What a wonderful game football can be. Although too little time may have passed for Spurs fans to appreciate it, the final four minutes of stoppage time added on to an already absorbing encounter between league leaders Manchester City and genuine contenders Tottenham was a microcosm of everything which should be cherished about the game.
It is a credit to both Mancini and Harry Redknapp that their sides are eternal optimists. Their ruthless attacking instincts implored them forwards in search of that definitive winner and continued to coax some of the finest football seen this season out of both teams right to the final whistle. With seconds to spare, Tottenham’s chance came. Stefan Savic, an error-strewn liability at the heart of the City defence, dithered. His woefully short pass was seized upon and with summary sharpness, Gareth Bale was sent clear.
Time seemed to slow as the significance of the attack dawned. Joleon Lescott attempted manfully to keep stride with the Welshman, whose wonderful curler had levelled the scores. His efforts were as futile as trying to pursue an argument on an internet messageboard. Joe Hart could only watch in horror, a spectator as Bale’s cross slid tantalisingly across goal to the far post. Haring to meet it was Jermain Defoe; his predatory instincts already evidenced in latching onto Savic’s dreadful error to put his side back in contention. Straining every sinew in his body he stretched to make contact. A collective intake of breath across the country. Wide.
Off the racks, City unleashed one last ferocious attack of their own. The relief of the near miss overwhelming, the noise inside the Etihad Stadium propelled Mancini’s men forward. Suddenly it is Tottenham who are reeling from the enormity of Defoe’s miss. A miscalculation in defence and a lucky ricochet finds Mario Balotelli haring towards goal. Ledley King is alert, but not alert enough. He reacts, but too late. His challenge is desperate. Strong as a bison Balotelli holds him off as the two enter the penalty area. Nudging past the 18-yard line, King makes contact. Penalty.
Hot-headed, impulsive and irrational, a stamp on Scott Parker has already landed Balotelli in controversy. Amidst the furore, heads are lost, emotions are running. Surely the Italian is the last possible candidate to take the decisive kick. Wrong. How imperious his shot was. Showing none of the emotional strain of his 21 contemporaries, he simply strolled up, feinted and rolled the ball into the corner. As nonchalant as that: a swaggering finish to a breathtaking game.
Such a thrilling climax will surely convince City of their endurance, their mental capacity to take the Premier League title. That it could all have been so different is inconsequential for fate, luck and attack-mindedness conspired to hand them victory over a truly worthy adversary. Perhaps only for the sake of Mancini’s heart palpitations on the touchline could a more thrilling climax have been wished for.
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