Such was the disappointment served up by the dramatic conclusion to this contest, Albion fans will be watching for the response Steve Clarke coaxes from the players who went so close to a showcase result.
The head coach devised a measured and controlled gameplan to counter the extraordinary resources of the champions – and for all but the last 14 minutes, watched his players discharge it perfectly.
But then Albion, stung by an unforeseen error from Ben Foster which gave City an 80th-minute equaliser, caved in to the emotion of the moment and paid for it with heartbreak when over-adventure led to a winner two minutes into stoppage time.
Both City goals came from substitute Edin Dzeko but, more significantly, the champions concocted this amazing victory while playing for 70 minutes with 10 men following James Milner’s dismissal.
With that in mind, it would be churlish not to take a moment to salute them and remind ourselves of just what Albion were up against. There are times when, from a distance, it is still possible to see City as a living soap opera. But underneath all the crazy headlines, they are a team of awesome power who, in controlling so much of this game despite their numerical disadvantage, displayed the full range of their talents. It was possible to hear some commentators suggesting City were still “mis-firing” despite this victory, but that is insulting to the Baggies.
You don’t get to beat this Albion side on their home patch with 10 men unless you are something out of the ordinary and the home fans who watched will acknowledge that, for all their team’s superb advances in recent seasons, opposition which can bring resources so lavishly-assembled remain out of reach.
Which is why Albion, having worked themselves into a winning position, will be so angry with themselves. What they must not do, of course, is allow the loss of their perfect home start and reminder of their fallibility to infect their psychology.
Clarke can’t promise a result at Newcastle next week, but he will want a performance which shows Albion have released whatever poison was injected into their season by the sting in this game’s tail.
“We know what we are,” was the message on Shane Long’s T-shirt, a nod to a chorus from the galleries but also a timely reminder to team-mates not to forget just how far they have come – and that such a journey is not negotiated without boasting some impressive qualities.
One of them, Peter Odemwingie, will now be the focus of a populist call for a full return to duty after his impact from the substitutes’ bench.
Even with Milner’s departure, a hairline but correct call by referee Mark Clattenburg after the speeding Long had been clipped going through on goal, Albion’s challenge was always mindful of the threat posed by so many City players capable of taking out any number of opponents with devastating bursts.
Balotelli did just that with the first-half’s most outrageous moment of individual skill and power, forcing a fine stop from Foster. But it was still City who were landing the heavier punches in the first hour, Carlos Tevez opening the second half with a cross-shot that again tested Foster to his limit before Yaya Toure headed over from point-blank range.
But Odemwingie’s arrival for an unlucky Graham Dorrans flicked a switch for the Baggies. His first impact was a drive inside from the left and scuffed shot which became a defence-defeating pass Long converted past Joe Hart.
Watching by now from behind the glass in the media room, Milner groaned in despair and must have suspected this was not to be City’s day. But then came the spectacular climax.
A Hart-like misjudgement from a corner by the otherwise faultless Foster gave Dzeko an equaliser 10 minutes from time and Albion, annoyed with themselves, twisted when perhaps they should have stuck.
The teams traded chances with Albion’s final sub Romelu Lukaku nearly producing a winner with an overhead kick, having gone close from crosses supplied by the flying Odemwingie and then Zoltan Gera.
But a late surge of pressure sucked them all forward at a corner and a fateful hesitation by Liam Ridgewell gifted possession from which City broke away to score their winner. It cut deep and no amount of rationale – Dzeko alone cost more than Albion’s entire starting XI – could ease the hurt.
That will be Clarke’s task now.
By Martin Swain