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May 12, 2014

City seize on rivals' slips

The FC crew take a look back at Manchester City's route to winning the Premier League title.


MANCHESTER -- The streets of Manchester were filled with noise on Sunday night. City fans belted out songs of praise for, variously, Manuel Pellegrini, Pablo Zabaleta and, loudest of all, Steven Gerrard. In English football, schadenfreude is always a rich vein to be mined.

Jolly: Pellegrini leads City to glory

At Piccadilly Station, a defiant group of Liverpool fans were greeted with a song telling the tale of Gerrard's slip and Demba Ba's goal for Chelsea. It remains difficult to jump beyond that moment as the turning point of the season. In the end, City won the Premier League title because, in a season riddled with mistakes and slips, the eventual champions made the fewest.

Making his final appearance on the BBC's "Match of the Day" after 22 years, Alan Hansen, the last Liverpool captain to win an English title, brusquely described Liverpool's season. "This season is a failure," he said. "An absolute failure."

Hansen spoke from the point of view of a serial winner, when Liverpool and the English game are rather different to his heyday, but the bald facts are that the club he still visits missed a target within their range. An 11-game victory run put them within touching distance, but the opportunity was squandered disastrously against Chelsea and Crystal Palace. It is difficult to look beyond naivety in those matches as the architect of that failure.

"We have been on an incredible journey this year -- to finish with 12 wins out of 14, and a draw, is an incredible achievement by the players," Brendan Rodgers said on Sunday, though there was a tangible tinge of sadness to his rational assessment. To go on such a record-breaking run and still miss out suggested Liverpool had already left themselves too much to do. It will take time for the return to the Champions League to dull the pain of such disappointment.

Instead, Pellegrini became a slow-burning success story, appreciated by many only in the hour of victory. His dour and risk-free media appearances have yielded indifference, but now credit is being lavished, and correctly so. The Chilean inherited the strongest squad in the English game, but one that had previously underachieved. The tantrums and rancour of the Roberto Mancini era are forgotten: City played and won as a strong team unit.

Their spine was by far the strongest. City have a strong goalkeeper in a revived Joe Hart, the division's most dominant defender in Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure's maximum torque from midfield, David Silva's creative wizardry, and the best finisher in the English game in Sergio Aguero.

Meanwhile, City's rivals paid the price for malfunctioning departments. Ultimately, it was a permeable defence that cost Liverpool, while Chelsea's inability to beat West Ham, Aston Villa, Palace and Sunderland after the season turned for home owed everything to the lack of a quality striker. Arsenal's unwillingness to buy the striker who could either support or surpass Olivier Giroud was fatal, but then so was much of their defending in punishing away defeats at City, Liverpool and Chelsea.Pellegrini's devotion to attacking play never diminished. "For me it is very important to go for the match from the beginning, it doesn't matter against whom you play," he said at Sunday's news conference, with a winner's medal round his neck. "It is the way the team must play with the quality of players we have."

Beyond the stars of City's spine, he drew fine performances from trusty lieutenants, too. Zabaleta is, with apologies to Seamus Coleman, the best right-back in the league, with an iron will to win. Fernandinho was not cheap at 28 million pounds, but the Brazilian has added a quiet and creative authority to midfield.

Every team has a cult hero. City had theirs in Martin Demichelis. At first he was a disaster waiting to happen, too slow for the English game, too prone to rushes of blood. Yet in the final two months of the season, the Argentine starred. Few managed the incorrigible Luis Suarez as well as Demichelis did at Anfield, and the error count dwindled in the crucial closing matches.

Edin Dzeko has looked his happiest under Pellegrini. The Bosnian scored four goals in run-in games against Everton and Aston Villa, providing a surrogate supply when Aguero kept breaking down. Earlier in the season, Alvaro Negredo fulfilled a similar role, powering to 26 goals, only to lose confidence and form. Dzeko, who has frequently seemed set for the exit door, stepped in expertly and ended up being described by Jose Mourinho as his "player of the year."

"He was the third striker at the beginning of the season and when the team needed him, in crucial moments, he made the difference," Mourinho said on Friday, as ever subtly referring back to himself, and his own problems with strikers.

City made their own slips on the way, starting with the desperate early-season away form that drew just four points from six matches. Eventually, though, a depth of resources, managed carefully, told. While others made fatal errors and fell away, City made little mistake in claiming their second Premier League title.