MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – City were staring at the abyss.
Forty-four years absent a top-flight title, the Citizens had allowed a ten-man Queens Park Rangers side to take a 2-1 lead. Their archrivals, the hated and feared Manchester United , had one hand on the title. Minutes were left. And the fans seemed to know the jig was up.
This was the same old Manchester City , the team that loses games on the final day, the team that breaks their fans' hearts, the team that reduces grown men to tears. Some of them had already started the bitter file out onto the concrete concourse of the Etihad, getting ready for a grim stroll past the supermarket, past the council houses, and back into despair.
Magic does exist in this world. Sometimes we don't see it, but there are small things that people do for one another to make lives better. And sometimes, magic erupts on a scale that leaves us breathless and in wonder. Whether or not today qualifies as a miracle, I'll let you adjudge, but if you need proof of the capricious ways of the universe and its capacity to bring joy, you need look no further than the final three minutes at the Etihad on Sunday.
Harry Houdini couldn't have pulled off an escape like this, and Ricky Jay is probably writing up a tract right now denouncing it as fraud. If Steven Spielberg were to film it, you wouldn't buy it. A team scoring two goals in three minutes isn't as improbable as we like to think - but a team scoring two goals in the three final minutes of a season?
When Sergio Aguero's goal pummeled past Paddy Kenny, the Etihad convulsed. The stadium shook. Roberto Mancini raced up the touchline, arms in the air, head thrown back in a scream. Four decades of failure, exorcised. Four decades under the heel of their arch-rivals Manchester United--far across town but ever-present--finally relieved, even if only for a few months.
Sipping champagne from the stage after the game, captain Vincent Kompany maintained that even with the clock ticking down, he never lost hope. But he too acknowledged there was something supernatural about it.
"For some reason, today reminded me of other games, so for some reason, no, I thought we would win. This game was crazy and there are no words to put it in, but you look at how many chances we had, I felt it just had to happen.
"It's one big blur for me," Kompany continued. "I just remember leaping on top of Sergio. All the guys were bawling their eyes out. We have a lot of strong personalities, and you don't see that emotion very often. I think we expected to win the league today--but to actually do it was one of the best moments of my life."
"Miracles do happen in Manchester -- but on this side of the road this time."
If you don't subscribe to such thinking, consider this:
City won the title after a season that saw their key striker go on strike for six months; flopped in two Cups in the space of a single week; bombed out of Europe; lost their best player to the African Nations for six weeks and had their captain suspended for a critical period. They coughed up a seemingly insurmountable lead at the top of the table, and then made up an eight point difference after losing a "must-win" game at Arsenal.
It's inevitable that some will wonder if Roberto Mancini made a deal with the devil.
"I couldn't see City to be getting back into it to be honest," said QPR's Mark Hughes, who seemed stunned after the game. "They had lost their direction, and they were just heaving balls into the box. I think Roberto would admit he was lucky today."
"We deserved it," said Mancini, "we scored more goals."
How true, and how little that really says about what happened here today.
The suave manager was all smiles after the game, insisting that this was all part of a grand plan. It wasn't of course, but the jaded pack of journalists gave him a standing ovation anyway, and humored him to boot. Champagne was passed about and as the manager and his captain clinked glasses, it was hard not to grin.
What happens next is anyone's guess. The Red Devils - who arguably made a Faustian pact of their own with American ownership -- aren't going anywhere. And just because City has won a single title cannot erase the fact that across town, United remain the global brand, the proverbial powerhouse.
But for one night, this City is Blue. The moon is up, and the throngs downtown have not stopped breaking into song.
After 44 years, one night may be enough. And miracles do happen.