Queens Park Rangers may forever conjure good memories for Manchester City. The sun-drenched May afternoon when all Blue dreams were realised in a moment of footballing nirvana will linger longer than this January squall. A forgettable night could be key to a failure to defend their title. United have the whip hand now.
Harry Redknapp's Rangers fought for every ball, conceding possession but never defeat. The lack of direction so apparent under Mark Hughes is gone. They now play a grim-faced game, embodied by hardened pros like Shaun Derry in midfield, Ryan Nelsen and Clint Hill in defence. An import from Hughes' summer of transfer shame played his part too. Julio Cesar was superlative in goal. On the occasions when his defence was breached, the Brazilian defied City's multi-millionaires with saves that defied the elemental conditions.
Though still bottom, Rangers perhaps have a better chance of staying up than City of winning the league. With their dissident striker on a private plane to Milan, there was no Mario Balotelli to play in Sergio Aguero for a City winner. The champions lacked an x-factor to pull apart Redknapp's dogs of war. Edin Dzeko proved no super-sub either. Once Cesar had defied them, City's best hope of a winner was a penalty claim for a Nedum Onuoha tackle on sub Scott Sinclair. It was not given, since the former City man had won the ball, and its award would have been rough on Rangers.
With Aston Villa, Reading, Wigan and Norwich all struggling, Redknapp might just pull this off. He just needs some attacking options. "We could get three or four; we could get none" was his summary of projected transfer business. Before Redknapp could resume his participation in the 'gang warfare' of the transfer window, he needed to raise spirits after FA Cup embarrassment at the hands of MK Dons. The master motivator pulled a rabbit from the hat with a team performance that embodied spirit and belief.
Manchester City began their post-Balotelli era with some sorrow, according to Roberto Mancini, who expects a player described "like another of my children" to be a Milan player by Thursday.
"They are very close and we are also so sad because Mario was an important player for us," Mancini said. "But for him it is an important chance to go back to Italy. Mario wanted this."
City's manager was similarly downcast about the result. "We are disappointed for this," he said. "We had a lot of chances to win. We lost two points. I think we can say nothing. We played well and didn't score."
Redknapp reflected: "We defended fantastic all over the park. It's another big point for us. Everybody worked and did their jobs."
Rangers continued their habit of playing their best against the Premier League's best, to follow a hard-fought draw against Tottenham Hotspur and a win at Chelsea. Owner Tony Fernandes may be sleeping easier than he says he has of late.
In contrast to their goodbye to Balotelli, City's time without injured Vincent Kompany is less final but Mancini chose to address that hole in his team by almost not replacing his captain at all, instead playing Javi Garcia as an old-style libero, with Joleon Lescott the sole centre-back. With only Loic Remy for company, Lescott and Garcia could have played much of the game in their overcoats while Rangers defended in deep numbers.
City's first sign of danger was Sergio Aguero cutting in from his left to force a corner. Cesar was less than imperious under swirling wind from David Silva's kick and Lescott's shot was over the bar when he had time and space with which to score.
The pressure increased as Tevez and Milner's link play found Nelsen having to step in and Cesar again having to make a save. City were building pressure and Remy looked lonesome. Aguero's shimmy bought Silva space. His cross found Zabaleta, whose header was a fraction high and cannoned off the bar. Garcia even tried his luck from 40 yards after strolling forward unopposed.
Rangers' gameplan needed adjusting. Onuoha was a figurative right-back but wandered inside frequently. Ahead of him, Fabio was playing as some kind of auxiliary wing-half, yet Silva and Aguero were enjoying the freedom of the Rangers flanks. A switch to 5-3-2 from Redknapp later and Rangers suddenly looked capable of containing danger.
Cesar then began to show off his considerable shot-stopping skills. Tevez curled a Barry pass goalward but the Brazilian pulled off the spectacular. All hailed Cesar. They would do so again and again, and especially when in the second half he saved from Silva. City had created the chance they thought would claim victory but Cesar, unsighted by a pile of bodies, clawed the ball to safety. Some City fans were already celebrating.
"It was a difficult night for the 'keeper, windy," an admiring Redknapp said. "He's an amazing 'keeper."
Rangers held on grimly, making tackle after tackle, block after block, with Nelsen and Hill throwing themselves in front of every ball as a chorus of "Harry Redknapp's blue-and-white army" showed that faith has not deserted supporters. Neither did humour. Joe Hart's move into dandruff shampoo advertising and dry scalp was roundly mocked, to the tune of Sloop John B, naturally. "We let you win the league" was another refrain. That May day was one of redemption from relegation for them, of course. There may yet be another afternoon of such celebration.
Nelsen, Toronto-bound for a new career as a coach, left the field to a guard of honour from his fellow players, punching the air in delight after one last defensive effort succeeded. Rangers may miss him more than City lament Balotelli.
"He'll be missed, massively, he's been fantastic. He's an absolutely unbelievable player in my opinion. I'm just sorry to lose him."
The words were Redknapp's for his departing hero, but Mancini showed his own melancholy too. Goodbye, Ryan. Arrivederci, Mario.