City a cut above in title duel
Man City 3 Tottenham 2
Published 23/01/2012 | 05:00
This is where, dare it be said, Manchester City stamped their authority on the Premier League; and Tottenham Hotspur suffered the cruellest of blows to their dream of contending for that glittering prize.
Mario Balotelli will dominate headlines and the in-tray of the Football Association's disciplinary department after his stylish penalty and apparently spiteful kick-out -- and team-mate Joleon Lescott might also face action for flailing an arm at Younes Kaboul -- but the maelstrom of emotions were caught in two mad minutes at the end of an enthralling game.
It went from Gareth Bale, already with one astonishing goal behind him, galloping at Lescott and cutting the ball across goal for Jermain Defoe.
The contest was there to be won; the title race blown open. But the pass was, marginally, too far ahead of the striker who could not quite steer it into the net as he stretched every sinew and it brushed off his studs.
Almost immediately, Gael Clichy cleared the ball and it bounced through to Balotelli who shaped to shoot only to be brought down by the previously peerless Ledley King.
Referee Howard Webb rightly awarded a penalty and Balotelli nervelessly stroked the ball low and beyond Brad Friedel to win the game and re-convince any doubting City supporters that the title can be theirs.
Balotelli, ineffective until the 95th minute after coming on as a second-half substitute, stood motionless, arms outstretched, in a Christlike pose, but here was the sinner not the man who is sinned against.
"Why always me?" Why indeed.
A dozen minutes earlier, Scott Parker had blocked Balotelli's shot only for the striker to appear to flick out at him, hard, with his heel, catching the prone midfielder above the left eye and inflicting a cut. It could have been a lot worse.
City remain aggrieved over the four-match ban given to Vincent Kompany for his tackle on Nani, but there is the very strong likelihood of another coming their way and that would be hard to dispute.
Spurs manager Harry Redknapp could barely contain his disgust; City's Roberto Mancini, who had sat motionless as the winning goal went in, sent out his assistant David Platt to declare he had not seen any replays.
In a match preceded by stories bandying around transfer values of £150m for Bale and £50m for Luka Modric, and after a relatively indifferent first half, it was a second period that was simply priceless.
There was City surging into a two-goal lead, and Spurs surging back with two goals of their own -- and all of this inside 10 magnetic minutes.
At times it was beyond compelling with the little magicians, Modric and David Silva, weaving their way through the midfields and James Milner almost out-Parkering Parker in the crunching tackles.
There was the quicksilver Sergio Aguero, the rapid Defoe, the balletic power of Bale and the petulant, occasional brilliance of Samir Nasri -- and two goals of the highest quality.
Spurs will, in truth, be happy to stay within the top four, but there will be a tinge of disappointment if that is all they achieve. Manchester United will still have their say, but City will feel a surge of belief.
For a while, they certainly appeared cowed. Spurs, dropping Rafael van der Vaart back, outnumbered the home side in midfield and took an early hold.
Both teams were missing key players and there continued to be a period of adjustment before all hell broke loose.
It started with a clever, diagonal run by Silva before he slid a fine pass to Nasri, who had drifted between the Spurs defenders.
The midfielder took it in his stride and smashed a first-time shot to beat Friedel. Then Edin Dzeko glanced on a corner for Lescott to hurtle in and take himself, Parker and the ball over the line.
Barely two minutes had elapsed between the goals and the City supporters were singing ecstatically. Suddenly there was silence.
Kaboul launched the ball forward and Stefan Savic made a terrible hash of it all, heading back towards his own goal. Defoe was on to it in a flash, rounded Joe Hart and nimbly steered home.
The clock ticked for less than five more minutes and Spurs were level. This time, Modric danced down the left and cut the ball back towards Bale. Without any hesitation he struck a superb first-time left-foot shot which whipped across Hart and into the net.
What now? Could either side go for it? Could they risk it? Should they settle for a point? Both probed and pushed -- Defoe rounded Lescott but left the ball behind and Aaron Lennon shot weakly -- before injury-time was reached and there was that most remarkable of climaxes and, with it, that sweetest of victories, that bitterest of defeats. (© Daily Telegraph, London)