Even just five years on the goal, the moment, the achievement has become so iconic that it’s easy to forget the alternative universe we would have dwelled in had Sergio Aguero’s 93rd minute shot against QPR struck the foot of the post.
Manchester United would have been champions and that is very easy to imagine. On twelve previous occasions they had lifted the trophy to the accompaniment of fireworks and with their victory up at Sunderland secured and City requiring a nonsensically far-fetched turn-around in late fortunes the United team were already primed for celebration; applauding their away support and anticipating the imminent euphoria.
It’s hardly a stretch to picture all that: the group hugs; Ferguson with his old man run and raised arms flailing like a puppet minus its strings; Rooney, or more probably Nani, wearing a jester hat, their socks rolled to the ankles. We’d seen similar many times before and it was already half-happening.
For City to trip yards from the finish line would have been an apocalypse of bathos and we can only imagine what corrosive damage it would have done to the psyche of a club that was defining itself by its grandiose post-takeover ambitions.
The self-defeating ghosts of ‘typical City’ and ‘Cityitis’ would have returned to haunt as forty-four years without a title bled into forty-five but in truth, that would have amounted to a man in a sheet going ‘wooo’ compared to the intense pain and humiliation and bitter disappointment at losing to them of all clubs: their hated, gloating, supercilious neighbours; their benchmark.
Had Aguero connected with the ball half a centimetre to the left at 4.48pm on May 13th 2012 the shift in Mancunian power would have stalled to such an extent that any future coronation would have been tainted by this failure. This would not have been the end but it would have seen the end placed into the wrong order near to the beginning.
After a rollercoaster season that had already given us enough drama to spread across ten it came down to this: a freeze-frame of an Argentinean striker eight yards out and a nation hung in suspended animation for a title United desperately wanted and City desperately needed.
Before we press play though, we must rewind to moments after Edin Dzeko’s equaliser that gave the packed, traumatised Etihad the faintest of hopes.
By now news has filtered through to the QPR side that they are safe from relegation. Their fans have broken into party mode, urging City to score again so they can share in this momentous Hollywood climax. On the touchline Roberto Mancini is quite spectacularly losing his s***. Sergio Aguero, sniper-calm in a war zone, approaches Mario Balotelli and suggests he stay close-by. “I’m going to try a one-two at some point”.
The clock ticks. Nerves are long past the point of fraying. For the first time in the entire game Aguero drops deep and collects a diagonal from De Jong. He shimmies, briefly contemplating taking on the wall of red and white before him, before dinking it to the brilliantly erratic Italian and immediately charges forward, trying to find space. His route is blocked but he persists, like a thoroughbred fenced in with furlongs to go.
Balotelli meanwhile falls. Or rather at first glance it appears that he falls. In actual fact his control has been compromised by a defender’s snaking leg and with the ball momentarily in no man’s land – meaning everything in the world but in that instant alone as players adjust around it – Mario lunges at it forcibly yet still cushions his pass with the greatest of care. For two years he has frustrated by eschewing simplicity for the unusual. Now it pays off. It is an extravagant and weird assist and perhaps it is this that finally creates space and jolts panic into tired QPR legs.
With one touch Aguero skips past the former City centre-back Nedum Onuoha and a million eyes widen electrified. He feels contact and considers going down. He dismisses the option, realising it would hand his and Manchester City’s fate to the referee. They were the enemy; they had always been his enemy, smiling away the lumps and bumps on his calves and legs. Instead he places his trust in ability and instinct, both honed in Buenos Aires and Madrid: on dusty streets and immaculate turf.
Aguero nudges the ball into his stride and rifles it low and hard. And the world wobbles on its axis.