Few home draws against teams like Sunderland are memorable and meaningful to Premier League title-winning teams in the year that they lift the trophy. But for Manchester City in 2011/12, when they won their first Premier League title on goal difference, every point is crucial.
Some moments of fine margins were more crucial than others that season. Sergio Aguero’s injury time goal against Queens Park Rangers is the most memorable, but without Vincent Kompany’s header against Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium in late April. Then again, when you win the title without a point to spare, you can argue with some legitimacy that every point was vital.
In order to win the league, City had to win their final six games. After losing to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in early April it looked as if the title race was up, but it was the game before that north London defeat where City showed the fighting spirit which was epitomised so fittingly by their last-gasp winner.
Of their 19 home games that season, City won 18 of them, but finding themselves quite inexplicably 3-1 down at half time at home to Sunderland was yet another time when Roberto Mancini’s side showed they were always willing to fight until the very end.
City fans didn’t need long memories to remember a time when, just four months earlier, City went to the Stadium of Light and lost to a 93rd-minute Ji Dong-Won winner. That game was the very definition of the footballing cliche ‘one-way traffic’, but thanks to the comeback at the Etihad at the end of March, that defeat was just a blip along the way, not the last-minute shock that cost them the title. Maybe that’s why the fightback against Sunderland was so important, even though the Blues went on to lose the next game at Arsenal: they knew they could keep fighting until the end of games, and they were spurred on by the experience.
In that regard, perhaps Aleksandr Kolarov’s greatest contribution to Manchester City in his time at the club is the goal that drew the game and earned a point – preserving his team’s unbeaten home record in the process.
He almost scored at the start of the second half with the score at 3-1 to the Black Cats. A free-kick Kolarov won himself on the edge of the Sunderland box was perhaps more notable for the fact that Mario Balotelli threw a strop when he wasn’t allowed to take it, but it was the Serbian left-back who strode up and could only his the side-netting with a curling effort.
It was that Balotelli / Kolarov duo who would have the rest of the say in the game. After cutting inside from the left, the Italian curled the ball past Simon Mignolet in the Sunderland goal to give City some hope with just five minutes left. And as the City fans who had upped to leave early were scrambling back to their seats for the grand finale, the ball broke to Kolarov on the left again.
Pinball in the box is often a hallmark of the snapshot from distance. This time, though, the chaos saw the ball come out to David Pizarro; the calm midfield technician who is all but forgotten from that title-winning team, but who played an important part nonetheless thanks to his intelligence and experience. The Chilean didn’t panic amid the fever and laid it off pleasingly to Kolarov who knew instantly what he wanted to do as he lined up to shoot across the goalkeeper.
It may not have been one of his more sumptuous strikes. The Serbian’s left foot is often one of football’s little joys, but on this occasion it was functional rather than spectacular. It was a daisy cutter that seemed to catch everyone out. As the play moved further and further to the left, Sunderland were left expecting City to aim to cross the ball in from the far side, but instead, Kolarov’s strike saw the ball arrow its way into the far corner, past a wrong-footed Mignolet.
City would go on to lose one more game. It wasn’t an immediate catalyst for the comeback that brought them from eight points behind Manchester United to winning the title in the final minute of the final game, but it did show that this was a team who weren’t going to give up, even when they were so far behind.
Indeed, Sunderland would yet play another small role in the City’s destiny, as their 2-0 defeat at home to Manchester United saw the Red Devils greet the final whistle at the Stadium of Light as champions of England once again. But as news began to filter through that the never-say-die City had pulled off the miracle, the scenes of heartbreak in Sunderland were almost as iconic as those of joy in east Manchester.
But none of them could have happened without an Aleks Kolarov strike to rescue a point against Sunderland weeks earlier. It taught the blue half of Manchester a lesson they won’t forget: every point is vital, and so too is every goal.