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May 10, 2011

Crouch gaffe propels City to glory

When history repeated itself for Tottenham Hotspur, the first time concluded gloriously and the second contained a farcical finish. For Manchester City, delight followed disappointment. This was the sequel with the same protagonist but a very different ending.

The Premier League's equivalent of the Champions League play-off is sending the Blue Moon to join the stars next season. As a smiling Roberto Mancini made his way around the Eastlands turf to hug his players, it seemed a seismic achievement for a success-starved club.

Certainly the Italian felt so. "I am happy, because it was the first of our targets and I say congratulations to the players," he said. "I think we deserve [the] Champions League because we were between first and fourth position all season."

It was, however, somehow symbolic that the touch that cemented their top-four status came from an opponent's boot. City's progress has been earned by their own consistency but eased by the failings of others, whether Liverpool's woeful performances under Roy Hodgson or Spurs' stumbles against lesser sides.

A man who has represented both competing clubs was City's match-winner. In the process, Peter Crouch came full circle. At the same end, in an almost identical position and with, in one respect, the same result, he had scored Tottenham's winner against City to clinch fourth place 12 months earlier. Inverting his past, he prodded a James Milner cross past his own goalkeeper in Carlo Cudicini.

Redknapp spent much of the season lamenting his strikers' inability to score; this, however, was not what he had in mind. Crouch's comparatively barren season has brought four league goals for Tottenham and now one for City, the most meaningful of their recent history.

Not since a brief and ill-fated venture into the European Cup in 1968-69 have City sat at the continent's top table. Now, assuming they can win a play-off that would send them into the group stages, they are where they want to be. The Europa League has given City "the Poznan" dance but precious little else. If Spurs' example is anything to go by, the Champions League should provide some indelible memories. "The sky is the limit for them," Harry Redknapp said. "It depends how much they spend."

The change in the balance of power between the two clubs that may have been ushered in on a torrent of oil money, but hindsight tends to confer an inevitability to such progressions. On a nervy evening at Eastlands, there was no such certainty.

Until William Gallas headed a Patrick Vieira chip off the line and Cudicini saved Carlos Tevez's injury-time shot, the Tottenham goal had remained almost untroubled. An evening of progressively worse shooting from Edin Dzeko began with an effort that drew a fine save from Cudicini and concluded with one that would have cleared four goals, stacked upon each other.

Even when ravaged by injury, Spurs were the neater in possession and the more progressive side for long periods. A clinical counter-attack should have brought them an opening goal, Luka Modric steering a shot narrowly wide after being found by Aaron Lennon. The winger was the supplier, too, when Steven Pienaar's header drew a terrific save from Joe Hart. "We've played well, just not been able to finish teams off," Redknapp added.

If there was little emphatic about City's victory, it was nevertheless typical. This was a match to sum up their season: not thrilling, but they rarely have been; David Silva excelled, as he invariably does; the defending was reliable, as it often is; and City prevailed, as they usually do at Eastlands.

Now they enter the elite cartel. "It's difficult to get in the top four," Redknapp added, as his own membership was revoked. "Man United are never going to drop out, so there's three places. Chelsea are never going to drop out, so there's two places. Arsenal have never dropped out, so there's one place. Man City have got billions to spend, Liverpool are a top team." Redknapp's response to dropping down was flippant. "I'm going to commit suicide," he said. "It's been a great season." In Europe, yes; in the league, it is inferior to last year.

City's, meanwhile, has an altogether happier ending. The last time a Spurs player scored an own goal of such significance, to decide the 1987 FA Cup final, the winning Coventry fans duly named a fanzine "Gary Mabbutt's Knee". Perhaps Crouch's left boot will assume a similar place in City folklore. At the very least, they could unveil a banner alongside the tribute to their munificent owner: Manchester thanks you, Peter Crouch.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Luka Modric - It is easy to see why the Croatian has earned so many rave reviews for his passing this season. While he should have scored a couple of minutes before Crouch's own goal, he showed a glorious accuracy in possession.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: The men who have formed the backbone of the side all season - Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong and Silva - produced again when it mattered most. On the night, however, it was hard to argue with Redknapp's verdict. "I wouldn't say they were any better than us," the Spurs manager argued.

TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Redknapp felt that the ill-timed injuries to Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart in the second half of the season cost Spurs their chance. The inability of his specialist strikers to contribute more goals is another cause. If it was hard to credit the manager's statement that he does not know how much money he has to spend in the summer, more realistic was his assertion that his budget may depend on how many of his fringe players he can move on.

TEVEZ BACK: The City captain's seven-minute cameo was his first appearance for 29 days and gives him a chance of starting the FA Cup final.

STOKED UP: Tony Pulis was at Eastlands on a scouting trip ahead of Saturday's FA Cup final, but his visit had an added benefit: City's top-four finish means Stoke will enter the Europa League, regardless of the result at Wembley.

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