edged chances prior to Yaya’s clincher still brought back old doubts and insecurities.
When Toure prodded home his late sequel however all this evaporated into exhausted ecstasy and tears.
Considering what was at stake and the quality that needed to be overcome this was by far City’s toughest examination yet in their title quest but pay no heed to the media and others who are already suggesting the league is won. Far from it.
Next Sunday City need to match or better United’s result but it is they who are facing a side with nothing to play for. Whereas QPR will be scrapping and fighting for every second ball with their top flight lives depending on it.
Yesterday did not determine this long, exhilarating and torturous title bid; it merely prompted the fat lady to gargle and ask for directions to the Etihad.