MANCHESTER, England – Manchester City are 90 minutes away from winning the Premier League title, with only Queens Park Rangers - and City's former manager, Mark Hughes - standing in their way.
"If they win, this city will explode," said a shopkeeper to me last night in the city center, and the mood in this gritty industrial city is indeed one of anticipation - but with an edge.
The air is distinctly wary: the City fans, who have been pouring in steadily from across the globe for the past 36 hours, are unwilling to take anything for granted. The memories of City's dark days in the third division are still present, and people speak sotto voce about what might happen should the Blues collapse at the final hurdle.
It's been a hard battle for the team and for the city as a whole. Manchester is undergoing a transition that in many ways mirrors the rise of the Etihad club. The city is undergoing a revival, with swank new towers, a trendy boutique and restaurant area and the National Football Museum all crowded in to what once was a run-down and desolate area.
Tourists from all over the world are flocking to the town. Last night snatches of French and Japanese could be heard alongside the more familiar northern accent and while the rough edges remain, the fact is Manchester has gained a polish it didn't have even six years ago.
Yet Manchester remains ringed by poverty: nearby Rochdale has unemployment sitting at a stubborn 20% and the area is seriously talking about the prospect of a lost generation. Strangeways prison remains a tough reminder of the toll organized crime and drugs have taken on the area. And all the new glass and sharp shops here sit right next to a bevy of seedy porn outlets.
It reminds me quite a bit of my hometown of Chicago, which underwent a similar transformation not so long ago. Our downtown was once nothing but wig shops and disreputable bookstores; the bars were decidedly honest, but low. Today, Chicago is a food mecca, a beacon for industry and the once used-needle-strewn park in front of my house is a clean, well-lighted playground. And yet, West Humbolt Park, only 15 minutes from my house, remains one of the most blighted areas in the nation.
Sports played a large part in Chicago's transformation -- the Sox, Bears and Fire all got new stadiums and the Bulls and Blackhawks have continued to buff the United Center -- and the same is true here. The cavernous Eastlands, repurposed from the Commonwealth Games once felt like a rattletrap, despite being only a decade old. But with City's revival and injection of cash that is estimated at $1.3 billion from the UAE, the surrounding area now feels vibrant and compelling.
The last time I was in Manchester, Tim Howard was playing for United, and the city seemed to shut up shop at dusk. It felt provincial and somewhat dark. Last night, the streets teemed with people -- young couples, tourists, professionals -- and the restaurants and pubs looked fresh in the summer sun. The attitude seems to have taken a sharp shift.
Whether or not City win tomorrow won't arrest that change. That said, it's hard not to feel that many people here are eager for that lift. City have long been the team of Manchester, and in the shadow of their better-known, and globally-supported rivals to the west. It would be grudgeful not to root for a team that despite their great wealth, are the underdogs. But like this city, it seems the Citizens might finally be ready for their day.
$301,600,000 : The amount of money City paid in transfer fees for the players who will take the field tomorrow against QPR.
55 : The number of home points City will have if they win the game. That will tie them with Chelsea and Manchester for best-ever in the Premier League.
44 : Years since Manchester City won a top-flight title.
2 : Number of games City have won on the final day in their last seven seasons.
1 : Number of games City have won against QPR at home in their last five attempts.
0 : Number of games QPR's Mark Hughes has lost as a visiting manager at the Etihad.
THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
30 : Number of goals needed this weekend to break the Premiership's single-season goal total record. (1,064; 1,034 scored to date)
1 : Number of goals Arsenal's Robin van Persie needs to tie Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo's single-season scoring record of 31 goals in the Premier League.