MANCHESTER: Locked out of their stadium for a year due to the pandemic, Manchester City fans couldn’t resist gathering outside, waiting for the moment they’d be crowned champions for the third time in four seasons.
It was a result not inside the Etihad Stadium but a few miles across Manchester at their fiercest rivals and nearest Premier League challengers that confirmed the title was reclaimed on Tuesday.
Manchester United losing 2-1 to Leicester City left City with an unassailable 10-point lead with three games remaining. Whereas United started the century dominating English football, now City are the force with five titles in 10 seasons and the biggest spenders on transfers and salaries.
While United fans gather outside Old Trafford in protest, at City they come to celebrate the 13 years of investment from Abu Dhabi that has transformed the fortunes of a club that was playing in the third tier until 1999 and won two English titles in the previous century in 1937 and 1968.
Within minutes of the final whistle blowing at Old Trafford after Caglar Soyuncu’s 66th-minute header sealed the Leicester win that ended United’s hopes of catching City a Champions banner was unfurled over the entrance to the Etihad.
Soon, fans were setting off blue flares and parading small replica Premier League trophies. They will finally be allowed back into the stadium up to 10,000 of them to see City collect the real trophy after the final game of the Premier League season against Everton on May 23.
But it’s not the first trophy they have seen City lift this season, with a fourth successive League Cup won in front of around 2,000 spectators at Wembley last month. And they could yet be allowed to witness, likely in Portugal, the team contesting their first Champions League final against Chelsea on May 29 when a treble could be completed.
“We have missed the fans so much,” City captain Fernandinho said. We wanted to do this for them. “We will enjoy this moment and we hope the fans do too. Rest assured we will continue to do everything we can to bring the Champions League home this season.”
City missed a chance to celebrate on the pitch at the weekend, after Pep Guardiola’s side suffered a 2-1 home defeat by Chelsea on Saturday with United keeping them waiting by winning at Aston Villa.
But two days later they were able to savour a title triumph that is all the sweeter given the obstacles they have overcome in a coronavirus-condensed campaign played mostly without fans.
It is Guardiola’s third Premier League title for City in his five seasons in charge and eighth domestic honour for the club.
This has been a season and a Premier League title like no other,” said Guardiola on the club website. This was the hardest one. We will always remember this season for the way we won. I am so proud to be the manager here and of this group of players. To come through this season, with all the restrictions and difficulties we’ve faced — and show the consistency we have is remarkable. It is relentless.”
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer praised his side for“pushing” City into the final fortnight of the season, even though they were never serious challengers.
We have pushed Manchester City all the way, until 10-12 days left in the season and it is a very good achievement because they are a very good team,” Solskjaer said.
They are very worthy champions. I have to say congratulations because they have played some fantastic stuff this season.”
Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers said City were deserved champions.
“They are the benchmark. They have been outstanding. Brilliant players. Incredible manager and they thoroughly deserve the title. Congratulations to Pep and his team.”
Leicester ignited their bid to qualify for next season’s Champions League with the victory as Rodgers’ side moved above Chelsea into third on 66 points with two games remaining — eight ahead of fifth placed West Ham United who have a game in hand.
United needed to avoid defeat at Old Trafford to delay City’s title celebrations for at least two more days, but Solskjaer’s decision to field a weakened lineup amid a congested fixture schedule proved costly as a thumping header from Soyuncu gave Leicester all three points after Mason Greenwood had cancelled out Luke Thomas’s opener for the visitors.
It was a huge step (towards the Champions League). I am so proud of the team,” said Rodgers, whose side face Chelsea in the FA Cup final on Saturday. The players have definitely overachieved with all the big teams around. Now we can really enjoy the final at the weekend.”
As rain lashed down upon Old Trafford, Leicester took a 10th-minute lead thanks to a superb finish from Thomas, who volleyed a centre from Youri Tielemans back across goal and into the top right-hand corner.
United, however, drew level through Greenwood’s low shot before Soyuncu rose above Nemanja Matic to head powerfully into the root of the net from a corner.
In the other Premier League match on Tuesday, Danny Ings scored twice on his return from injury to help Southampton bounce back from conceding an early goal and beat Crystal Palace 3-1 at St Mary’s.
Free from the threat of relegation after Fulham became the third and final team to get relegated on Monday, Southampton claimed just their third win in four months to climb up to 14th place in the table on 40 points, one behind 13th-placed Palace.
Christian Benteke gave Palace the lead after just two minutes but Ings, fit after two games out with a hamstring problem, equalised in the 19th.
Palace captain Luka Milivojevic had a penalty saved by Fraser Forster in the 41st after Wilfried Zaha was fouled and three minutes after the break the Saints were ahead when the sliding Che Adams scored at the far post.
Ings, the Saints’ top-scorer, was about to be substituted when he sealed victory in the 75th minute by latching onto Adams’ pass and poking the ball past onrushing Eagles’ keeper Vicente Guaita.
Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2021