Character is not a word often associated with Manchester City. So slick, so serene is the machine that Guardiola has crafted in his six years with City that it rarely has to dip into its reserves of courage, mettle and resilience. Much of the time, the unrivaled technique and talent at Guardiola’s disposal are more than sufficient.
But with its season unraveling and only 15 minutes to save it, that is precisely what carried City through, just as it had allowed Guardiola’s team to save a point at West Ham last week: its ability to remain cool and collected under the most intense pressure. That is not an easy thing to capture in a statue, but if anyone is to try, the work should probably depict Rodri, scorer of the goal that drew City level.
When the ball arrived at his feet, a few paces outside the penalty area, the Etihad was in tumult. Ilkay Gundogan had scored two minutes or so earlier, heading home a cross from Raheem Sterling, but still, the clock was ticking, and City needed to score — to be certain — not once, but twice. Rodri, though, seemed blissfully unhurried.
As the ball rolled to him, he shaped as if to strike it as hard as he possibly could; that, after all, would be the surest way to beat Robin Olsen, the Villa goalkeeper. In the blink of an eye, though, he changed his mind. He had spotted a gap. He shifted his weight slightly, and passed the ball — not softly, but with deliberate care — into the bottom corner, beyond Olsen’s outstretched arm.
Three minutes later, Gundogan had scored again — another candidate for that statue, if anyone is in the market — and the Etihad was rattling and shaking, and the club, its players, its staff and its fans, felt that sensation again, the one that it thought it could enjoy only once in a lifetime.
In the space of five minutes, City had transformed its despair into something raw and urgent and delirious. It was not quite the same as Agüero’s title-clinching strike 10 years ago, what City’s fans now refer to simply as “93:20,” but nor was it some pale imitation, some ersatz version. It was something close to an equivalent, and that was more than enough.
When, a few minutes later, the final whistle blew, Guardiola’s eyes had welled with tears. Liverpool had won, too, but it did not matter. For all the stress and the strain, perhaps it is better this way. Perhaps it is easier to parse just how much something means when it has almost been snatched away.