Fifty-eight minutes of largely uninspiring football had been played when, quite out of the blue, we witnessed one of the greatest moments of this Premier League season, and all from the most unexpected of sources. It could be argued that there was something defiantly Stoke City about Peter Crouch’s goal against Manchester City last night. The ball didn’t touch the ground from the moment that Asmir Begovic cleared it down-field until the back of his opposite numbers net rippled. It was the absolutely definitive antithesis of tiki-taka, and it was absolutely magnificent. This year’s Goal Of The Season debate surely has to be over.
As football continues to become technically more sophisticated at its highest level, a certain orthodoxy has settled over perceptions of what does and doesn’t constitute “attractive” football in the modern era. Stoke City have become a group personification of something that many have chosen to loathe, and there has been a hum of satisfaction that their limits have been tested more rigorously that in recent years this season. What is undeniable, however, is the fact that there is a primal, visceral rush that thumps us right in the synapses when their directness hits its target. A team that has arguably become over-reliant on set-pieces of the sort that are rehearsed time and again on the training ground demonstrated, in the space of just a few seconds, an improvisational flair which set the hairs on the back of the neck on end.
That it should have come from the boot of Peter Crouch adds a further layer of irony to it all. Crouch is the most unlikely of footballers, with a centre of gravity that hovers about three feet above his head, a player that seldom looks comfortable on the ball yet somehow continues to manage to get one of his never-ending legs in contact with the ball when it really matters. His goal yesterday evening was one of those moments when everything fell perfectly into place. His flick on to Jermaine Pennant may have been more by accident than design, but Pennant’s touch back to Crouch was perfectly weighted, and Crouch had a moment to tee the ball up before crashing a dipping shot over Hart’s flailing arms and into the corner of the net.
It was also a goal that may yet prove expensive for Manchester City. They managed to haul themselves back into the game and draw level, but such a result from such a match will only be regarded as two points dropped by Roberto Mancini as Manchester United continue to fill any number of people’s “they just keep winning” tropes. Unless City can start to fix their form away from the City of Manchester Stadium, the executives of Sky Sports will be starting to worry that the title decider scheduled for the end of next month might not be the title decider that it is already being billed as. Not even the – arguably a little too late – introduction of Carlos Tevez could salvage three points for them yesterday. A win against Fulham for Manchester United will open a chink of daylight at the top of the Premier League table.
Such a moment will reopen the debate over whether he should return to the England team in time for this summers European Championships. Those that still hold the England national team may not particularly want to be reminded of the coming tournament in Poland and Ukraine, of the fact that the team doesn’t have a manager at present or of the fact that one of the squads talismanic players – and himself an occasionally erratic source of brilliance himself – Wayne Rooney, will be missing for the first two group matches of the tournament. With the pressure off – there can’t be anybody left that seriously believes that England have a cat in hells chance of actually doing anything this summer, can there? – perhaps the time is right for this square peg in a round hole, this most unlikely of professional footballers, to make a return to the national team.
This particular debate, however, is perhaps for another day. Peter Crouch’s goal for Stoke City against Manchester City yesterday was a glorious communal moment, one that grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and reminded us all of what an extraordinary game football can be, that its moments of genius can come from the most unlikely of sources and that, for all attempts the rationalise it, compartmentalise it and impose a value system on the actual physics of the game itself, chaos theory can always find a way through to remind us of the beating human heart at its centre. Such complexity, such simplicity. Such genius, such luck. Small wonder it continues to hold so many of us in its thrall.
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