Sunday, May 20, 2012

MIKE JACOBS COLUMN/Manchester City title highlights special EPL season

Courtesy of the Evansville Courier Press, May 20, 2012

As we come off perhaps the most exciting weekend in the history of the English Premier League a week ago, we need to look back on the Cinderella story and tremendous ascension of Manchester City.

Professional soccer – and specifically the EPL - continues to rise in popularity here in the United States, and the drama last weekend only added to that. Manchester City and Manchester United were tied on points heading into their final games, and with the tie breaker (goal differential) going to City, it meant the results from their games in the final weekend would ultimately determine the EPL champions. Both games being played at exactly the same time would add to this virtual game of Russian Roulette.
Paul Kennedy of Soccer America reported that a total of 1,348,000 viewers tuned in for the U.S. television coverage of the final day of the English Premier League season, a jump of 72 percent over 2011 final day viewing. The audience climbed to 987,000 on ESPN2 for the final 15 minutes, when City came back from 2-1 down to score twice in the final five minutes and finish ahead of Manchester United on goal difference for its first title in 44 years.

Regarded as ‘the noisy neighbors’, by United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, City was able to position themselves as not only worth champions for this 2011-12 season, but as potential long-term rivals for years to come.

Manchester City’s rise to English Premier League supremacy this year, as well as their potential to maintain hold on that pole position, came down to several keys-

Spending spree – In 2008, Manchester City were bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group, which enabled the club the ability to spend millions of pounds on top class players. Since the arrival of new ownership, City has been able to add the likes of dynamic goal scorers in Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko; creative midfielders in Yaya Toure, David Silva and Samir Nasri; and defensive lynchpins in Vincent Kompany, Gareth Barry and Joleon Lescott.

Success soon followed. In 2011, Manchester City qualified for the European Champions League and won the FA Cup, and went on to eventually win the Premier League this season.

Managing egos – when this kind of spending goes on, the expectations are naturally going to rise. After a record amount of money spent during the 2008-09 season saw City unable to rise to higher than 10th place, notice was served to manager Mark Hughes. After spending over 100 million pounds that off-season and a slow start to the 2009-10 season, a coaching change was made with Hughes being replaced by Roberto Mancini. The Italian had a reputation for building clubs in Italy by taking Inter Milan to three consecutive league titles, and was able to lead City to 5th place (2009-10) and 3rd place (2010-11) finishes before winning the title this season.

Leading a star-studded cast is a more difficult job than it seems. As often as basketball coach Phil Jackson has been discredited by some for having the opportunity to coach the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant throughout his career, he receives twice as many plaudits for being able to develop a level of buy-in from players with large pedigrees and potential large egos.

Mancini did a great job of finding the right combination of players to mesh together throughout the season. Despite the temporary exodus of Tevez and the magnified disciplinary challenges that went along with the volatile Balotelli, Mancini was able to integrate this star-studded cast into a cohesive unit that appeared to buy into the idea of being a part of something bigger than themselves. He deserves a lot of credit for being able to mold this group into champions.

Manchester derby – a ‘derby’ is a match-up of two teams in relative proximity to each other, and no derby has been more contested over the past two seasons as the Manchester derby. City served notice by knocking out United in the FA Cup semifinals in 2011 en route to their FA Cup title, and defeating them twice in head to head matchups during the 2011-12 season signaled a changing of the guard in the north of England. City’s 6-1 victory over United this season at United’s home stadium, Old Trafford, was the worst defeat United had taken since 1955.

Manchester City’s 2011-12 English Premier League title served notice that they are deserving champions, and perhaps has the potential to sustain long-term success as well.

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