A mystery for Mulder and Scully

Posted by Simon Curtis

A full-fledged thunderstorm is raging in a cemetery a few blocks behind the ancient edifice of Villa Park. Lightning flashes from a cloudless sky and heavy rain begins to fall. Hands work feverishly in the mud forming a body out of the excess dirt and clay on the ground. Thunder crashes in the distance. The person whose hands have been working so quickly gets up, wipes them down the sides of his shirt and walks away.

The soil-clad body begins to move, its chest lifting up and down with breath. It is alive. It gets slowly to its feet, shakes itself and pulls something from its pocket. It is a whistle. Blowing sharply on it, the figure shouts, "Foul throw!! Villa's ball."

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Aston Villa's precious 3-2 win Saturday over a Manchester City side that made its followers believe in the powers of hallucinogens at the weekend could well have been a suitable scene for Scully and Mulder of "X Files" fame to get to work on. You could almost hear them in the background, as the light faded over the scene of desolation:

Mulder: Scully, are you familiar with this?
Scully: What is it?
Mulder: An Aston Villa win against Manchester City.
Scully: No way ... is it real?
Mulder: Difficult to say. It has these strange markings on it. See here? [Holds up specimen in question, beaten side Manchester City's goal area.] All along here, you would expect to see a whole lot more damage. All along here [runs his fingers along specimen] it's almost completely untouched. There are just these three tiny puncture marks here. No way could three little holes like that have killed the corpse. I can't explain it.
Enter the Chilean Smoking Man. He walks up to the corpse and looks at the two detectives. He scratches his head and draws noisily on his cigarette: "Scully, Mulder, you need some sleep ..."


And so it came to pass. Manchester City's almost entirely untouched goal came to be punctured three times and Manchester City dropped like a felled tree. It was an occasion for forensic science, for naysayers and for conspiracy theorists, for sensationalists, pill-poppers and hallucinators.

How could a team in such full and enthusiastic control of a match complete it on the wrong end of a 3-2 score line against a team that started the game frightened, became gradually hypnotised and then ended it in exuberant and surprised waves of ole-accompanied calypso football? How do you explain that one to the kids? More importantly, how does The Smoking Man explain it to us and what is his next move likely to be with the giants of Bayern hauling their prodigious bulk into view Wednesday?

In some respects, there was less to be worried about here than from previous away games at Cardiff and Stoke, which had produced disaster and monotony, respectively. Here we had an extension of City's mesmerising form of the last three games against Plzen, United and Wigan: purring engine, blurring one-touch passing and delicate but forceful control of possession and territory.

That the match ended depositing custard all over Manuel Pellegrini's face was something of a trick of the light. This correspondent cannot remember a more freakish outcome to a match in which City dominated a timid and disorganised Villa side almost completely, attacking at will, clocking up massive territorial advantage and with it a landslide of shots on goal that looked more and more like a cricket score as the end of the game approached.

Villa's young side should be congratulated for withstanding everything and turning it around, but if you asked their staff how it had been done, not one of them -- from a surprised-looking Paul Lambert to the players who had carried out the smash and grab -- could have imparted a solid tactical précis of what had flashed before all our eyes. There was no sudden change of shape. No game-changing substitution. No moment of inspired magic from Lambert or any of his players. Even woeful referee Mike Jones could not take all the credit on this occasion.

But look again. Maybe there was something, slipping through in the back of the picture, moving so slowly and stealthily that you would miss it nine times out of 10. There it was, a change, so subtle that nobody could have noticed. Something that tipped the scales gently in favour of the Villains.

It came in the 65th minute. By replaying the tape and replaying it again, the critical evidence was found. Samir Nasri, enjoying another productive game in City's engine room, is replaced with Jesus Navas. The Spaniard, no slouch, needs time to get into the game's rhythm, and by the time he finds it, City have lost speed, momentum and direction, plus two goals in the space of three ultra-freakish minutes.

It is the discovery of such infinitesimally tiny details that Mulder and Scully built their reputations on. At least now the Smoking Man has the evidence he needs to put things right next time out.

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