For decades, Manchester City were a joke, a once famous club condemned to exist meekly in the shadow of the behemoth that had its residence at Old Trafford. Between the League Cup in 1976 and the FA Cup triumph of 2011 – a period in which United annexed pretty much every trophy in the game, some of them multiple times – City won the square root of zero. In an era that embraced even a demotion to the third tier of English football, pretty much all they had to shout about was a 5-1 demolition of United in 1989 that nearly cost Sir Alex Ferguson his job.
Now, Manuel Pellegrini and his team stand poised on the threshold of a second trophy this season. The unloved League Cup has been won, and Pellegrini reckons that his team deserve to add the Premier League crown as well, since they have “played the best football”. All they need to do on Sunday is avoid defeat against West Ham. When that happens, and it surely will with the entire squad, including the incredible Sergio Aguero, available for selection, it will mark City’s second title in three seasons. The club Ferguson once dismissed as the ‘noisy neighbours’ are now the biggest ticket in town.
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero celebrates after scoring vs West Bromwich Albion on April 21, 2014. Pic/Getty Images.
City were known and mocked for being enthusiastic proponents of Murphy’s Law. Joe Royle, who managed the club, even gave a name to it. According to him, ‘City-itis’ stemmed from the absolute certainty that when presented with a winning chance, the club would somehow manage to mess it up.
This season, though, it’s their rivals that have adopted that approach. After a superb start, Arsenal unravelled like cheap threads. Chelsea slipped up once too often against teams in the lower half of the table, and Liverpool – having beaten City at Anfield to wrest control of their own destiny – slipped up at home against Chelsea before a spectacular collapse against Crystal Palace transformed a comfortable win into a demoralising draw.
For City, the big banana skin was the trip to Everton. When they fell a goal behind early, their rivals might have expected another twist in the title tale. Instead, the sheer depth of City’s attacking options powered them to a 3-2 win. From that point on, they have shown no sign of slipping. Yet, even the most confident City fan will take nothing for granted.
Two seasons ago, when they won the championship for the first time in 44 years, City moved ahead of United on goal difference with a Vincent Kompany goal in the derby. It was their first home victory against their cross-time rivals in 13 years. That should have been that. Instead, on the final day of the season, they almost contrived to lose against Queens Park Rangers before a goal from Aguero sent the blue half of the city fumbling towards ecstasy. A two-point lead, with or without the superior goal difference that City enjoy now, can often be a dangerous one. At the back of the mind is the feeling that a draw will be enough. It nearly ruined things for Blackburn in 1994-95. Starting the final day on 89 points, they lost 2-1 to Liverpool at Anfield. United, who had 87 at the start of play, had a super goal difference, but with Andy Cole missing a slew of chances, they could only manage a 1-1 draw against West Ham at Upton Park. Few teams can have celebrated a loss the way Blackburn did that afternoon.
The date of this season’s final games should also be a happy omen for City fans. On May 11, 1968, both City and United had 56 points (two for a win in those days) going into the final games of the season. United had to play lowly Sunderland at home. City faced the trickier prospect of a visit to Newcastle.
Goals from Mike Summerbee, Neil Young (two) and Francis Lee gave City a 4-2 lead in the second half and though a late Newcastle strike induced plenty of palpitations, they held on for the win. Back in Manchester, despite a goal from George Best, United lost 2-1. For Liverpool, May 11 brings back only miserable memories of the 1996 FA Cup final – those disastrous cream suits and an Eric Cantona winner for United. If you believe in such portents, it’s surely City’s title.
2013: The year in which Manuel Pellegrini was appointed manager of Manchester City on a three year contract
Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India’s editor-in-chief