Manchester United 2, Queens Park Rangers 1
Arsenal 1, Manchester City 0
In the 13th minute of Manchester United’s game with QPR at Old Trafford, a slashing Ashley Young felt a creaky, possibly arthritic old hand on his back. Considering the hand belonged to QPR defender Shaun Derry, who looks like he punches tree trunks for fun, it was a relatively light touch. And considering that Young was offside, Derry probably thought his contact would be forgiven by the wave of the linesman’s flag. But no matter; Young, in his first season playing with United, knew what he felt and knew where he was on the pitch. And he went down.
Mark Hughes, who played many years at Old Trafford, could do nothing but suck his teeth and stare into the middle distance. Later, the QPR manager would say that he had lost faith in Premier League refereeing. But he, as much as anyone else, should know to abandon faith when entering the Theater of Dreams. Forget it, Sparky. It’s Fergietown.
Derry was sent off, QPR went down to 10 men, Wayne Rooney (a floppy-haired Wayne Rooney, no less) stepped up to the spot and buried the penalty. 1-0.
Was it a dive? Was it luck? It was United. It was opportunistic, cynical, and smart. It’s how you apparently win the Premier League. Young was lucky to be where he was with an oaf like Derry riding his shoulder, but he knew exactly what he should do. That’s been the way for United since their New Year’s stumble to Newcastle and Blackburn. Their supply of luck has always met their demand, because they make their own.
If Young’s well-timed topple was an example of why United would win the title (and on Sunday, they did win it, pretty much in every way but mathematically), Mario Balotelli’s performance at the Emirates later that afternoon showed why City would not.
City desperately needed three points from the match to stay within touching distance of United. With one more Manchester derby looming at the end of April, and with United eight points clear after their win against QPR, City’s title challenge was looking increasingly fragile. It needed someone with a sure grip and an even temperament to protect it. So, naturally, they put their faith in the hands of the 21-year-old with a Mohawk and an anger-management problem. If Balotelli handled City’s title chances half as well as he maneuvered his Bentley just days before, everything would be fine.
In second half stoppage time, trailing 1-0 after Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta buried a long-range shot to put the Gunners in the lead, Balotelli dove into Bacary Sagna while attempting to win back possession in the Arsenal half. As Sagna rolled on the ground, referee Martin Atkinson pulled out his second yellow card and then a red, sending Balotelli off. It was one of several kamikaze tackles Balotelli tried executing (with an emphasis on execute). His sending off was probably about an hour late, as he could have broken Alex Song’s leg in half earlier in the match. A man down and lacking any kind of momentum, City fell to Arsenal and more or less conceded the title to United, who they once led in the table by five points and more than a dozen goals in goal difference.
Thus ended one of the more bizarre cases of sporting loyalty and betrayal that I have ever seen. Over the last few weeks, with Sergio Agüero suffering from an allergic reaction to a pain-killing spray, David Silva looking increasingly spent, Carlos Tévez slowly playing his way into shape, and Edin Dzeko playing his way out of it (or doing whatever it is that Edin Dzeko does instead of playing football consistenly), Mario Balotelli, against all logic, became the center of the City attack.
Watching Manchester United over the course of this run — eight wins in a row, unbeaten since their match with Newcastle in early January — everything was under control. A team that was that defined by its youth in the beginning of the season was under the stewardship of wise veterans like Ryan Giggs, a fit Rio Ferdinand, and a back-from-the-dead Paul Scholes. Steady passing, calm composure on the ball, nothing spectacular, no massive mistakes;1 once QPR went down a man, ice filled United’s veins.
On the other hand, City’s last few weeks have been a lesson in mismanagement. Where Sir Alex Ferguson added just the right amount of Scholes and Giggs to the youthful mix of Young, Rooney, Paul Pogba, Tom Cleverley, and Phil Jones, City’s manager, Roberto Mancini, made an obscenely irresponsible bet that an incredibly talented but wildly erratic player would all of a sudden perform professionally under the most extreme of circumstances.
I get it. If Balotelli went on a tear, Mancini and all his pampering of the Italian’s partying, reckless driving, and fight- and fire-starting would look like a stroke of genius. If he wound up acting like, well, Balotelli, then Mancini had an easy scapegoat.
After the Arsenal match, Mancini tried to pass the buck. Agreeing with Balotelli’s former Inter Milan boss (and possible Manchester City 2012-13 manager) Jose Mourinho that the player was possibly “unmanageable,” Mancini told the press, “I’m finished. We have six games left and he will not play. It’s not sure he’ll [be available] because he could get a three- or four-game ban. Now, I need to be sure that I have always 11 players on the pitch. With Mario, it’s always a big risk. Every time we risk one [man] being sent off, even if he can also score in the last minute.”
What absolute crap. And tardy crap at that. This revelation is weeks late. Things have been coming apart at the seams for Balotelli for a while now, with reports of bust-ups, trysts, and “rows” populating the English press. Forget perception versus reality. I know not everything I read in the Daily Mail is true, but it was still obvious that Balotelli wasn’t rising to the occasion, he was crumbling under it.
He should have been sent off after 20 minutes on Sunday. Mancini said as much. So why he was left on the pitch, throwing in tackles and kicking the woodwork when he missed chances, is down to one man and one man only: Mancini. Carlos Tévez and Edin Dzeko were sitting right there. If Mancini saw Balotelli’s meltdown coming — and everyone watching the game did — is leaving him on the pitch, Yaya Touré’s injury-forced exit or no, anything less than negligent?
Manchester City knew going into the match with Arsenal that it was three points or face an Etihad-hosted coronation of United on April 30. What’s insane is that Mancini is a dreadfully conservative manager; his style of football, last season especially, was far more galling than the obscene amounts of money City’s owners spent this past offseason.2 He could have played it safe, boring, and drab and hoped to eke out a win in the end. Instead, perhaps because he is such a notorious hothead himself, he rode his luck with Balotelli. And when it blew up in his face he walked away from the wreckage, acting as if someone else had lit the fuse.
The universe working the way it does, Manchester City will win a Premier League title one of these years. But on Sunday, as another Ferguson team inched closer to another Premier League trophy on the back of another mid-range hammer swing from Paul F’ing Scholes, you had to ask if there really is something to be said for institutional experience. I’m not talking about the been-in-the-trenches, thousand-yard-stare veterans; City could buy them, too, and probably will. I’m talking about the kind of thing that makes wind blow a certain way, that teaches Ashley Young to go down when he feels a hand on his back, that grows Wayne Rooney’s hair back and (even more magically) regenerates the muscles and drive of aging veterans.3 It’s something you just can’t buy, at least not in the two transfer windows. In the end, as much as it seems like mystical mind games and bullying and bluster, I guess I’m talking about Ferguson.
• Clint Dempsey scored his 20th goal for Fulham (in all competitions) on Saturday, sending a wonderful free kick past Bolton’s Adam Bogdan in one of the more egregious acts of anti-redhead behavior I’ve seen since M.I.A.’s “Born Free” video.
Dempsey has yet to sign a new deal with the Cottagers, and many have speculated that it is now or never if Deuce wants to make the jump to a “big club.” I would love to see Dempsey competing for more trophies and playing in the Champions League. Insert all the attendant language about how great it would be to see an American playing in the Champions League with some regularity. But the way Dempsey has been utilized this season, in Martin Jol’s attack-heavy scheme (I know I’m wrong, but sometimes it feels like Fulham is going 4-2-4), should not be ignored. The inherent problem with moving to a new team is the tactical change that comes with it. If Dempsey goes to a Liverpool or Arsenal, he would be part of a totally different system — one that might not allow the current freedom he has to bomb in from the wing or get more forward. He’s obviously earned his place in Fulham fans’ hearts, but he’s also established himself in the tactical pecking order.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, on Monday, Dempsey scored against Chelsea to take a point for Fulham. Forget all that nonsense I just said. FERGIE, SIGN HIM UP.
• While all this title deciding was going on, Norwich and Everton played a wonderful 2-2 draw that suited both sides just fine.
Special mention to Nikica Jelavic for a classic fox-in-the-box goal for Everton’s first and a composed strike off a cutback for the second. Everton signed Jelavic from Rangers in January, and it was a another scrap-heap gem of a personnel move by David Moyes. Another January signing, Jonny Howson, was equally impressive for the Canaries. For English football fetishists (Hi, my name is Chris and I’m … ), this was a romantic game. Dirty, brown patches in front of goal, Tony Hibbert
• Watching Aston Villa’s Barry Bannan tear into Luis Suarez at the end of the first half of Liverpool was telling.
Suarez has a stink on him, and he might have to leave the Premier League to get it off. I thought Alan Hutton made significant enough contact with Suarez, but when Barry Bannan is standing over you and making “diving” gestures with his hands, you know you’ve lost the respect of your fellow players. Cristiano Ronaldo used to go down pretty easily, too, but opposing players feared him. You don’t get the impression that Suarez’s eight goals in 27 League games gives defenders the vapors.
Goal of the Week: Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle United
In case you were wondering why I am smitten with this kid: