Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Thanks For The Miracle

TigerBlog still hasn't figured out what his favorite English Premier League team is, even after all the time he's spent watching the league recently. He does know that he can't root for Manchester United or Chelsea, just because they win it every year. 

In fact, he usually is a fan of the three new teams each year, to see if they can avoid being one-and-done, as it were, in the EPL.

TB thought the end of the 2011 EPL season was wild, and yet it had almost nothing on the end of the 2012 season. This is extraordinary considering that there is no EPL postseason, especially when contrasted with the current NBA and NHL playoffs.

TB was going to talk about the EPL's final hours for 2012, except he decided to let men's soccer coach Jim Barlow do it instead. TB has a standing offer to all Princeton coaches to write guest TB's, yet only Barlow has ever taken him up on it.

Here, then, are Jim Barlow's thoughts:

One of my favorite soccer books is called /Soccer in Sun and Shadow /by  Eduardo Galeano.  In it he writes:

"Years have gone by and I've finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer.  I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: 'A pretty move, for the love of God.'  And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."

On Sunday I witnessed one of those miracles.

While Mother's Day was jam-packed with great sporting events (Princeton vs UVA in men's lacrosse, the TPC Final Round, Game 7 of the Clippers vs Grizzlies, the Mets' ninth-inning meldtown vs the Marlins, the Red Bulls come from behind 3-2 win against the Philadelphia Union, just to name a
few), it was the Manchester City vs. Queens Park Rangers game in the English Premier League that may go down as the single greatest ending to a professional sports season of all time.

If you saw the game, no explanation is necessary.  If you didn't, no description may suffice.

But let me try.

Manchester City and Manchester United entered the final weekend of the EPL season tied for first place with the same record (27-5-5), but City held a significant advantage in goal difference, the first tiebreaker.

While both clubs possess huge payrolls and rosters filled with some of the world's best players, City had not won the English Premier League championship since its inception in 1992 (their last league title was in 1967-68).

United, on the other hand, not only dominated the city's  rivalry but also won an amazing 12 EPL titles since 1992.  Legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (who visited Princeton two years ago) saw his team's hopes for the title all but destroyed when City won the Manchester derby 1-0 with just two weeks to go, but he did not concede that the title was lost, and his sound bites may have been intended to put additional pressure on his neighbors:

"If you had told me at the start of the season we would still be involved on the last day I would have settled for that, no question," Ferguson said to "The Guardian" web page. "But in the situation we are in you would have to say the odds are stacked against us."

City's usually stoic Italian manager Roberto Mancini remained optimistic after an impressive 2-0 win at Newcastle on the penultimate weekend: "We have two fingers on the trophy. But it is not enough, because we still have one more game and it is a difficult one," he told ESPN.

On Sunday, City, with the EPL's best home record (17-0-1), hosted Queens Park Rangers, who sat in 17th place (out of 20 teams) and owners of the EPL's worst road record (3-14-2). But QPR also had something to play for.

In England, the bottom three teams are relegated to a lower division, costing their club millions of dollars and forcing them to dump much of their payroll (their spots are filled by three teams who are "promoted" from the second (called Championship) division (can you imagine that in the NBA, NFL, or MLB??). A QPR win or tie would not only keep them in the Premiership but also give United, playing away at Sunderland, the chance to win the title. A City win and the title was theirs.

With all EPL games on the final day (dubbed "Survival Sunday") starting at the same time, the stage was set for an incredible finish.

And what a finish it was.

United got off to a good start and was taking care of business at Sunderland, going ahead 1-0 on a first-half Wayne Rooney goal.

City also started quickly, and led 1-0 at the half while completely dominating in possession and chances. At halftime, despite City losing their star midfielder Yaya Toure to injury, I was so sure the title was City's that I went to walk a friend's dog and didn't make it back to my television until 10 minutes into the second half.

I missed a lot.

QPR had tied the game early in the 2nd half on Djibril Cisse's counter, and then QPR captain Joey Barton, who earlier in his career made over 150 appearances for City, was red carded for an elbow to City striker Carlos Tevez's face.

Incredibly, playing a man down, in the 66th minute , QPR went ahead 2-1 on another counter finished beautifully by Jamie Mackie. Very quickly, fear and shock set into City's Etihad Stadium.

Man City fans were in tears. Forty-plus years without a title and now it was going to slip away at home on the final day. Could they endure another year of watching their neighbors hoist the trophy? QPR fans shed tears of joy as the squad looked destined to avoid relegation. The usually emotionless Mancini was going crazy on the City sideline, gesticulating wildly at his players and yelling as if his life (or at least his job) depended on the next 20 minutes.

The stubborn QPR defense, despite being outshot 44 to 3, held on tight. The 90th minute came and the score remained QPR 2; Man City 1. The fourth official indicated that there would be 5 minutes of injury time.

At about this time, the final whistle blew in Sunderland and United won 1-0. Players, coaches, and fans looked at the scoreboard and began celebrating their 13th EPL title in 20 years. With City down 2-1 this late in the game, surely the trophy was theirs.

But, in a moment, everything changed.

In the 92nd minute, on their 19th corner kick, City leveled the score when Edin Dzeko rose above the QPR defense and headed home David Silva's cross. They had tied it. I pulled my chair about two feet from the television and yelled "they
still have two minutes."

A minute after Dzeko's equaliser, City burst into the QPR box, and Mario Balotelli, a contoversial, tempermental substitute who had fallen out of favor with Mancini many times during the season, collected a pass from Sergio Aguero in the box, slid to
control it and send it back to Aguero, and watched as the Argentinian star pushed it past a defender and drilled it past the oncoming QPR keeper. It was bedlam. And, while QPR fans began to face the reality that they were being relegated, word spread that Bolton (the team behind them in the standings) had conceded a late goal to keep QPR safe in 17th place.

Everyone at the Etihad was happy. The stadium went from despair to  ecstasy in two seconds. When the final whistle blew seconds later, the fans mobbed the field. City were finally champions. Pictures from the Stadium of Light in Sunderland showed an incredulous United team, having gone from joy to sorry as word spread that City had done the impossible.

"They did it. They did it." I could not stop screaming these words so loud that I scared the neighbors, and I'm not even a City fan. I had witnessed a miracle, and I didn't give a damn which team performed it.

The best thing about these events was that all of these games were shown in the USA on national television. Ten years ago, we only would have been able to read about these games. Now, these games are making converts of former soccer bashers.

Including TigerBlog. When I first met TB, he would have known as much about the EPL as I know about rocket science. Now, you can't bother him on a Sunday night when he's watching the EPL Review Show on Fox Soccer Channel. And, it would have been TB writing this blog had he not been in Charlottesville on Sunday.

As we have been creating more beggars for good soccer, there may be some taking place on Myslik Field today (16th), Friday (18th), and Monday (21st) from 4-6:30 as the USA Women's National Team has chosen to prepare for the Olympics at Roberts Stadium. These three sessions are free and open to the public.

Hopefully in a couple of months in London, we will see them performing miracles the likes of Manchester City's on Sunday.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Callan said...

Great article Jim ... I loved Galeano's book too. -- Jeff