Belfast Telegraph

Premier League or bust for Manchester United and City

By Tim Rich

The question before kick-off was whether the two Manchester clubs could pick and choose trophies; whether attempting to win the Europa League would distract from their assault on the title.

It was born of the same arrogance that blithely states the Premier League is the best in the world, the arrogance that saw its chairman, Sir Dave Richards, go to Qatar to berate Fifa and Uefa for "stealing" the game from England before falling into a "water feature."

After a night that saw both clubs eliminated by clubs who have no chance of winning the Portuguese or Spanish leagues, it is the championship or nothing.

There are ways to go out. Arsenal's departure from the Champions League, coming within one blocked chip from Robin van Persie of hauling back a four-goal deficit to Milan, was the kind of heroic failure the English adore but it also provided the platform for a domestic revival.

United were as outplayed by Athletic Bilbao as they were by Barcelona in two European Cup finals. City's stunning second-half recovery against Sporting Lisbon, orchestrated by Sergio Aguero, at least carried the flavour of Arsenal against Milan or Chelsea's return from the dead against Napoli.

And yet it was a night that summed up the dichotomy that runs through Manchester City. Facing a club who had lost at Vaslui, CS Maritimo and Vitoria they were insipid in the Jose Alvalade. For 45 minutes they were so jaw-droppingly bad at the Etihad that they restarted the game having to score four times to go through.

That they managed three ensured they did not lose on the night and provided a loin cloth rather than a fig leaf to what had gone before. Nobody who saw City hurl themselves at a side who employed every tactic to keep them at bay could doubt their assertion that they wanted this trophy.

In defeat, would Roberto Mancini recall the stupid foul by Mario Balotelli to give Matias Fernandez the free-kick that saw Sporting take the lead? Or would he remember the Italian's icily arrogant penalty that saw City equalise as they demonstrated sheer, bloody-minded heroism?

Whether either club will benefit from elimination is debatable. You think of Leeds in 1973, losing the title to Liverpool and the FA Cup final by Sunderland and hauling themselves to Thessaloniki to lose the Cup-Winners' Cup to Milan.

And yet when Sir Alex Ferguson talks of the boys who won the Treble in 1999, he often remarks that the games came so quickly at the end that his team had not time to think of what they were about to achieve. There was no time for nerves.

Now, for United and especially for City, there will be perhaps too much time to think and wonder.

Belfast Telegraph


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