Football Features

“These guys, we are legends” – Pep’s super subs save the day and win Manchester City the Premier League title

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 19:35, 22 May 2022

Manchester City roared back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 and sensationally claim the Premier League title on the final day.

A decade on from the famous 3-2 win over QPR, City reproduced those heart-stopping heroics in the Manchester sunshine. In a performance that will go down in City history, both for good and bad reasons, City showed their bottle to win their fourth Premier League title in the Pep Guardiola era and their 8th overall, moving ahead of Villa into fifth place in the all-time leaderboard.

The first-half went about as badly as it could have for City, as they looked lethargic and nervous. They out-shot Villa 9-3 but in terms of shots on target it was even at 1-1 and Villa put their solitary shot on target into the back of the net.

City looked so sluggish and to make matters worse they were missing what few chances they could create, and their only saving grace was that Wolves were holding Liverpool to a draw at Anfield, but that was a situation that could never last (and sure enough, Liverpool ended up winning 3-1 after late goals from Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson).

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At half-time, the hideously underperforming Fernandinho was subbed off for Oleksandr Zinchenko. The Brazilian was playing his last game for City and you can see why they’re happy for the veteran to leave the club.

Zinchenko moved to left-back and instantly began adding some cut and thrust to City’s play, dicing up the Villa back-line including goalscorer Matty Cash. The Ukrainian completed 3/3 take-ons and created two chances, including an assist.

But Zinchenko alone wasn’t enough. Too many of City’s starters weren’t at it, weren’t showing their true levels. Chief among them was Riyad Mahrez, and he was next to be removed, replaced by Raheem Sterling.

12 minutes later and there had been no change, so on came Ilkay Gundogan for Bernardo Silva. Pep Guardiola had made all three of his substitutions and now his players had to do the business. Had to turn it around.

But the night is always darkest before the dawn, and a minute after Gundogan walked into the pitch Coutinho scored a stunning strike to make it 0-2 to Manchester City. The size of the task facing City looked too big now, and though Liverpool were drawing it felt for all the world like a Reds winner was coming and that City would have thrown it away in spectacular fashion.

But Pep’s men understood the rhythm of the game, and in Gundogan they had a player who is capable of scoring in burst and, according to Guardiola post-match, “Ilkay is the best runner to second position that we have.”

And so when Raheem Sterling curled in a beauty of a cross to the back-post, it was no surprise that Gundogan was the one who showed up to head it home. A towering header that new City signing Erling Haaland would have been proud of.

With 15 minutes to go, City had momentum. Then a couple of minutes later Oleksandr Zinchenko went on a supremely determined run down the left as he had been doing since his introduction before cutting it back for Rodri.

The league’s best defensive midfielder stepped into the ball and quite simply passed it into the back of the net from 20 yards. Every Villa body was bracing for a blast and Rodri just casually slapped it in, deceiving everyone and drawing City level!

Villa were reeling, and without Coutinho (who went off with the score at 0-2) they had no one to rouse them. And so three minutes after Rodri’s goal Kevin De Bruyne burst to life, driving into the box on the right half-space and guided a gorgeous low cross across the face of goal and who should show up at the back-post again with another Haaland-esque finish? Ilkay Gundogan.

If anyone wondered the value of adding Erling Haaland to this Manchester City side, just look at the goals Gundogan scored today. Now, the German won’t do that regularly because he’s a midfielder, but Haaland absolutely can score those kind of goals every single week and it’s going to add such a new dimension of potency to the way City will play next season.

After the match, Kevin De Bruyne summed it up: “Gundogan and Zinchenko for me changed the game today,” while Pep Guardiola was a bit more abstract: “These guys, we are legends,” said the Catalan, giving all the glory to his players rather than take any for himself. “We win in this country, it’s because these guys are so, so special.”

Guardiola also had a huge word of admiration for Liverpool, who have now posted two 90+ point totals only to finish as runners-up behind Guardiola’s City. “I never seen a team like Liverpool,” said the Catalan. “Congratulations, they help us to be a better team season by season.”

The Catalan coach ended the interview with a couple of words of warning for their rivals. “In one year we will defend our crown again and again,” said the Catalan, ending with a reference to his match-winning subs from today. “next season it’s five substitutions, and you will see how serious I am.”