The Etihad Stadium is a monument to Manchester City’s progression in the footballing aristocracy. It has been expanded and will be expanded further as City move up in the world, but its care for its fans is clear too. Outside the ground, supporters are treated to live music and entertainment on matchdays, as well as a fairly middle-class array of street food.
But there’s a restaurant called 93:20 inside the stadium, too, named after the exact time when Sergio Aguero scored that goal against QPR in 2012. Manchester City, before that moment, was really a byword for glorious failure. With the great teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s long gone, City’s most glorious moment was perhaps Paul Dickov’s strike in the 1999 Division Two play-off final, clawing City back to 2-2 and setting up a penalty shoot-out which eventually took City into Division One.
If there was ever a moment that summed-up City’s experience of playing in Manchester United’s shadow, this was it: only four days before that play-off final, Manchester United had scored twice in injury time to win the Champions League.
These days, though, City are blossoming. The side is maturing and the club as a whole is doing the same, and nothing says that more than their top-of-the-group finish in the Champions League this season which gives them a chance to reach the quarter finals of the competition for the first time in their history.
But no matter how far City come, they’re not really all that different to the teams that have gone by at the club. In footballing terms, they’re a world apart, but the club has been able to maintain a certain core, it has kept a key part of its personality.
It’s still a club that sees itself as a pillar of its community, and it’s still a club that prides itself on the kind of team spirit that brings City back from the dead. The Division Two play-off final, the title-winning QPR victory, but lots of other examples, too. Yaya Toure’s lucky strike that looped in off the back of Kelechi Iheanacho – who’ll claim the goal – has to go down in that list. City just always find a way.
It’s a strange paradox, though. Every time City lose, there’s some sort of opinion piece denouncing their work rate, slamming, for example, Yaya Toure’s laziness or City’s lack of leadership. In the end, though, they find a way. And that has to counteract statements like these. That has to go against the idea that Yaya is a lazy beast, or that City can’t organise themselves, especially without Vincent Kompany. As lucky as the goal against Swansea was, it speaks of City’s resolve and desire that they were able to work a scoring opportunity at all, given the lateness with which Swansea managed to score their equaliser.
There are weeks when City lose, and when they lose badly. Against Stoke, things didn’t fall apart, but only because they never got it together in the first place. Against Spurs and Liverpool the lack of composure on the ball was frightening.
And City can’t really rely on the defence that they’ve had injuries. Whilst it’s true that any team in the world would suffer given injuries to Aguero, David Silva, Toure and Kompany, City have had ample time and money to find adequate cover. Spending over £100m on two players in the summer, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, speak to this. They simply needed to do a bit better.
There is, perhaps, no replacing those players, but there are surely replacements that would at least allow City to be more competitive in the games I mentioned. Surely even without those key players, Liverpool and Spurs aren’t three goals better than City. Surely the players on the pitch should have been at least good enough to do better than that.
And that’s part of the City identity, too. The ability to completely mess it up. But they know that, whether they make things hard for themselves or not, they can usually find a way to work it out. Let’s not forget that this was a cash-strapped club that found its way back from the dead of being two goals down in the last minute of that play-off final and managed to make itself attractive enough for their new sugar daddy billionaires to propel it to the title and a sustainable future at the top.
City are blossoming into one of Europe’s top teams – and it’s all because of their ability to just find a way.