Manchester City 4 Aston Villa 0: As City close on Premier League title, Manuel Pellegrini defies the rain for quiet triumph of a charming man
THE ETIHAD STADIUM
Thursday 08 May 2014
There are parts of Manuel Pellegrini's native Chile where it has not rained for 300 years and where the soil is as lifeless as the surface of Mars. Tonight the City manager stood on the touchline sopping wet, his suit stuck to his body with what by now is familiar Manchester rain.
He will not care. Since leaving South America for Europe, Pellegrini has endured enough disappointment. He nearly took Villarreal, a town with the population of Darlington, to a European Cup final against Barcelona. He might have taken the galacticos of Real Madrid to a La Liga title in the one season he was allowed at the Bernabeu.
Pellegrini has known enough disappointments to have coped with Manchester City's failure to overcome Aston Villa. Liverpool, with their history and style, have long been the romantic's choice but there is something romantic about Pellegrini; the stoical swallowing of the disappointments, the calmness in the face of Jose Mourinho's taunts, his unfailing belief in playing attacking football.
Barring something astonishing on Sunday, the league will be won by the quiet man. Manchester City's fans held up a banner describing their manager as "This Charming Man". It seems about right.
There was a time when City's trophy cabinet was as barren as the Atacama Desert. Times have changed to the extent that, before kick-off, Yaya Touré explained that the Capital One Cup by itself would not have been enough.
Now, unless Newcastle lose by at least 14 goals at Liverpool on Sunday – a feat they are certainly well-equipped to achieve – City need just a point against West Ham to win their second Premier League trophy in three years.
Nevertheless, 4-0 was a deeply flattering scoreline. Those City fans who could recall the time when Alan Ball was told that, unless he sold Garry Flitcroft within days the club would be liquidated, would have found it astonishing that so many, even the Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, considered it a formality that they would take the four points from their final two games to regain the championship.
This was the club that, under Ball's chairman Francis Lee, forever plotted its own scenic routes towards self-destruction. The Abu Dhabi oil money has washed away much of that, but the shadow of the old City still remains.
The roads surrounding the Etihad Stadium had been reduced to chaos by the closure of one of the city's main arteries, the Mancunian Way, where police were dealing with someone intent on self-harm. It seemed an omen.
The rain that sloshed down from skies heavy enough to obscure any moon, blue or otherwise, was the same rain that had matted Roberto Mancini's hair at Wembley when, against a soon-to-be-relegated Wigan, City became the shortest-odds favourites ever to blow an FA Cup final last year.
The agonies Mancini's side put their supporters through against Queen's Park Rangers on the last day of the season two seasons ago, commemorated in photographs around the stadium's outer wall, were not so very different to those that forced many of their fans to abandon Wembley before the 1999 play-off final against Gillingham was turned improbably on its head.
Here, against an Aston Villa side in shirts not so very different from those QPR had worn two Mays ago – the quarters were purple rather than red – there was first puzzlement and then frustration as every low cross from Pablo Zabaleta was hacked away and every attempt by Touré and David Silva to bludgeon or skip their way through a massed defence was blocked.
Paul Lambert is in charge of English football's most wilfully under-achieving club, who since the departure of Martin O'Neill four years ago have not even had a walk-on part in the Premier League's great dramas.
However, although they have capitulated to almost everyone else, Lambert's Villa have upset the division's great powers. They began the season beating Arsenal at the Emirates, came twice from behind to beat City and were the last team before Chelsea to get a result at Anfield.
They did not, however, journey up the M6 laden with ambition. There were times when it seemed Lambert was parking not just a bus in front of Brad Guzan's goal but the entire Birmingham metro system.
This has been the season when football's propensity to follow a script has been ripped open by first Sunderland and then Crystal Palace. However, though they might have stuttered, City, unlike their two title rivals, remembered their lines.
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