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Ratings and analysis as Gundogan assumes Aguero role to deliver dramatic title win


Manchester City 3-2 Aston Villa (Gundogan 76′, 81′, Rodri 78′ | Cash 37′, Coutinho 69′

ETIHAD STADIUM — “Please leave the pitch immediately.” The instruction met the demands of corporate responsibility but not the mood in the room. There was more chance of turning back the tide than repelling the swollen sea of Manchester City drunk on bacchanal spirit.

Dads danced like, well, dads. Mums did knee slides across the pitch. Craig Cash smashed the laconic template of his Royal Family role to recast himself as Happy Mondays front man Bez. This was Madchester all over again.

The capacity for rational thought in the Etihad was washed away in five insane minutes that evoked a sense of Aguero day at the Etihad. It was a decade ago that Sergio Aguero’s bared torso captured the sense of recalibration at a club that had spent 44 years under the imperial boot of Manchester United.

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Nothing can ever match the historical import of Aguero slicing through the QPR defence to deliver City’s first English title since 1968 and reset the paramaters of Premier League engagement. But this came mighty close on an afternoon when City fell 2-0 behind to the only two shots Aston Villa had on target. That Liverpool were only drawing at home to Wolves was of little comfort. There was still 20 minutes to go and the feeling that Liverpool would prevail was the salient point here, filling the Etihad with dread.

They will have to bust out the resin again to cast a statue in the likeness of Ilkay Gundogan for it was he who turned the afternoon on its head with the goal 16 minutes from time that made City believe anew and sucked the swagger from Villa’s game stride. Rodri equalised with the next attack and three minutes after that the resurrection was complete, Gundogan bookending the madness to secure City’s eighth title.

Before that there was a lot of precision huffing and puffing from City but nothing at the end of it. As the goalless minutes passed in the opening half Guardiola became increasingly anxious, frequently turning towards the City benches and howling at no-one in particular. And then the unthinkable happened. Villa slipped the stranglehold, Matty Cash stooping to nod Villa ahead at the far post. The Villa contingent behind the goal erupted and Gerrard sent a rib tickler through the ether.

Many of those in the main stand were dressed in their Sunday best, hair done, make-up on. The sun was out, the warm air fizzed with the happy energy. They had not come to see City lose. Yet they were doing precisely that. Their team still held sway courtesy of an equally surprising rebellion at Anfield, where Wolves scored first and were holding Liverpool to a draw.

Guardiola hooked Fernandinho at half-time and moved John Stones from right-back to centre-half to give City a more conventional configuration. Stones at full-back with Kyle Walker on the bench always looked a move too clever. With Oleksandr Zinchenko and Joao Cancelo given licence to maraud, Villa were immediately under the pump. They needed to be. This free-scoring machine so used to rolling teams over would need at least one goal to reclaim what the majority assumed was their destiny at the start of the day.

Matty Cash celebrates Villa’s opener at the Etihad (Photo: Reuters)

With the tension rising Guardiola sent for Raheem Sterling. His omission over this latter part of the season seemed surprising, an example perhaps of the stubborn streak that can take hold of Guardiola. Sterling has always had an instinct for the half chance, which was wholly the requirement against a Villa team configured to absorb with the efficacy of blotting paper and the predatory impulse of a cobra.

When Philippe Coutinho put Villa two up with a brilliant second it felt like the end of days. An audience used to uncontested victories was skewered by the anomie exploding around them. Gerrard immediately withdrew Coutinho for defensive midfielder Marvelous Nakamba, as convention suggests when you have a lead. It looked like Gerrard had the game in his pocket, the former Liverpool deity doing his bit for the club he served so brilliantly without ever winning the league. An idea that always felt like mawkish indulgence, that Gerrard might somehow inflict a blow on City in the service of his old team, was incredibly playing out.

Lining up alongside this thought was the wild notion that Guardiola theory might be exhausting itself, the Pep force-field gradually draining of strength. Maybe it is and the narrow margin of victory was a sign that Guardiola will have to evolve to keep Liverpool, a team that might yet finish with three trophies, at bay next season.

Amidst all this drama there was a moment of poignancy that in a week of violent pitch incursions reminded us that the vast majority of supporters really do know how to behave. When the second hand struck 22 minutes the crowd stood as one and clapped in honour of those killed at the Manchester Arena bombing five years ago. These things always matter.

Man City vs Aston Villa player ratings

Man City: Ederson 7, Stones 6, Fernandinho 5 (Zinchenko 7), Laporte 6, Joao Cancelo 6, De Bruyne 7, Rodri 7, Bernardo Silva 6 (Gundogan 9), Mahrez 6 (Sterling 5), Gabriel Jesus 7, Foden 7. Subs: Walker, Ake, Sterling, Gundogan, Grealish, Zinchenko, Carson, Palmer, McAtee.

Aston Villa: Olsen 6, Cash 7, Chambers 6, Mings 7, Digne 6, McGinn 7, Douglas Luiz 7, Ramsey 6, Buendia 6(Young 5), Coutinho 8 (Nakamba 5), Watkins 6. Subs: Sanson, Traore, Young, Nakamba, Ings, Chukwuemeka, Sinisalo, Chrisene, Iroegbunam.

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