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May 13, 2012

The greatest escape

Some people were on the pitch. They thought it was all over. But they didn't include Edin Dzeko. They didn't include Sergio Aguero. They didn't include the Manchester City side who staged the latest, greatest feat of escapology a title-winning team has ever performed.

After 38 games and 3420 minutes of their season, they were 2-1 down to QPR, three points behind Manchester United and set to be labelled chokers. Cue Mancini Time, the Italian equivalent of Fergie Time. It was when City, those experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of triumph, went from despair to delight in a nod of Dzeko's head and a strike of Aguero's boot. And, as the United players waiting to celebrate on the Stadium of Light pitch discovered, it was all over.

As United were deposed, Arsenal were displaced. Until now, George Graham's class of 1989 were the champions of late drama. Not now. Aguero provided the Michael Thomas moment, but two minutes later. It was the 92nd minute when the Arsenal midfielder delivered the decisive second at Anfield 23 years ago, the 94th when the Argentine forward drove in the decisive goal. It was City's 44th attempt on goal, ending 44 years of hurt. Bedlam broke out at the Etihad Stadium, a bouncing, beaming Brian Kidd leaping into Roberto Mancini's arms, an electric, elusive Aguero setting off on a sprinter's celebration, before being buried under his jubilant, tearful colleagues, the noisiest of neighbours making an almighty din.

For the first time since 1968, they are officially England's top team. The big screen displayed a ticker, a reminder of Old Trafford's famous banner, counting down the years, from 44 to zero, as an agonising wait was ended improbably. "It was the crazy finale to a crazy season," Mancini said. His men had seemed to be losing the battle, with QPR, with United, with their tragicomic history, until added time. Then, as Vincent Kompany said: "There are no words to explain what happened."

In the cold light of day, they managed to make a supposedly simple task fiendishly difficult. Having already won 86 points, having beaten United twice, having passed the test of nerve at Newcastle, facing relegation-threatened QPR, especially when reduced to 10 men, should have been more of a coronation than an examination.

With City anxious and Rangers defiant, the underdogs threatened the improbable. Pablo Zabaleta gave City the lead but Rangers rallied, Djibril Cisse latching on to Joleon Lescott's poor header to drill a shot past Joe Hart. Then, on a day of homecomings, Joey Barton illustrated why he was once the black sheep in the City flock. After elbowing Carlos Tevez, he kicked out at Aguero and tried to head-butt Kompany. The red card was brandished for the first offence, not the ensuing, unpleasant meltdown.

Yet his stupidity galvanised his team-mates. This seemed QPR's version of Chelsea's night at the Camp Nou: 10 heroes holding out despite the actions of a violent idiot. They even took the lead, Armand Traore sprinting 50 yards to centre for Jamie Mackie to head in. A blanket defence then worked wonders. If Kenny was culpable for the opening goal he redeemed himself with save after save, denying Tevez and Aguero, Dzeko and Mario Balotelli. Others were willing helpers, blocking and tackling, united and inspired for their cause.

"I am immensely proud of the players," Rangers manager Mark Hughes added. "If we had pulled it off and won, I think it would have been the greatest Premier League performance in history, given the circumstances."

Instead, it was one of the great comebacks. Money can purchase players, but it does not buy the spirit City have showed. "Big character," Mancini said, and it was a sizeable figure who restored parity, Dzeko heading in David Silva's corner. Then the eccentric and the excellent combined, Balotelli setting up Aguero to steer his shot past Kenny. The Etihad Stadium erupted. "A moment like this?" Mancini said, reflecting on his long career. "Never." His captain was similarly stunned. "I have to be careful what I say but it was one of the best moments of my life together with the birth of my child and my wedding," Kompany added.

With a nod to history, the Belgian added: "Miracles do happen in Manchester but on this side of the road this time." City have taken United's title and pilfered their identity. For the Camp Nou in 1999, read the Etihad in 2012, one of the greatest injury-time turnarounds of them all. In an instant, Dzeko and Aguero became the Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of the Etihad Stadium, earning themselves immortality in half of Manchester. Or perhaps, the modern-day Kevin Horlock and Paul Dickov, those other Mancunian rescue acts from 1999, transforming misery into ecstasy at a time when the misguided minority had headed for the exits.

When others left their seats, it was for the turf. Thousands were on the pitch, it was all over and the blue ribbons were being attached to the trophy. Manchester City are an inimitable club and, in unique fashion, they had won the league.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Sergio Aguero - If only for a finish of unerring accuracy at the death. The finest finisher at the club delivered when it mattered most. On a landmark day for City, Aguero reached a milestone of his own, bringing up 30 goals in his debut year in England.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: They got their reward for persistence even if, at times, they were below par. They missed Yaya Toure after he limped off, having set up Zabaleta's goal, but, as he has done in recent weeks, Mancini made more telling substitutions to alter the game. Over the course of the year, they have been deserving champions, scoring the most goals, conceding the fewest and beating United twice. In Hart, Kompany, Toure, Silva and Aguero they have a core of outstanding performers, back up by some unsung heroes, with Zabaleta is a case in point. Mancini was pleased Balotelli supplied the assist for Aguero's winner. Rather than costing them the title, as some suggested, the maverick helped win it.

QPR VERDICT: If QPR vowed to go down fighting, Barton interpreted it the wrong way, providing final and definitive proof that a thug has not changed. He owes a debt to the Stoke players who held Bolton and his QPR team-mates who, while playing a flat back nine for much of the match, battled valiantly. Men like Mackie and Clint Hill can be proud of their contributions. Survival, Hughes said: "Is a huge achievement. This club will never be in the situation again when I am at it."

HUGHES' VERDICT: The QPR manager feels he was unfairly dismissed by City but he was magnanimous towards the title winners. Six of his signings featured for Mancini but the Welshman said: "It's nothing to do with me. The credit is totally theirs."

• Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter @RichJolly

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