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Fairytale for Hargreaves as City stroll

From three years of Mancunian misery to rhapsody in blue, Owen Hargreaves laid sole claim to the title of football's Comeback Kid with a dream goalscoring debut for Manchester City.

Having endured enough pain, suffering and anguish at Manchester United to drain the last drop of confidence from even the strongest character, Hargreaves looked to be on a downward spiral after being released by Alex Ferguson four months ago.

The 30-year-old retained the belief that he could overcome three years of injury trauma, however, and relaunch his career elsewhere and, in his first appearance in a City shirt, he scored a stunning goal and erased doubts over his fitness to inspire his new team to Carling Cup victory against holders Birmingham City.

Despite the accumulated value of Roberto Mancini's starting XI totalling £106m, the majority of those players on duty would have chosen to be anywhere else rather than facing Birmingham in the third round of the Carling Cup.

For the likes of Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli, it must have been torture to find themselves amongst the fringe players, youngsters and, in Wayne Bridge's case, outcasts.

Yet for Hargreaves and Kolo Toure, this was up there with any of the cup finals and World Cup fixtures they participated in during the first phase of their careers.

Both players were back at ground zero after wholly different spells in the wilderness. Toure, wearing the captain's armband on his first appearance since testing positive for a banned substance, only has himself to blame for the six-month ban which denied him the joy of experiencing City's first trophy in 35 years.

Whispers of Hargreaves lacking the mental strength to return to senior duty have dogged the 30-year-old, yet his unexpected move across Manchester to City last month has offered the former Bayern Munich player a shot at redemption and he seemed determined to make up for so much lost time.

Hargreaves made his United debut on the same pitch during a derby defeat against City at Eastlands in August 2007, but it hardly acted as a bad omen.

Thirteen minutes had elapsed before his first challenge, a meaty collision with Birmingham's Adam Rooney, but emerging unscathed from that appeared to inject Hargreaves with renewed belief.

It showed four minutes later when he broke down a Birmingham clearance 30 yards from goal. The ball dropped to Tevez and the Argentine laid the ball back to his former United team-mate, who took a touch before beating goalkeeper Colin Doyle with a right-foot strike from 20 yards.

Hargreaves celebrated by blowing kisses to the crowd, who responded with chants of "Fergie, Sign Him Up!"

The lack of understanding in the City rearguard led to Birmingham's best first-half chance when Curtis Davies was left unmarked to direct an overhead kick goalwards from 10 yards.

It was heading for goal, but the ball was cleared off the line by Toure. Not quite in the same league as Hargreaves' contribution, but not bad for starters.

Even Bridge offered a reminder of his qualities by instigating the move which led to Balotelli's goal.

The former Chelsea full-back released Aleksandar Kolarov in the penalty area before the Serbian pulled back for Balotelli to score with a left-foot strike across the goalkeeper.

Despite having impressed Mancini and his coaching staff during three weeks of training at Carrington, Hargreaves had been told prior to the game that he would be replaced at half-time in an attempt to sensibly manage his return to action.

But such was his first-half impact that the Calgary-born player emerged from the tunnel at the start of the second-half to reclaim his place alongside debutant Abdul Razak in midfield.

Hargreaves then managed a further 12 minutes before leaving the field to a standing ovation after being replaced by James Milner.

The last time he trudged off a football pitch, it was five minutes into his comeback for United against Wolves last November.

The sadness of that occasion was washed away by the uplifting emotion he would surely have felt having passed his biggest test for three years. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent