| 15.8°C Dublin

Sheikh's £1bn gamble pays rich dividend

In a royal palace in Abu Dhabi a young multi-billionaire watched his £930m bet come in. Sheikh Mansour's television glowed with surely the most dramatic images seen on the final day of an English season.

He saw Sergio Aguero kneed in the leg by Joey Barton and then strike a brilliant winning goal in a campaign that lifted a 44-year shadow over the club he picked off an international investment menu.

With no space in his diary to permit a trip to the district of Manchester that is his other fiefdom, the Sheikh must have marvelled at what fun money can buy you in the opera of the English game. He saw an enfant terrible, who recites Nietzsche to the people, act like a thug and depart the stage (Barton). City's absentee owner then observed a relegation-threatened 10-man team hold off champions-elect until five minutes of madness rewrote the sporting history of Manchester.

Imagine how powerful he felt. All those people in the stands with chest pains and short of breath. All those asking themselves how they would cope with another United title win. And then all that happiness breaking the dam of 44 years.

If he stayed by his TV, Sheikh Mansour will have seen Mario Balotelli, draped in an Italian flag and wearing a jester's hat, telling an interviewer: "People talk too much about me. They say too many bad things." Balotelli's eccentricity must have made the owner gasp at the culture he has bought into. If the idea was to erect a global billboard for Abu Dhabi, the world must have been mesmerised by the denouement played out in Sunderland and Manchester.

Here in this cauldron of human strengths and fallibility a desperate 3-2 win was hailed as the end of something: four and a half decades in the wilderness. But was it also the start as well? Was this the first day of empire? FA Cup one year, Premier League the next. It smells like evolution, even if City's maiden Champions League adventure ended last autumn at the group stage.

The quest for world domination is proceeding in a logical sequence, despite the long stand off with Carlos Tevez, the ructions with Balotelli and the sometimes excruciating difficulty in assimilating so many egos and talents from so many nations.

The sky blue swarms came here expecting an emphatic affirmation of the derby win against United and the impressive win at Newcastle, which was inspired by Yaya Toure. Instead they lost their midfield inspiration to a first-half hamstring injury and fell over the line, frazzled. All the old demons seemed to come filing back from the years of gallows humour and managerial revolving doors.

This was Manchester City's Nou Camp, their 1999. For Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer against Bayern Munich, read Edin Dzeko and Aguero, who together turned the picture upside down with two goals in added-time as City's supporters prepared themselves for a summer of sorrow.

By then, manager Roberto Mancini, had surrendered all self-control, raging at every over-hit cross and lousy shot as the title lurched back in United's direction. His great experiment was exploding. His players were in the grip of a terrible paralysis that turned every positive act into an error. It looked like one of the saddest sporting chokes you would ever see.

But history turned once more on its hinge. The saviours were two strikers at opposite ends of the value spectrum. Dzeko, a £27m purchase, is a creature of intermittent flashes and longer spells of poor control and clumsiness. But when David Silva's corner dropped into range, he organised his body beautifully and drew City level with a decisive header.

Then it was the star's turn. Aguero, son-in-law of Diego Maradona, outshone the refusenik, Tevez, with a stunning final act. Zipping across QPR's stubborn defence with only seconds left in added-time, Aguero confirmed the talent he displayed straight away in a City shirt, with his brace against Swansea in August and a hat-trick in the Wigan game here a month later.

Aguero brings none of Tevez's complications. He is consistent, physically tough and knows when and how to turn a game. Assuming City can keep Real Madrid at bay, Aguero is the player to build the forward line around. Through steady filtering, Mancini arrived at a starting XI that virtually picked itself for the final games, though Micah Richards will feel sore at missing out, given his efforts over the whole campaign.

If this team started the first game of 2012-13 there would be few grumbles from City fans. On the bench, Nigel de Jong, James Milner, Aleksandr Kolarov and Richards provide formidable back-up. Mancini's masterstroke, as Alex Ferguson acknowledged, was to persuade a disparate group to embrace the collective need to lay 1968 to rest in the history books.

With that in mind it was inspired of City to get the Francis Lee-Mike Summerbee-Colin Bell generation to hand the torch to Vincent Kompany and Co on a pitch cleared of delirious invaders. It was a nod to the past which also opened the door to the future. It told the current crop they are in charge of the club's soul now. Each must decide whether he is sated or eager for more in this part of the world. The call will be for City to invade Europe now and place the Champions League alongside the spoils of the last two years. Hold those horses.

Progress is obligatory. But holding off domestic predators will be hard enough. United, Chelsea and Arsenal will lead those anxious to stop a frantic win over QPR laying the ground for a dynasty.

"We need to improve next year when we play in the championship and Champions League. We need to improve when we play in two competitions," Mancini said, his own job surely safe for another year.

By the time Sheikh Mansour prodded the off-switch and turned his TV screen dark, he had cast light into a lot of lives. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent