Manchester City win Premier League as Gündogan seals incredible fightback

Ilkay Gundogan hailed Manchester City’s “incredible” Premier League title triumph as the German midfielder came off the bench to spark their astonishing fightback to beat Aston Villa 3-2 on the last day of the season.

Gündogaaaan. It was a moment of the highest drama, the wildest of celebrations and it was impossible to ignore the parallels. Manchester City had looked goosed, two goals down to Aston Villa with 76 minutes on the clock, knowing that they needed three because, well, did anybody really think that Liverpool would not beat Wolves at Anfield?

The Etihad Stadium was an angsty place. Villa had lost their previous 11 league matches at City; the longest such streak away from home against an opponent in their history. But they were ready to buck the trend. Steven Gerrard, their manager, was about to help his beloved Liverpool to the title.

City had their own script in mind. Just as they had in 2012, when they needed two goals in stoppage time to pinch the title from Manchester United against Queens Park Rangers. Everybody remembers what happened then. The club unveiled a statue to Sergio Agüeroooo on the Friday before last to mark the 10-year anniversary.

City did not leave it quite so late this time. But their solution was nonetheless epic. Three goals in five minutes, culminating in a burst from Kevin De Bruyne that took him past three Villa players, a low cross and a finish from Ilkay Gündogan at the far post.

It was the 81st minute and, at last, City knew. The substitutes tore on to the field in celebration and, all around them, there was noise and a collective loss of the plot. It feels sweeter when you have aggressively flirted with disaster.

Gündogan, who came on as a substitute in the 68th minute, had started the fightback with a towering header and, if he was the star turn, he was not the only replacement to have made a difference. Raheem Sterling provided the cross for him, having surged to the byline, and Oleksandr Zinchenko, Pep Guardiola’s first change, played a part in the equaliser, pulling back for Rodri, who threaded home from the edge of the area.

When it was all over, there was a pitch invasion from thousands of fans, drunk on euphoria and, perhaps, disbelief – even if they had been here before. Some dismantled one of the goals and there was plenty of crowing, taking in a bellowed reminder to Gerrard of his infamous slip in 2014.

It was title No 8 for City, the sixth since the Abu Dhabi money started pouring in and the fourth under Guardiola. Five have been delivered on the final day, the Agüero-inspired one following that of 1968 and being followed by 2014 and 2019. In the last two, City had needed results against West Ham and Brighton to finish above Liverpool.

City wobbled last Sunday in the 2-2 draw at West Ham, which kept Liverpool alive, and they did not just have to beat Villa, they had to master the pressure of the occasion. There had been a moment in January when they were 14 points clear of Liverpool, albeit having played two more games. Maybe that added to the jeopardy.

The first half was an ordeal for City, the frustration intense. Fernandinho, the club captain who will now depart, would be given an emotional send-off at the end but he was exposed by Ollie Watkins before he was hooked at the interval.

Guardiola fretted and so did the home crowd. Each missed pass from those in sky blue, every stalled move, drew howls. The manager wanted to play faster but it was not happening, City running into dead ends, their buildup lacking bite.

Villa wanted to manage the tempo, as Gerrard would have it; to waste time, as the City support would argue. Michael Oliver spoke to the Villa captain, Tyrone Mings, after the goalkeeper, Robin Olsen, took an age over a clearance. But Villa quickened the pace when they worked a move up the left and, when Lucas Digne crossed, Matty Cash got the run on João Cancelo to flash a header past Ederson.

City offered little before the interval, save for a Phil Foden shot that went just wide. It was Villa who finished the half in the ascendancy. Watkins twice got away from Fernandinho only to be checked by him first time (no foul, surprisingly) and bailed out by John Stones on the second. Watkins also saw a shot blocked by Aymeric Laporte.

Guardiola’s half-time reshuffle saw Zinchenko come on at left-back, Cancelo swap flanks and Stones move into central defence. Zinchenko impressed and what a moment it was for him at the end when he wrapped a Ukrainian flag around the trophy for a poignant photo. He could not hold back the tears.

City flickered, Jesus going close, but they diced with disaster at the other end, Watkins running on to an Olsen clearance only to blow the one-on-one with Ederson. Philippe Coutinho, a former Liverpool midfielder, tightened the thumb screws with a wonder goal, taking a touch on the bounce with the outside of his boot to slice inside Laporte before shooting low into the near corner.

It felt as if the action at Anfield would now assume primary importance, with Liverpool level at 1-1. City had other ideas.


Story first published on The Guardian

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David Hytner, The Guardian