On Sunday, Manchester City could become the champions of the Premier League that have spent the shortest amount of time on top of the table throughout the season. Over the course of 2013-14, the Blues will have spent 15 days in first position, but crucially, they could be at the summit when every team has played each other -- and that’s the only time that matters.
(If you’re interested, the all-time record for least amount of time spent on top by the winners goes to Burnley in 1959-60 -- the Clarets were first for two days in total.)
However, for most of Wednesday evening’s 4-0 win against Aston Villa, there was a very real sense at Etihad Stadium that the fans felt like City were going to muck it up. Years of letdowns have certainly had their effect on supporters, whose cynicism that the game had “0-1 written all over it” at half-time (as I overheard several times throughout the 15-minute break) was making the atmosphere very tense indeed.
Even now, despite needing just a point from the final match of the season on Sunday, the fans are still very wary of what overconfidence can do. The ending to 2011-12 is often remembered as one of the best climaxes to a campaign ever, but the truth is the overwhelming sense of relief that the City faithful felt at full-time came not from the exhilaration of the two stoppage-time strikes, but more from the fact that they were riding so high before the game.
City were playing QPR -- a team threatened by relegation -- and the hosts hadn’t lost at home all season. The fans piled into the ground expecting City’s first title in 44 years and there was an unusual confidence that doesn’t fit Blues fans at all. They’re simply not supposed to feel like everything will go right; they’re supposed to worry, curse, groan and grumble at everything spiralling out of control.
No, the exhilaration came because of the two surges of emotion that afternoon. Many remember it as just despair to delight, but it wasn’t. The day began with that good feeling, too -- and this season, you get the impression that City fans aren’t making that mistake again.
Two years ago, following a win at Newcastle that left City needing a win at home to take the title, fans chanted “We’re going to win the league.” This year, they’ve not mentioned anything of that ilk, despite now only needing a draw on the final day -- in theory, it’s more likely this season that the Blues will be champions, but "Typical City" still haunts supporters, who, for the most part, remain grounded in humility.
The sense of relief inside the Etihad when Edin Dzeko opened the scoring in the second half on Wednesday was clear: it was like a huge weight had been collectively lifted from the fans’ shoulders. The nervous chewing of fingernails became a huge roar of support, with noise levels higher than have been heard there in some time. The Bosnian’s second goal added to that, but it was quickly remembered that things could still go wrong, and it went a little bit quieter when Andreas Wiemann tested whether the Goal Decision System was working with a shot off the bar.
Yet on the pitch, the players seemed unaffected. It’s often worried that tension in the stands can transfer to the playing staff -- and it probably does have some effect -- but Wednesday evening’s win demonstrated a change in mentality.
Previously, when City were desperate for goals, Roberto Mancini had been like a madman inside the technical area, but his replacement, Manuel Pellegrini, doesn’t go for dancing, hopping, jumping or charging around. He stays calm, and now City stay calm, too.
With an hour gone and Aston Villa defending stoutly, it could have been easy for the players to begin to lump balls into the box and try to get it forward quickly. But they didn’t. They continued to drag defenders left, right and centre, out of position and try to work an opening.
The guile of Stevan Jovetic was a huge factor in this, and something City haven’t seen enough of this season because of the Montenegrin’s injuries. With the back line of Villa holding firm and Dzeko feeding off scraps because of it, the second striker on the pitch made all the difference -- especially when he’s a forward who will come deep to collect the ball. It caused a problem, as none of the back five of Villa wanted to leave their shape to track him, and being between the two lines he caused issues.
It’s little coincidence that, after Jovetic's introduction, Dzeko found more space to score twice.
A special mention must go to Yaya Toure, too, who must surely be the Blues’ player of the season. It wasn’t a typical performance from the Ivorian, as his cute passes in behind weren’t coming off, and his power in the midfield didn’t seem to dominate. However, the one time his power was showcased when he wrote himself into City history, netting the 100th league goal of the campaign with a trademark runaway train burst from his own half.
City are a point away from the title. Despite this, the fans will not be getting ahead of themselves after they were nearly burnt two years ago. You can expect another tense atmosphere inside the Etihad on Sunday; only an early goal (followed by another early goal, followed by another early goal) might relieve it.
The club need solid preparations and a calming influence. It’s time for Pellegrini to show us what he’s made of.