In a vivid, incredible parody of their own rickety history, laden as it is with belly-flops and custard pies, City won the League Cup in the only manner they, and indeed we, properly understand: with a liberal dose of high theatre, putting the watching masses through the wrangler. How to thrash a 40 year hoodoo into a pulp in two hours of enthralling cup football.
Of course, any City story worth its salt is going to be draped in comic book heroes and villains, unlikely men who step into the breach at the most ill-timed moments to cover themselves in glory or compost. From Beanie the Horse to Glauber Berti, from The Goat to Romark, the years have been generously decorated with a most intriguing cast of saints, scoundrels, misfits and rapscallions.
Wilfredo Daniel Caballero Lazcano, gentleman Wilfredo, became the shiny-headed hero of this latest episode of What City Did Next, exactly a week after diving out of the way of three of Chelsea’s goals in the FA Cup. Forget not, however, in the chugging vortex of what had happened here, that his one bit of good judgment at the Bridge of Sighs was to save acrobatically from Oscar’s decent enough penalty. Cometh the man et cetera. Having already kept out Divock Origi’s untimely attempt to steal the cup from City’s ever-sweatier, ever-loosening grasp, Caballero transformed himself into the game’s central figure with a late masterclass of penalty saving. Three in total. Three in a row. Two to the left and one, elastically, amazingly, to the right.
And of course, in true stretch-the-realms-of-reality style, this could only be permitted to occur after Fernandinho had rolled City’s first effort against Mignolet’s left post, an act of only-City pathos to render the ultimate triumph five long minutes later that little bit more draining for all who had to watch it unfold.
But then it was only the League Cup. I don't know what everyone was getting so worked up about.
Try telling anybody cavorting and thudding around in that heaving mass of humanity at the City end that this was the 4th choice pot. Adrenaline, disbelief and a raging sense of the ridiculous had most in ecstatic huddles as grown men and women threw themselves into each others’ arms. The toast of course, a blubbing Willy down on the pitch, being carted off on Wilfried Bonys’ broad shoulders even before his stuttering words could reach the tv viewers. The man who soared just as his City career was about to dive into loveless abandon.
|The long walk|
If the songs of war heading up the great Wembley ramparts before the game were of The Best Team in the Land and All the World, they had changed afterwards to hastily arranged ditties to greet the new hero. Manchester’s historic ability to turn the humdrum into a decent lyric was alive and kicking in London NW10. He was shite but now he’s alright.
But it was no one man show: Willy’s supporting cast was full of willing accomplices. Yaya Touré, suddenly energized in Kiev, again a monstrous thundering presence down the middle here, as he carved his way through Liverpool’s increasingly makeshift backline. A true man for all (big) occasions. The Elephant of Bondouku has contributed a Wembley semi final winner v United, the FA Cup final winner v Stoke, a crucial and wonderfully placed goal at Newcastle in the first title run in, the League Cup goal out of nothing against Sunderland and now the clinching penalty against Liverpool. Perhaps his only error all afternoon was to embark on a Nicky Weaver celebration, only to turn and see the rest of the squad had emptied itself all over the still stunned Caballero.
Then there was the slightly disheveled figure of Manuel Pellegrini himself, vindicated so wonderfully for taking the difficult decisions: to throw the dear old FA Cup to the four winds, to stay loyal to his second string keeper just seven days after he had done such an invigorating impersonation of Eike Immel under the guidance of Alan Ball. City’s first and possibly last cross-eyed keeper.
Vindicated if vindication was needed. The Charming Man, the dignified one and now the man of his word. Stronger than the sword and certainly stronger here than the piffling matter of the 4th grade importance League Cup. Hats off to you, man of Chile, man of nerves and swerves. Hats off to you to come through this with your reputation intact, nay enhanced.
And Joe Hart, hugging the air out of the man that had just deprived him of playing in a Cup Final. The very same man, we learn, he has nurtured through the difficult moments, coached through the dark moments of self doubt and made sure it was possible to stand there and fill the goal confidently and capably with 86,000 pairs of eyes waiting and watching for your first fumble. A fumble that never came.
|David Silva's free kick sails over|
Hart will have many more big days out but for the 34 year old serial reserve, this was the culmination of a dedicated career spent partly in the shadows, wholly without the jewelry of success. No wonder he was wiping away the tears.
Step forward too, Jesus Navas, who with Pablo Zabaleta had led a late onslaught towards the weak left side vacated by Alberto Moreno and by now being filled by James Milner, with Kolo Touré and Lucas filling in as best they could. Navas, the poor little Spanish kid who might never have made it out of Spain because of the debilitating bout of homesickness that had laid him low before. The winger that couldn’t find his bearings. Well here he was, standing tall for the critical second penalty after Fernandinho’s miss, firing home nervelessly, then giving the crowd an adrenaline-packed display of his spirit as he booted the ball towards where we were shouting ourselves hoarse on the third tier. The same ball that had to be retrieved. The same ball that returned to the pitch half way down the left side. The same ball that Philippe Coutinho had walked up to the spot without. The same ball he had to wait extra seconds to be reunited with, then dead-legged and unsure of himself, sent harmlessly into the waiting gloves of Willy. Come to Willy, my darling, Come to Willy.
As the fourth Liverpool penalty, struck well and to the goalkeeper’s right by Adam Lallana, still nursing a bruised neck from being heaved a foot off the floor by Touré, also found the same willing destiny as the others, it became clear that Caballero was indeed to be the headline-maker, but not in a way that many could have anticipated. We should, of course, have known much better than to doubt the powers of Manchester City to confound us all and we should have known better also than to doubt the gloved gentleman of Santa Elena and his boss, the wise old gentleman of Santiago.
Then there was the captain, who has transformed City's defence back into a viable unit, simultaneously changing Nicolas Otamendi from a whirling dervish into solid block and tackle. As you would expect from Manuel Pellegrini, the side's figurehead on the pitch is also a man of empathy and humanity. As his team mates began the rush from the halfway line to free Willy from his lonely vigil at the end of the penalties, Kompany lingered just long enough to commiserate with the losing players. A typically gentlemanly gesture in the midst of all the streamers and wailing.