Since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, the rest of the league has had to endure endless last minute goals and miraculous comebacks from Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side.
For the first time, however, United are having to watch their bitter rivals, Manchester City, produce such moments of their own, with Saturday’s dramatic victory over West Brom the perfect example.
People often say the the hallmark of champions is an inner belief that, one way or another, you will win the game. United have been the benchmark for this in the Premier League era, and Liverpool were in the 70s and 80s. Now, as a potential era of dominance at The Etihad gathers momentum, the signs are there that they also contain this belief and mental toughness now.
Obviously the perfect example to use would be the unforgettable end to last season, where two goals in stoppage won City the most dramatic league title on English football history. That game gave them the huge belief that they have now carried into this season.
On the opening day a slack home performance looked to heading for a shock home defeat to newly-promoted Southampton, only for Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri to score late on, earning them the three points. Two years ago they would not have won that game, instead succumbing to a limp defeat. This is the key element that has changed in City’s game.
At Fulham last month, a frustrated City had dominated the home side throughout, but with the game heading for a draw Dzeko again popped up in the 87th minute to fire City to another win.
Moments like this completely knock the stuffing out of your title rivals, as they see the chance to gain some ground on you disappear in an instant. In 2009, Liverpool were breathing down United’s necks at the top of the table, having recently beaten them 4-1 at Old Trafford. A failure to win at home to Aston Villa would have gifted Liverpool the initiative in the title race, but Federico Macheda’s last gasp strike won it for United, and that was the single moment the title was effectively won that season.
Great sides also find a way of getting something from games they don’t deserve to, and City’s Champions League tie with Borussia Dortmund last month was the perfect example. The German champions had outplayed the hosts throughout the game, with Joe Hart producing endless world-class saves to keep his side in the contest. In the 90th minute, City won a hugely undeserved penalty, Mario Balotelli converted it, and a crucial point had been earned.
This leads us to Saturday’s tough trip to the Hawthorns to face an in-form West Brom side. After James Milner’s early red card, Shane Long compounded the Champions’ misery with the opening goal in the 67th minute. With a quarter of the game left, and a man less on the pitch, a draw was realistically the best City could hope for.
Dzeko, who is fast becoming City’s equivalent to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, entered the fray with 11 minutes remaining and scored almost immediately to level the scores. Then, as West Brom laid siege to Hart’s goal, a slick counterattack involving Alexander Kolarov and Sergio Aguero ended with Dzeko curling home a dramatic late winner.
The fans celebrated as if they’d won the title, and it is moments like this that win you the coveted trophy.
With Chelsea having beaten Tottenham earlier in the day and United winning 4-2 at home to Stoke City, Dzeko’s goal was a real kick in the teeth for both sides. For City, it was another glorious late winner to saviour; a regular occurrence these days.
Roberto Mancini’s side are yet to hit top gear so far this season but still find themselves level on points with United in third place, and four points adrift of Chelsea at the top. In past seasons their lack of belief and inability to grind out wins would’ve seen them out of the title race already, much like Arsenal currently, but their new mental toughness makes them the team to beat, and favourites to win second Premier League title.