Sergio Aguero, who knows a thing or two about scoring vital goals with Premier League glory on the line, had seen enough.
“Don’t shoot! No, Vinny! No!”
Manchester City were chasing a 13th consecutive league win against Leicester City, the sort of run that would obliterate any normal title race. Now, victory was required to simply edge back ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s relentless Liverpool.
The Reds had just won their eighth game in succession and both frontrunners had smashed through the 90-point barrier. Twists and turns? Nothing of it. Just a thundering, unblinking march towards the prize.
This has been a season to forget what you might usually expect to be possible. In that spirit, Vincent Kompany looked up 30 yards from goal, had one more tentative shuffle forward and drew back his ravaged right leg.
Pep Guardiola is generally quick to shower praise upon most opponents, teams he generally feels present a proposition “so, so complicated” for his players.
But he knows this Liverpool and their manager, with whom a mutual respect was established during their days battling in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, exist in a rarefied sphere.
“In my career as a manager, I played against incredible sides. There are two that were ‘wow’,” he said last week.
“One is Barcelona with Luis Enrique [as head coach], with Neymar, Messi and Suarez up front. The other is this Liverpool.”
— PepTeam (@PepTeam) May 7, 2019
Guardiola’s beloved Barca, of course, felt the full force of the wow factor at Anfield in midweek. If City were measured by their landmark 100-point haul last season, they should be acclaimed for who and what they have beaten this time to put the second piece of what would be an unprecedented domestic treble in the trophy cabinet.
“City look like the best team in the world, that’s how it is,” Klopp said last month. When the sporting competition is so elevated, there is no value in the puerility of mind games. When you are shooting for the starts, there is no time to reside in the gutter.
Raheem Sterling’s abuser claimed he said “Manc”, rather than “black”, in his moment of contorted, entitled rage played out before a global television audience hoping to enjoy a game of football.
The fans shown singing about Mohamed Salah on mobile phone footage shared online were clearly calling the Egypt forward and proud Muslim “a bomber”.
Fan culture has only ever reflected the society in which it is rooted. All of the good and all of the bad. The drip-drip of alleged racism, homophobia and misogyny has hatefully annotated this season across the global game to a soul-sapping extent.
“When I was growing up, my mum told me I’m a wonderful black child. I know this,” City winger Sterling said in one of his many valuable interjections into a debate where he became a leader, however reluctantly, due to his powerful and focused eloquence.
“When I hear [racism], it’s nothing new to me. I know I’m black and I’m happy with it, I’m proud. I’m confident with my body.”
— Raheem Sterling (@sterling7) March 25, 2019
Sterling’s career-best form on the field and inspirational importance off it saw him succeed Salah as the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
The Liverpool superstar will have to content himself with a share of another Premier League Golden Boot, a potential Champions League winners’ medal and the distinction of being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
“We need to change the way we treat women in our culture,” Salah, an icon in the Middle East, told Time. “That has to be, it’s not optional.”
Two of the men with cause to be most jaded by the bleakest elements in football are shining messages of light and hope beyond the pitches they illuminate as a matter of course.
In Guardiola and Klopp, they play for two managers who have frequently demonstrated a belief that their sport is richer when it harnesses and embraces the breadth of humanity it touches.
Which brings us, neatly or otherwise, back to Vincent Kompany, bludgeoning his right boot through the ball 25 yards from goal to pick out Kasper Schmeichel’s top corner and spark disbelieving pandemonium.
If not for Sergio Aguero – he of QPR 2012 and, more recently, dull and unambitious shooting advice – Kompany’s winner against Leicester this week would be safe as the most cherished ever seen at the Etihad Stadium.
The 33-year-old Belgium international occupies a special place at the club where he has served as captain during this decorated decade and, increasingly, in a city where he married a City fan, started a family and adopted uncompromisingly flat vowels.
Kompany’s long-waged war against his unreliable leg muscles is well documented and his re-emergence for the title run-in has carried a bravura quality.
Hours, weeks and months of rehabilitation arguably served to prepare him better than anybody for a gruelling battle where winning again and again and again became the bare minimum.
— Vincent Kompany (@VincentKompany) May 7, 2019
This is also Kompany’s testimonial season, which he has devoted to tackling Manchester’s homelessness crisis with the same gusto he has thudded into Premier League strikers since August 2008 – the last month in which City fans had little idea about who Sheikh Mansour was and what his finances might entail.
The influence of billionaire owners can be listed among the reasons why contemporary football fandom does not do mutual appreciation nearly as well as it should.
After the last hoarse devotees trudge out of Anfield and the Amex Stadium on Sunday, expect the phone-ins and online wags to plod side-splittingly onwards, with talk of frauds, bottlers, plastic fans and half-baked conspiracy theories.
But it feels important to appreciate Guardiola and Klopp, Salah and Sterling, Kompany and all those who have laced boots at Manchester City and Liverpool this season, collectively elevating a beautiful game – theirs and ours – amid plenty of ugliness.
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