Touré pays off for Manchester City

Publish date:

1. Touré pays his way. When Manchester City made Yaya Touré an offer his old club, Barcelona, was not prepared to match and made the midfielder the best-paid player in the Premier League, the move aroused suspicion. Touré was leaving the European champion for a mid-table English club -- it had to be a decision based purely on financial greed.

But Touré has been consistent value for money -- and after scoring the decisive goal Man City's 1-0 win over Stoke in the FA Cup final on Saturday he's a champion again.

Touré is a midfielder with all the tools: strong, athletic and skillful. But he has also played with a relentless energy and passion that belies suggestions that he is purely a mercenary. Last week he secured a bonus reportedly worth £823,000, or $1.333 million, when City secured qualification for the Champions league for the first time. He has earned it.

(Not all of City's high-priced signings have hit the ground running. Mario Balotelli, City's mercurial striker was asked in a live on-field interview after the final if this had been his best game for City. He mortified ITV, which broadcast the game in England, by declaring, with jaw-dropping honesty, "All my season I was s� t.")

Touré has also been making a surprising contribution in attack. At Barcelona he was the holding player. At City he has assumed a more attacking role. He still does not look a natural in the penalty area. On Saturday he surged through the Stoke defense in the first half, but when the moment came to pull the trigger, he passed wide to Balotelli, as if to say "shooting's your job." Balotelli did shoot and shot well, drawing a flying save from Thomas Sorensen.

Yet when the ball rebounded to Touré in the 74th minute he did not hesitate, drilling it into the goal. It was his 10th goal of this season, a more-than-respectable tally for a midfielder. That goal won City its first trophy in 35 years and, doubtless, earned Touré another bonus. He's earned that one too.

2. The poachers' art. Javier Hernández is developing into something of a talisman for Manchester United, the champion of the English Premier League once again after its 1-1 draw against Blackburn.

He isn't big. He isn't fast. He isn't a dazzling dribbler or an inspired passer. He just has an eye for goal, or, like many great goal poachers, for a penalty kick. He is also lucky enough to be playing for a manager, Alex Ferguson, who has always been happy to find a place in his teams for players who just score goals. On Saturday Ferguson left the top scorer in the Premier League, Dimitar Berbatov on the bench, and played El Chicharito. Hernandez repaid the faith by falling over.

For a team that is used to winning, Manchester United looked very edgy for 73 minutes at Ewood Park on Saturday. United needed only a draw to seal a league title. Blackburn needed a victory to secure its Premier League survival. For a long time, Blackburn looked like a team whose need was greater. Brett Emerton gave Rovers the lead after 20 minutes. Martin Olsson hit the post with a header in the second half.

Then Hernández, running away from goal, saw Paul Robinson hurtling towards him and cutely booted the ball away so that when the Rovers goalie arrived he caught only the striker's legs.

The ball was rolling harmlessly over the goal line, but Hernández had drawn the foul and won the penalty. He was not allowed to take it. Wayne Rooney bashed it in. United relaxed. Blackburn subsided. Thanks to Hernández, the point was secure.

3. Adding to the total. When the final whistle blew, Ferguson who is 69, ran onto the field and cavorted gleefully with his players. In the commentary box Dwight Yorke, one of his former goal poachers, remarked on the "delightfulness on his face." Well might Ferguson be delightfulled. This was the club's 19th English league title, breaking a tie for first place with its bitter rival Liverpool.

It's a great achievement, but is this a great United team? Or has it simply been ushered to the title by the frailties of its main rivals, Chelsea and Arsenal? It has sealed the title with one game to go on just 77 points -- no team has won with fewer than 80 points since United did it with 79 in 1999. The hesitant performance Saturday epitomized United's poor away form this season. But United did what it had to do.

"We are champions and we're in the Champions League final," Ryan Giggs, who had just won a record 12th English league title, told Sky. "We're a rubbish team.''

The Champions League final: there's the rub. United may have overhauled Liverpool's English record, but it still has only three victories in Europe's top club competition to Liverpool's five.

Saturday's draw means Ferguson can rest players next Sunday in the last league game and prepare to face the beast that is Barcelona.

4. Soccer politics. Saturday's unprecedented mishmash of FA Cup final and Premier League program tells us a lot about the hierarchy of club competitions and the dysfunctional relationship between the Football Association, theoretically the governing body of English soccer, and the Premier League.

The FA helped bring the Premier League into being in 1993 when it enabled a breakaway by the top clubs from the Football league, with which the FA had historically bad relations. The FA then dropped the ball when it allowed the clubs to run the new league. It has paid the price.

When the FA won the rights to host the Champions League at Wembley Stadium, it immediately had a problem. The Champions League is the 900-pound gorilla of European club soccer. Everything else moves out of the way. UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, wanted its final on May 28. It also insists that no games be played on the field for two weeks before its big final.

The FA Cup is the oldest competition in soccer. The final traditionally stands alone as the climax to the English season. But now the FA had no choice but to schedule its final eight days before the planned end of the Premier League. The FA Cup final has been held before the end of the league season once before, in 2001 in Cardiff. That year, the Premier League moved out of the way, staging only two games that, both on Sunday.

This time, the Premier League showed no such consideration. It scheduled a full slate of matches, including four at Saturday lunchtime. Relations between the FA and the Premier League have been awful for a while. Last week Lord Triesman, the former head of the FA, accused Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, of failing to support England's World Cup bid in revenge for the FA opposition to the league's money-spinning (and only slightly insane) scheme to add a round of overseas games to its schedule. Scudamore denied the charge. He also denied that the league had scheduled games to undermine the FA Cup final. It might be a coincidence, but the Premier League's main broadcast partner, Sky, does not have the rights to the FA Cup.

As it turned out, Sky and the Premier League got what they wanted. Manchester City's 1-0 victory over Stoke was true to one of the FA Cup final's oldest tradition: it was a dull match. It was overshadowed by United's crucial draw at Blackburn, not just because that was a more exciting match but also because the Premier League is now a far more important competition.

5. A quick recount. Regular readers may remember that barely a week ago, this blog predicted that 40 points would be enough to avoid finishing in the bottom three and therefore survive in the Premier League. After Saturday, I am beginning to suspect that I may have to take that back.

Blackburn's draw takes it to 40 points. Wolves won 3-1 at Sunderland and are also on 40. Birmingham, which hosts Fulham on Sunday, is on 39. So too is Blackpool which won a wild game, 4-3 at home to Bolton (a repeat, it should be noted today, of the result in the most famous FA Cup final of all, the 1953 "Matthews final"). Despite the victory Blackpool stays in the bottom three ahead of Wigan (36 points) and West Ham (33) who meet at Wigan on Sunday.

West Ham can only reach 39 points. Its goal difference is so bad that even two victories would not save it. If Wigan wins Sunday it too will be on 39 entering the last round of matches. It plays the FA Cup loser, Stoke, in its final game. Birmingham faces a Tottenham team apparently trying to avoid the poisoned consolation prize of a Europa League place. Blackburn travels to Wolves for a game that could well determine which of them survives. While Blackpool's last game of the season, an away trip to Old Trafford suddenly looks a little less scary.

It is conceivable that a team could finish on 42 points and still not escape the bottom three places. But I'm not predicting anything.