Man City 1 – 0 Tottenham
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at Eastlands
Manchester City qualified for the Champions League for the first time as Peter Crouch’s own goal gave them the decisive victory over Tottenham at Eastlands.
Crouch’s strike here late last season sent Spurs into Europe’s elite competition at City’s expense – and he was unwittingly involved at the same end again as he deflected James Milner’s cross past keeper Carlo Cudicini in the first half.
It proved enough to give Roberto Mancini’s side the win they required after a tension-riddled affair controlled for long spells by Spurs, who dominated possession in the second half to test the nerves of an increasingly anxious City support.
Celebrations swept around Eastlands as referee Mike Dean sounded his final whistle to send City into the Champions League, the destination desired by the club’s Abu Dhabi hierarchy from the moment they started to bankroll the club in such lavish fashion.
And Carlos Tevez added to the sense of elation for City with a lively cameo as a late substitute in which he set up a chance for Patrick Vieira and was only denied a goal by a fine stop from Cudicini, who replaced the injured Heurelho Gomes.
Tevez must now wait to discover if he has convinced Mancini that he has recovered sufficiently from the hamstring injury that has sidelined him for a month to play a significant part against Stoke City in Saturday’s FA Cup Final at Wembley.
He was forced to wait until the closing stages before his introduction with the game so finely poised – a state of affairs that proved highly frustrating for the Argentine and he appeared to vent his feelings in Mancini’s direction as he waited to enter the action.
City’s win also brought joy for Stoke, who now qualify for next season’s Europa League as a result of securing a place at Wembley.
Spurs, in contrast, now face a battle with Liverpool to finish fifth and they can feel unfortunate not to have earned at least a point from a spirited performance, with City keeper Joe Hart keeping them at bay with a superb save from substitute Steven Pienaar’s header early in the second half.
This is a landmark moment for City, who can now mix it with Europe’s biggest clubs on the pitch after proving more than a match for them with their financial firepower off it.
And Champions League qualification also provides a footballing incentive as they pursue high-profile signings in addition to the riches already on offer for their transfer targets.
Tevez returned on the bench for the first time since tearing his hamstring at Liverpool early last month in an attempt to stake his claim for a place in City’s Wembley line-up.
Spurs, meanwhile, replaced Gomes with veteran Italian Cudicini – although they insisted this was because of a back injury sustained by the Brazilian in training rather than a reaction to his recent indifferent form and expensive errors against Chelsea and Blackpool.
And Cudicini showed his quality after only nine minutes with a point-blank block from Edin Dzeko after the outstanding David Silva laid the ball into his path only eight yards out.
Silva’s diminutive stature and elegance brought inevitable comparisons with the gifted Modric, who also excelled in the first half and twice almost put Spurs in front.
The Croatian had a shot deflected wide and was only inches away with a side-foot finish that beat Hart and was so close to finding the target that Spurs coach Kevin Bond initially rose to his feet and punched the air in celebration.
Spurs’ disappointment was doubled as City went ahead seconds later. They failed to track Milner as he worked a short corner with Adam Johnson and his low driven cross was turned into his own net at the near post by Crouch.
Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was then forced to make a change when Wilson Palacios limped off and was replaced by Pienaar – who almost brought Spurs level moments after the interval.
The South African rose to meet Aaron Lennon’s cross, but his downward header was turned away splendidly with his left hand by Hart.
It was the start of a spell of persistent Spurs pressure and possession, helped by City’s passive approach that resulted in them being virtually camped on the edge of their own area for lengthy periods.
City lost Pablo Zabaleta after he sustained a nose injury in an aerial clash with Crouch and the left-back was replaced by Aleksandar Kolarov after a lengthy spell of treatment on the touchline.
And the clearest sign of Spurs’ complete domination came when City got Tevez ready for action, only for Mancini to seemingly change his mind and send on Vieira for Johnson in an attempt to restore some semblance of order to proceedings.
City did start to enjoy more possession to ease the frustrations of their supporters, who were growing increasingly agitated at their inability to apply any pressure on Spurs.
Tevez was finally introduced with seven minutes remaining and set up Vieira, whose lofted effort beat the advancing Cudicini but was brilliantly cleared off the line by William Gallas.
And the Argentine was still lively in the closing seconds when he broke clear and forced a fine save from Cudicini – before referee Dean ended five minutes of stoppage time and confirmed City had finally booked their ticket at European football’s top table.