Wednesday, May 18, 2016

GUARDIOLA EYES EDERSON

Many and frequent will be the rumours linking Manchester City to players this close-season as the new era of Pep Guardiola is gently ushered in. With Manuel Pellegrini overseeing an ageing squad on diminishing returns, the onus on the incoming boss is to renew, rejuvenate and reestablish City's place at the top.

In order to do this the Spanish coach will need to recruit briskly this summer.

Needless conjecture surrounding Joe Hart's position in goal already surfaced towards the end of another exemplary season from the keeper. Hart is clearly England's number one and, after a short period when he seemed to have lost focus two seasons ago, he has performed as well as anyone in the City squad.

For this reason, perhaps, news of goal-keeping reinforcements should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, the positions behind Hart, and perhaps even at some stage challenging him for the number one jersey, should not. With Richard Wright ending an illustrious period of bench warming and Willy Caballero perhaps also surplus to requirements, a top quality back-up may well be needed.

On this subject, strong rumours dripping from the Portuguese press suggest Guardiola has a keen eye trained on Benfica's young shot stopper Ederson.

The young Brazilian displaced Julio Cesar during Benfica's sensational march to a third successive league triumph in Portugal, winning a host of admirers along the way. Among them was the coach of Benfica's Champions League quarter-final opponents, Bayern Munich. Held to a slender one goal win in Munich, Bayern only managed to overcome a spirited Benfica effort in the second leg in Portugal after an enthralling 2-2 draw.

Over the two closely fought matches, Guardiola spotted a goalkeeper, whose attributes are not so far removed from Bayern's present incumbent between the sticks, Manuel Neuer. Ederson, young, agile and energetic, commands his box well and is adept at using his feet to intercept and set up a new wave of attacks. He is alert, able to play beyond his penalty box and has great shot stopping agility. The Spaniard was taken by another of the goalkeeper's obvious attributes: his quick distribution upfield.

Guardiola was moved to state after the first leg with Benfica in April that, "Ederson made many long passes out of defence, forcing us to defend very deep. This caused us many problems during the second half.". Portuguese sports daily A Bola had Ederson as their man of the match in Munich and, when the sides played out a 2-2 draw in the second leg at the Estádio da Luz, Ederson again attracted plenty of plaudits.

The keeper, who a year ago was performing between the sticks at Rio Ave, is exactly what Guardiola looks for in a goalkeeper. The new City coach needs his last man in defence to be able to act as a sweeper, with rapid incursions towards onrushing forwards to clear up any danger. The ability to play
with your feet is essential in Guardiola's mind-set for the team. Much has been written of the high press, the fast to-feet passing and the ability to change players from one position to another, but his goalkeepers also play a vital role in the overall game plan.  

The 22 year old only made his Benfica debut halfway through the 2015-16 season, substituting Julio Cesar before the crucial Lisbon derby with Sporting at the Estádio José Alvalade. He did not once flinch, becoming an unmissable part of the club's third consecutive title triumph in Portugal. In fact, many would go further than that, stating that the young goalkeeper formed, along with striker Jonas, midfielder Renato Sanches and defenders Jardel and Lindelof, the main reasons for a magnificent 35th league title for os encarnados.

If a transfer is to be completed between Benfica and City, there will have to be some serious negotiating, as Ederson is part of the horizon-popping Jorge Mendes stable, whose agreement with former club Rio Ave is that they will receive as much as 50% of any follow-on transfer. With a release fee of around €45 million, he will not be cheap and the price may well fluctuate depending on the deal struck between Mendes's Gestifute agency, Benfica and Rio Ave, Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira has gone on record as saying €20 million would be a minimum asking price for the young goalkeeper, but that would mean a relatively paltry €10m ending up in  the Lisbon club's coffers. It may take significantly more to prize him away.

EDERSON IN NUMBERS


2011/2012
RIBERÃO (BRAZIL)
29
2012/2013
RIO AVE
2
2013-2014
RIO AVE
18
2014-2015
RIO AVE
17
2015-2016
BENFICA
17



Friday, May 6, 2016

ADIOS THEN, FRIEND

There was noise aplenty, smoke and mirrors and lots besides, but at the end of the day it was curtains for the side built by the delicate hands of Roberto Mancini and turned briefly into a fantasy goal-scoring machine by Manuel Pellegrini. (That was two years and counting ago, mind you).

The first great City side of the modern era is no more.

What a stage, what a place to bring it all to an end. And what an end it was too. Below the hulking, steep-sided cathedral of the Santiago Bernabeu, City’s big hitters finally ran aground. One sole shot on goal in the 88th minute was the total second half effort for a side trying to save its skin in its first ever Champions League semi final. Fernandinho had earlier hit the outside of a first half post, but it was meager gruel on feast night.

Asked to produce one last earth tremor in a season of tumbling bricks, there was nothing left to give. Drifting out of a tournament that had played witness to exhilarating away performances in Monchengladbach, Seville, Kiev and Paris was deemed a stronger idea than throwing caution to the wind and going for broke.

Asked to produce one last ground-shaking performance before he left, the Elephant of Bondoukou ate grass. His rampaging, dust-scattering charges are no more. The majestic old beast rolled slowly but conclusively onto his side, issued a noise like the air escaping from a small party balloon and passed away.

Like all great beasts of the Savannah, his long and comfortable reign over all he surveyed, was finishing in an undignified heap. His demise not to coincide with a triumphant return to the Champions League final stage he bestrode in the colours of Barcelona, but a beaten, exhausted husk, removed from the field in full view of the world.

The curtain that came down on City’s season of European improvement was besmirched and of frankly dubious quality. Threadbare in the middle, see-through in parts, its fabric far from the Italian silks Roberto had bestowed upon us, far even from the early hand-knitted Andean rugs the kind Señor Pellegrini sneaked beneath our acheing feet to start with. This was a mottled quilt with mould and one of Manuel’s half eaten enchiladas underneath.

Still, the way to build enthusiasm and optimism when they are in short supply is to arrive in the great cities of Europe and set about abusing the hospitality. The shisha pipe of life, hot, sweet and bubbly, soon puts you in a frame of mind best described as chilled out.  It was almost as if Yaya had been blowing on the other end. If some were relaxed in the hostelries and tabernas around Sol and Plaza Mayor, down the side streets of Tribunal and the little bistros off Gran Via, our Ivorian powerhouse looked like he’d received a tranquiliser dart to his left flank.

Madrid is a grand old city that carries off the concept of “big” very comfortably. Everywhere you wander there are monuments and convents and squares that are as big as a medium-sized English town. Traipsing the sun-baked Passeo de la Castellana that cuts through the centre of the city like one of the world’s major rivers of concrete, it at no time reminds you even vaguely of a rain lashed Chester Road.

Taxis, resplendent in their Rayo Vallecano home shirts, ply the thoroughfare like their lives depend on it. Women with smoking brown eyes lounge on terraces and draw on cigarettes, while rotund men with slicked back hair shuffle their pastle coloured pullovers into a comfortable knot around their nonchalant latino shoulders. The size and magnificence of Spanish vivacity, virility and vaingloriousness almost makes one understand how Cristiano’s pouting and preening could be misconstrued as a good old fashioned slice of Madrileño bravura, but of course he was like that in Manchester too and he hails from a village on a rock in the Atlantic so there’s no excuse really.

A feature that had been evident by its absence on the last occasion City played in the Spanish capital (hark at this, frequent fliers, we’re here nearly every year now) was beginning to make its early presence felt: organization. Police were relatively civil (they didn’t crack you on the head with a truncheon for daring to drink beer in the open air at least) and a steady flow of Blues were being supplied with their tickets from a well ordered
room in D wing of yet another of Madrid’s colossal office blocks. As I staggered parched past the Plaza de Pablo Ruiz Picasso, an unedifying patch of red brick and cement that did the great man’s memory no favours whatsoever, I was aware that I had at last found something that reminded me properly of the Arndale Centre. Unless of course the joyless patch of tarmac was some kind of horrendous ironic statement that people like me are not supposed to get.


In town, the usual footballs were being punted around the dazzling bright Plaza Mayor, good natured sun bathing and back slapping the order of the day. An odd man in his 40s dressed entirely in black did his best liquid Michael Jackson impersonations and another pretended to be a deer covered in tinsel. Rewarded with a ten euro note Jackson then revolved in the sun checking its authenticity, as if scarcely credulous that someone could be drunk enough to reward him for his bandy-legged cavorting. It was developing into one of those kinds of days. Two blocks west in the superbly ornate Mercado de San Miguel, plates of oysters, olives stuffed with anchovies, freshly frittered calamares and the omnipresent blocks of tortilla were being washed down with smooth as silk Rioja.

With the sun dropping over the skyline, the trek up the Paseo de la Castellana began. By now a heaving mess of excited traffic, our Atletico supporting taxi driver wished us well against his sworn enemy. As it turned out, our wine-fuelled promises of sticking it to them would turn out to be grossly over-optimistic. Still, there’s nothing quite as historically relevant if you have followed City from the Cowards of Europe speech through to the present day to turn up boiling with intent and leave with your trousers around your ankles.

The traffic was so intense at the Plaza San Juan de la Cruz, there was no option but to hop out and walk the rest, aware that the normally sedate hordes of Real fans were a little more than emocianados for the occasion. Swerving into one last café before the ground, the tv showed pictures of a flare wielding crowd welcoming the team bus as it edged through the scrum. Throaty roars of City City The Best Team in the Land and All The World drifted up through the smoke and fire crackers. So, this is what Champions League semi finals are like.

A tingling vortex of noise and expectation carried us on through the ranks of nervous Madrid police and up the great spirals of Bernabeu Fondo Norte. The view from the top is exceptional, a great steep twist of tightly packed seats curving round in a majestic arc. This the scene of daring deeds from Butragueño to Zidane, Di Stefano to Redondo, Camacho to Juanito, Figo to Hugo Sanchez, the Galloping Major and Ivan Zamorano and on through Steve MacManaman to tonight’s solid dose of Fernando.

Juntos no hay imposibles - Pic:Mike Hammond
For several of Fernando’s mates out on the big Bernabeu stage it is be their last proper call to arms in a City shirt. The bell has been tolling for months.

We did not have to wait long before our first dollop of Cityitis arrived in the shape of captain Kompany's eight minute cameo coming to a sudden and familiar end. The team that struggles without him, the player that struggles with them. It was like a plot line from early Mr Ben. Off Kompany hobbled behind the magic curtain, reappearing in the muscle-bound form of Eliaquim Mangala. Now for some fun and games.

Ten minutes later the ball, billowing in a strange arc off the stretching form of Fernando, drifts high and wide of Joe Hart and into the top corner. A burst of noise from the Madrileños, the like of which we hadn’t heard in Barcelona, sharp, raucous and triumphant, splitting the hot night air with a whip-crack.

City’s reaction is more passing across the newly formed back four. More dinks into Fernando and back to Otamendi again. More little scraped passes aimed at Sagna and Clichy but going straight into touch. Aguero, lost in the distant fog of City’s forward positions, is not getting a touch, as De Bruyne, the ginger savior, appears paralysed with fear of the big occasion. Pepe and Ramos growl from the back and, as they had done a week earlier in Manchester, look frighteningly solid, compact and aware of what they need to keep on doing.

City are playing to strange orders. The team that has delighted in passing the whole world to sleep in the Premier League this season is suddenly painfully incapable of holding onto the ball for more than three contacts. Real and their crowd are growing into their role of unassailable favourites, untouchable aristocrats, as City wither back into their traditional scruffy Moss Side chancer outfits.

Kroos and Modric, at ease with the ball, stroke it around, while De Bruyne stutters and chases, flips and flaps. Toure, slowing even from his first half dawdle, is whipped off in ignominious fashion, followed shortly after by Navas, suffering from tunnel vision.

Gareth Bale, later to be chosen as Marca’s “el Dandy” and the strutting, half fit Cristiano, keep City fully occupied. Pepe at the back can hardly believe his luck. The English scrappers have come in their carpet slippers.

Manuel opts for penalties
And so it all peters out. Aguero fires one over with two to go. City’s magnificent support, trying to suck the team and the ball towards the goal, rock the old ground with songs of encouragement, but the players don’t want it, cannot find it, daren’t risk it. Instead of the barnstorming finish we all desire, to go out with a defiant bang, all guns blazing, City are pushed back for 4 minutes of injury time spent defending. Pellegrini’s reign, intent on ending on the most imperceptible of light notes, will have no trumpet blast. The City end, falling silent in the grim realization that the team is spent, watch the home fans celebrate their second local derby final in three years.

It is not what our Atletico taxi driver had wanted. It is not what we had wanted. But here it is.

Manuel’s brain trust ran out of ideas months ago. Despite the League Cup win, this is the end of a second consecutive season of considerable underachievement. It is surely a mark of where City have now arrived that a season involving this ground-breaking semifinal in Europe and a fourth-ever league Cup win leaves many feeling distinctly underwhelmed. After Madrid, the incoming Pep will suddenly be aware that the initial reorganization job needs to be a touch more profound than at first thought. For Pellegrini, who has made his name from swashbuckling campaigns with Villareal and Malaga, it is lights out on a feeble exit. Memories of that first scintillating season of attacking football seem distant now. The first great City side of the modern era is over. The team that Roberto Mancini assembled, that Pellegrini took on for a while, has stalled and halted. 

As we prepare to look down on the likes of Yaya and Vincent, Kolarov and Zabaleta, David Silva and Clichy for perhaps the last time, it is difficult not to feel a deep pang of sadness. They have formed the basis of the best City team in living memory and now, in the shadow of the great Bernabeu, we must take our leave of them.   

No, you're el dandy


Thursday, April 28, 2016

ALL OUR YESTERDAYS

The longest judicial inquest in British legal history came to a close on Tuesday 26th April 2016. Letting the enormity of that fact sink in makes the whole tawdry decades-long exercise in mud-slinging and blame-shifting all the more horrendous.

In the aftermath of the jury’s eye-watering verdict in the 27-year-long wait for justice for the 96 people who needlessly died at Hillsborough at the FA Cup semi final in April 1989, football fans of a certain age will be reflecting on how it really could have been any one of us, given the callous disregard for safety and organization we as football supporters met every week of our apparently risk-laden lives during a decade of neglect and disrespect.

That is why, for all the occasional jarring moments about wallowing in the past and breeding a grief culture, this decision, dreadfully late though it is, should be seen as a release first and foremost for the relatives of the families involved in the tragedy, but also a breath of fresh air to anyone, who was there in the 80s and attempted to follow his or her club through a decade of danger, dirt and decadence.

Contrary to the idea mooted on social media on a daily basis these days, apart from the last five years, following Manchester City has not really been what you might call a bed of roses. In the 80s, in fact, it was anything but.


As the last dainty notes of Sister Sledge and Boney M faded and the jagged sounds of the 80s dawned, the football landscape began to change radically. It would do so again after Hillsborough, spawning the sometimes anodyne but always safe environment we watch the game in today, but first came this jarring, dizzying change for the worse. Much worse. 

You can read the rest of this article on Four Four Two magazine's website 


Friday, April 8, 2016

TODAY'S OPPONENTS: WEST BROM

Future City player Asa Hartford lines up for WBA's '73 pre-season team pic
City started the season at the Hawthorns with a 3-0 win that looked like there would be plenty of reason for cheer by the spring. Subsequently, the season has turned into a flop for the Blues while West Brom under Tony Pulis have pulled quietly away from the foot of the table and have managed to anchor themselves in a useful 11th place. They are close to establishing their highest ever Premier League finish, while City's main aim is now a 6th consecutive season of Champions League football.

Up to the 4-0 win at Bournemouth, City had won just one of their last six games. The 4 away goals scored boosted the paltry total of 13 on the road so far to a slightly less embarrassing 17, while Sergio Aguero netted his first goal in six games with an unusual header. At the other end, Willy Caballero completed his first-ever Premier League clean sheet.

The 2-2 draw in Paris in midweek should see City in positive mood.

No History Whatsoever: West Brom were founded in 1879, were founder members of the football league a year later, won the league in 1920 and have won the FA Cup 5 times, the last thanks to the late lost and lamented Jeff Astle in 1968 v Everton. This represents their most recent success of any kind, although they came close two years later in the League Cup final versus City, losing only after extra time on a pitch that only needed scattered hand grenades and plumes of smoke to resemble the rutted fields of the Somme (the Horse of the Year show had judiciously been allowed to go ahead the day before. Rumours that Glyn Pardoe's goal bobbled off a still steaming chunk of equine excrement proved to be unfounded).

Through winning the cup in '68 Albion qualified for the Charity Shield at the start of the 68-69 season and - as is the tradition - played the previous season's league champions, City. The game, somewhat against modern tradition, was played at Maine Road and was famous for City's achievement of racking up a 6-1 win as well as the fact that new signing Bobby Owen scored with his very first touch in a Manchester City shirt. Not many can lay claim to a thing as beautiful as that.


This will be the 138th league meeting between the two sides.

Quirks: It was at the Hawthorns in 1987 that City's inflatable banana craze really took off, starting a post-hooliganism revolution on the terraces in England. It had been started by one man, Frank Newton, who travelled to Plymouth for the first game of the season with a five foot inflatable banana under his arm for some reason. It is not clear whether Frank was under the influence of the heady cocktail of fruit juices and other delicacies rife in the Hacienda-led Manchester scene at the time, but, naturally it caught on. This from Paul Howarth on the MCIVTA site.
Frank went to City’s first game of the season against Plymouth Argyle with a friend, Mike Clare, and they took pictures before and during the game. The fans’ reaction was universally favourable as the huge yellow object was greeted with laughter wherever it appeared. Being a hot August afternoon, Frank decided to remove his regulation City shirt and for the want of anywhere else to put it, put it on the banana. Within a few minutes a face had been drawn and a bobble hat completed the effect. The banana had taken on a personality.
Just like Frank, the banana followed City all over the country and became a well-known figure on the terraces. At West Brom in November, City fans called for the appearance of substitute Imre Varadi. The chant mutated and he was henceforth known affectionately as “Imre Banana”. Gradually the numbers of bananas began to increase. 
The West Brom game witnessed "fighting" on the away terrace between bananas and paddling pools, dinosaurs and inflatable women. A huge cigarette also bounced around, chasing a crocodile and a fried egg. It was, as they say, quite a sight and led to some legendary away days that season.

Playlist:

1976-77 Fine aerial duel between Brian Kidd and John Wile, with Ally Robertson and  Jimmy Conway in the background. The game, played on 29th November 1976, ended in a 1-0 win for City. 
1979-80: Peter Barnes and Gary Owen were sold off to West Brom in the summer of 1979 against their wishes as part of Malcolm Allison's ambitious (reckless) rebuilding programme during his second stint in charge of the club. The move backfired spectacularly when Owen masterminded a 4-0 rout of City at the Hawthorns and Barnes scored twice in a catastrophic defeat at Maine Road the following spring.


1980-81, a full blown resurrection is underway with John Bond having taken over from Malcolm Allison. The FA Cup final will be reached but meanwhile, momentum is growing in the League Cup too. One of my favourite childhood memories is of the quarter-final against West Brom at Maine Road. Having gone a goal down early on to Tommy Booth's unfortunate own goal, City stormed back with goals from David Bennett and Tony Henry to reach the two-legged semis with Liverpool and a date with destiny in the shape of Alf Grey, still the worst referee in living memory. The clip below from the unforgettable Granada documentary CITY! shows otherwise unsaved moments from this game at 7:50 onwards. What comes before is also worth watching, as members of City's board try to look professional in front of the cameras.


A year later in 1981-82 a sunlit Maine Road opened the season against the Baggies. City, fresh from the centenary Cup Final the previous May, played with a similar verve that had carried them all the way to Wembley two months before. Goals from Dennis Tueart and cup final hero and villain Tommy Hutchison sealed a 2-1 win in what would be Bryan Robson's last game for the club before his record breaking £1.5 million transfer to Manchester United.




1982-83: City are on their way to relegation from the First Division, but at Christmas things are still running relatively smoothly. As late as November a 2-0 win over Southampton had put the Blues 2nd in the table. Although West Brom's Christmas visit coincided with a downturn in form, this game was won 2-1 with a rare goal from Steve Kinsey, who had been brought in for his second game of the season in a decidedly thin-looking attack that featured the beanpole David Cross and Peter Bodak. City's form would hold out until a 4-0 thumping at Brighton in the 4th round of the Cup signalled John Bond's exit and the start of a steep descent towards the third relegation spot and an unforgettable day on the beer against Luton Town.

1982-83: Steve Kinsey slots in at the North Stand end to make it 2-0.
1996-97: A truly painful episode during a season when City's Manager of the Month competition took over from the traditional Goal of the Month. January's manager Steve Coppell had left the building "in a bit of a hurry", to be replaced by Miss February, Phil Neal. Having watched with open mouths as Oxford came to Maine Road and won 3-2, City then beat West Brom by the same score. In doing the same again to Bradford a week or so after, Neal was moved to produce his famous quote that "Watching City was the best laxative in the land".

Phil Neal's face tells us the laxatives are about to take control.
1997-98: By now almost completely constipated, City were heading towards Division 3 when West Brom were dispatched at Maine Road by Uwe Rosler. Do not adjust your spectacles, that is Peter Beardsley. It was an odd season, but not nearly as odd as the one that followed in the third division..


1999-00: (below) Spencer Prior warms up vigorously, er, prior to his City debut v West Brom. A central defender of limited ability, Prior was more than happy to reveal unlimited enthusiasm, shoring up the back four in a game that resurrected City's promotion charge after a shambolic 2-2 draw at Stockport had set all the usual alarm bells ringing. Prior had arrived from Derby County on the say-so of none other than Georgi Kinkladze, who must have recommended the lumbering centre half to "undertake a few mazy runs and they'll be eating out of your hands". £700,000 was the reported fee as Prior glided straight into the side to play the Baggies. This was a game in which the 32,000 present were once again put through the famous City wringer. With minutes ticking away, Albion were holding onto a well-deserved single goal lead, which would have left City trailing second placed Ipswich Town by 5 points. Up stepped Mark Kennedy to equalise and, with the very last kick of the game, Shaun Goater to steal the points and give the Blues vital momentum towards a dramatic last day of the season promotion clincher at Ewood Park, Blackburn.  

Spencer practises the all-important bouncing before his debut. 

Last season: A 3-0 win on 21st March that started City towards the six-game winning streak to capture runners-up spot behind Chelsea.
Line-ups: City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Clichy, Navas, Fernando, Lampard, Silva, Bony, Aguero. Subs: Jovetic, Dzeko, Milner. WBA: Myhill, Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Lescott, Baird, Morrison, Gardner, Fletcher, Sessegnon. Subs: Anichebe, Mulumbu.
Scorers: Bony, Fernando, Silva.
Attendances: 45,018

Played in both directions: Asa, Gary Owen, Peter Barnes, Derek Kevan, Steve Mackenzie and his chins, David Cross, Andy Dibble, Tony Grant, Tony Grealish, Ken McNaught, Robert Hopkins, Nicky Reid, Ishmail Miller et al. Ron Saunders, the man who couldn't smile, managed both clubs, while Gary Megson managed one and played for the other. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

ENGINEERING YOUR OWN DOWNFALL

Music, maestro, please.
In the swirling vortex of cussing and name-calling, Mama was crying salty tears. There was no calming her. Her shoulders were shuddering. She was pouting like a small child, her red eyes protruding. Her cheeks glistened. "It's over," she screamed. "It's over. I'm not paying sixty quid for Paris St Germain after that."


*** 
  
Football has a funny effect on people. The fall-out from a Manchester derby willfully thrown to the wind will be clear to us all soon enough. With the title long gone and ever-more injuries making Champions League progress look less and less likely, City's 2015-16 season is running rapidly out of oxygen.

The footnote is already being written to a season of missed opportunities. Rumoured walk-outs over ticket pricing, anger and dismay at Manuel Pellegrini's limping finish to a three year stint in Manchester, incredulity at team selection and performance, there has been something for each and every one of us to get our teeth into.

A season that has witnessed a 4th League Cup win and the club's first ever breakthrough to the last eight of the Champions League a failure? Only City.

Indeed it is fair to use the "F" word in a variety of contexts: The medical staff have failed to keep the players free from the most dramatic list of injuries seen at the club since the Battle of the Bulge. The manager has failed to build on the promise of a swashbuckling start to his career in Manchester. The big-name players have failed to live up to their swollen reputations. The upper management has failed to keep the squad-strengthening going in the right direction at anything approaching regular pace.

The central theme for this 2015-16 season as it continues to crumble before our eyes will be writ large come May: across the board failure to live up to expectations.

***

Let us start with the manager, Manuel Pellegrini. The Engineer is now busy presiding over a dismantling process. The Charming Man has turned into a sour apologist, unwilling to answer anything bar trivialities in press conference. Exchanges both threadbare and facile. "That is football" and "You can't win all the time" witticisms so shallow a herring would run aground. Is that all we get? How such a squad can end up in a three-way fight with West Ham and the worst Manchester United side in a generation to avoid taking part in the next edition of the Europa League deserves a touch more depth.

Cast your mind back to the Chilean's inaugural season in the Premier League, a season that contained so much attacking football, so many goals, so many examples of cocksure exuberance, carefree exploitation of others' frailties, that it fair took the breath away. Aperitifs were in full swing. Shapely helpers were arriving with trays of carefully arranged duck eggs and improbably sculpted meringues. The party looked set to rip. We were startled, then delighted with our new experience. There was an urge to put on wide hats and shake one's hips about. The music in our ears might have come from Havana or New Orleans. Today it looks like a freak blip, served up by a man wearing a false beard.

Perhaps the first signs of management decision-making going awry came in that first season with an
unnecessary injury to Alvaro Negredo, a striker who had been scoring for fun, injured in the second leg of the League Cup semi final against West Ham at Upton Park, a match he did not need to be palying in. City had romped the first leg 6-0. Negredo - an astonishing, rampaging presence in the City attack up to the turn of the year - was never the same again and ended up being hastily bandaged and shipped out to Valencia.

Maybe then the question should have been asked how such a rampant figurehead could be leaving the club in such a shadowy, dishevelled state.

This is mirrored now at the other end of the team by the immediate overuse of Vincent Kompany and the over-reliance on certain other players. Straight out of the latest of a long line of muscle pulls, the captain was thrown into a punishing run of games that resulted in yet another mishap. If he was needed that badly, what is to be said of the processes within the club that left us with such a panicky scenario in central defence. Nicolas Otamendi and, to a greater extent, Eliaquim Mangala - the most expensive lumberjack partnership in Premier League history - looked ill-equipped for the job. Martin Demichelis, it has long been apparent, has been kept on a year beyond his waning powers could cope with. It did not take a catastrophic performance in the derby that recalled so vividly the restoration comedy acts Michael Frontzeck, Ken McNaught, Paul Beesley and TonyVaughan to inform us of that.

For a player who had once been reliable to be subjected to this ridicule at the end of his stint at City was down wholly to the manager's insistence on playing him when he was patently no longer up to it.

Jason Denayer is, of course, nowhere to be seen, having been propelled out on loan to the dusty eastern edges of the continent. Along with other promising kids, his time appears never to be quite upon us. When the youngsters did finally get a look-in, it was in extremis and en bloc at Chelsea in the Cup, resulting in a soul-destroying and confidence-draining drubbing before a live global audience on television. Tosin Adarabioyo, a central defender who had already coped comfortably with Marcus Rashford in youth team matches, showed up well enough amid the rubble of  Stamford Bridge but was overlooked for the elder statesman in the derby, when all that was needed was a fresh pair of legs that could keep pace with the inexperienced United youngsters. In the end Rashford needed to do little more than run straight at Demichelis at speed to create the necessary havoc.

The situation that has brought us Mangala and Otamendi comes from the purchasing department, otherwise known as Txiki Begiristain. The Basque's record in signing the right player at the right time for City is some way east of patchy. Pellegrini's input in this area is unknown. Presumably he has a sizeable say in what happens but it is not entirely his remit. The paralysing FFP sanctions levied by UEFA also took their toll on the middle part of Pellegrini's reign, blocking any proper squad building to follow on from his initial triumphs in 2013-14. That was made clear when Bruno Zuculini zoomed in and wandered back out again.

Meanwhile, the squad has also been allowed to age and deteriorate. All the major players bar Sergio Aguero have been kept on despite gradually fading powers. Yaya Toure, an absolute monster in this club's glory years, is now reduced to one powerful performance in six, if that. Whatever one might think about his choice of agent, or his apparently endless yearning for public acclaim, the man has been an untouchable giant in the club's surge into the sunshine and should not be finishing his time out of position in a side going gently through the motions.

David Silva is another one turning heads. The little Spaniard has not had a match all season to compare with the quicksilver that every single follower of the club would recognise. For over six years he has been the well-greased fulcrum for everything creative in that City engine room. Against Manchester United he capped a performance that was bereft of meaningful contribution. The simplest sideways ball patted into touch. The through balls he would thread ten times a game utterly absent. In their place arm-waving, shoulder-shrugging and looks of bitter frustration.

The mind drifts back to those sun-drenched days when a blind reverse volleyed pass over 50 yards at Old Trafford set Edin Dzeko through to seal a 6-1 drubbing of the old enemy, a match that heralded Alex Ferguson's worst nightmare: it would happen in his lifetime after all and in fact was happening right in front of his slowly revolving eyes.

One struggles to imagine this season's David Silva constructing such a thing of wonder.

Sergio Aguero too cannot be clear of criticism. The little striker looks too good for this present City side but in truth his finishing has been out of sync for most of the season. His touch and his eye for the angle have often deserted him, although the goals have not dried up completely. His efforts carried the side against United yet he could not finish when it was needed.

But that is by no means the full story. You can place blame on the manager, the purchasing department and the side's stellar performers, but the support cast has hardly covered itself in glory either. Pep Guardiola's easy option contract suddenly looks to be written in Mesopotamian pictographs. He's going to need his reading glasses to solve this one.

***

With a beady eye firmly fixed on Champions League progress, the domestic cape of dominance is being unpicked thread by thread. Increased tv income means the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Southampton and Stoke can all field sides with Champions League experience and continental guile. Grounds up and down the country have marveled at the skills of Payet, Arnautovich, Mahrez, Kanté and Mané. The elite's hills of money no longer cast such a heavy shadow. The skills of the manager and his staff to mould a squad that can bring home the trophies ahead of energetic and well staffed challengers has now come under the spotlight. Klopp, Wenger and Van Gaal have all looked distinctly ordinary alongside the apparent B-listers Koeman, Bilic, the Tinkerman, Pochettino and dear old Mark Hughes.

Reputations are suddenly and clearly on the line. Pellegrini himself, with underdog credentials from Villareal and Malaga and a season of unbridled chaos at the Bernabeu, seems to have moved from peak engineering to vacuous pottering. As the masses wait for some pep, it seems the Chilean may have plateaued some time ago. The worse this season has become, the stronger those beliefs have grown. Even the triumphs were tighter than they should have been. The League Cup strung out to penalties, Champions League qualification on the bell.

What of that Champions League progress? Twice denied by Barcelona at the first knock out stage, City have gone one step further this time, thanks to a sudden and unexpected windfall of luck in the group stages: a last minute resurrection against Sevilla, two late charges against Borussia Monchengladbach and an unlikely set of results in the final round of games (Juventus suddenly deciding it was time to lose in Seville) left City unlikely group winners and thus able to avoid the customary big hitters. Instead City drew Dynamo Kiev, a team in full hibernation, and- after a great first leg in the Ukraine- ambled through with a soporific 0-0 draw at the Etihad. Not a thing of beauty but at least a first-ever quarter final. Still the doubts remain. It was possibly the kindest draw the club could have wished for against a team with its eyes still gummed up from two months of inactivity. The second leg revealed Kiev not only to be short of energy, but also inspiration, as they settled without much fuss for the draw which eliminated them.

City will now meet Paris St Germain, an apparently like-minded Champions League hopeful, gliding gently though their fifth consecutive French tittle-winning season with a 25-point cushion, clinching Ligue 1 with a strolling 9-0 away win at Troyes. City will enter the fray without the newly crocked Joe Hart, the nervous Demichelis, the injured Kompany and Sterling, but with the newly patched up De Bruyne.

The old script would have something ridiculous waiting around the corner. When the chips were down, we usually chipped in. With a bunch of half-injured, confidence-lite specimens, continental glory crooks its wicked finger. But the highest echelons of European football don't work like Division Three play-off finals. Against Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Lucas Moura and Edinson Cavani, Peter Swales era chicanery is unlikely to do the trick.

Maybe things aren't so bad after all.
Maybe we should just sit back and enjoy the ride, as we always used to, see where it takes us and open up a beer or three. But City's emergence into the sunlight has demanded that we take them seriously. The project arrived with drum rolls not penny whistles. Stuck in limbo between the dark wet tunnels filled with the manic laughter of the past and the brightly painted straight lines of the new era, it is sometimes difficult to know where to turn. Is it ok to complain? Can we realistically berate David Silva for poor performances after all he's done? Wouldn't it be better to keep quiet and let things unravel in their own inevitable way? Should we be happy that among all the trophies gathered in the last five years, we can still recognise the unmistakable smell of bushfire and singed meat?

Somethings may never change and of course that in itself will be comfort to some, who see the soul and character of the club moving into a world of corporate excess. As long as the aura of Bernad Halford, of Big Mal, of Romark the hypnotist, who helped Halifax Town put the Blues out of the FA Cup in 1979 in a West Yorkshire quagmire, of transfer deals involving crates of Electrolux fridge freezers and of hugging the corner flag when goals were needed to avoid relegation are still with us, we will know we're in the right place.

With ticket prices going through the roof (with the added bonus of abject timing and poor public relations) and a playing staff dislocated from the real world, the moments of slapstick have become few and far between at City. The fans that used to file in to witness another episode of slap and tickle, who majored in self-deprecation, have been asked to straighten up, cough up and look to a serious future of global glad-handing. Going to the match has never been so exorbitant. Paris has never seemed so far away.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

YET ANOTHER BIG FINISH REQUIRED

Football often reflects life these days, in that absolutely nothing can happen quickly enough to satisfy our immediate need for up-to-date news. With this in mind, the report in Tuesdays Mirror that excitedly revealed which managers were on the shortlist to succeed Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, might be seen as just a touch premature.http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/manchester-city-already-looking-pep-7515034

The Spaniard, after all, hasn’t even touched down in Manchester yet and will not do so for another couple of months.

"And we can confirm Leicester have lost"
This ludicrous getting-ahead-of-ourselves masks the fact that the English football season is now reaching its most critical phase and City, whether the Mirror likes it or not, still capably managed by the phlegmatic Manuel Pellegrini, are clinging to the hope that a season of mounting drama can still deliver more of the same between now and mid May. If it does deliver such a finish, we may well be yet to see the greatest drama of 2015-16.

While certain areas of the press busy themselves speculating on who will be City’s manager in 2019, the rest of us can quietly contemplate the club’s chances of resurrecting a proper title challenge in March and April of 2016.

The signs were there last weekend, in demolishing a passive and admittedly quite feeble Aston Villa that all is not yet lost. http://www.espnfc.com/barclays-premier-league/match/422376/manchester-city-aston-villa/report

The ten point gap to leaders Leicester will take some closing, but there are some encouraging signs as City prepare to visit another of the Premier League’s endangered species this weekend in Norwich City.


Firstly, the news that, by the time the latest international break is complete, Pellegrini will have Samir Nasri, Fabian Delph and, better news still, Kevin de Bruyne back in the fold and ready for tentative inclusion in first team matters for the last eight games of the season. De Bruyne's eight goals and eight assists so far mean his inclusion in the run-in will be particularly welcome.

You can read the rest of this article on ESPNFC's pages 

Monday, February 29, 2016

GENTLEMEN


In a vivid, incredible parody of their own rickety history, laden as it is with belly-flops and custard pies, City won the League Cup in the only manner they, and indeed we, properly understand: with a liberal dose of high theatre, putting the watching masses through the wrangler. How to thrash a 40 year hoodoo into a pulp in two hours of enthralling cup football.

Of course, any City story worth its salt is going to be draped in comic book heroes and villains, unlikely men who step into the breach at the most ill-timed moments to cover themselves in glory or compost. From Beanie the Horse to Glauber Berti, from The Goat to Romark,  the years have been generously decorated with a most intriguing cast of saints, scoundrels, misfits and rapscallions.

Wilfredo Daniel Caballero Lazcano, gentleman Wilfredo, became the shiny-headed hero of this latest episode of What City Did Next, exactly a week after diving out of the way of three of Chelsea’s goals in the FA Cup. Forget not, however, in the chugging vortex of what had happened here, that his one bit of good judgment at the Bridge of Sighs was to save acrobatically from Oscar’s decent enough penalty. Cometh the man et cetera. Having already kept out Divock Origi’s untimely attempt to steal the cup from City’s ever-sweatier, ever-loosening grasp, Caballero transformed himself into the game’s central figure with a late masterclass of penalty saving. Three in total. Three in a row. Two to the left and one, elastically, amazingly, to the right.

And of course, in true stretch-the-realms-of-reality style, this could only be permitted to occur after Fernandinho had rolled City’s first effort against Mignolet’s left post, an act of only-City pathos  to render the ultimate triumph five long minutes later that little bit more draining for all who had to watch it unfold.

But then it was only the League Cup. I don't know what everyone was getting so worked up about.

Try telling anybody cavorting and thudding around in that heaving mass of humanity at the City end that this was the 4th choice pot. Adrenaline, disbelief and a raging sense of the ridiculous had most in ecstatic huddles as grown men and women threw themselves into each others’ arms. The toast of course, a blubbing Willy down on the pitch, being carted off on Wilfried Bonys’ broad shoulders even before his stuttering words could reach the tv viewers. The man who soared just as his City career was about to dive into loveless abandon.
The long walk

If the songs of war heading up the great Wembley ramparts before the game were of The Best Team in the Land and All the World, they had changed afterwards to hastily arranged ditties to greet the new hero. Manchester’s historic ability to turn the humdrum into a decent lyric was alive and kicking in London NW10. He was shite but now he’s alright.

But it was no one man show: Willy’s supporting cast was full of willing accomplices. Yaya Touré, suddenly energized in Kiev, again a monstrous thundering presence down the middle here, as he carved his way through Liverpool’s increasingly makeshift backline. A true man for all (big) occasions. The Elephant of Bondouku has contributed a Wembley semi final winner v United, the FA Cup final winner v Stoke, a crucial and wonderfully placed goal at Newcastle in the first title run in, the League Cup goal out of nothing against Sunderland and now the clinching penalty against Liverpool. Perhaps his only error all afternoon was to embark on a Nicky Weaver celebration, only to turn and see the rest of the squad had emptied itself all over the still stunned Caballero.

Then there was the slightly disheveled figure of Manuel Pellegrini himself, vindicated so wonderfully for taking the difficult decisions: to throw the dear old FA Cup to the four winds, to stay loyal to his second string keeper just seven days after he had done such an invigorating impersonation of Eike Immel under the guidance of Alan Ball. City’s first and possibly last cross-eyed keeper. 

Vindicated if vindication was needed. The Charming Man, the dignified one and now the man of his word. Stronger than the sword and certainly stronger here than the piffling matter of the 4th grade importance League Cup. Hats off to you, man of Chile, man of nerves and swerves. Hats off to you to come through this with your reputation intact, nay enhanced.

And Joe Hart, hugging the air out of the man that had just deprived him of playing in a Cup Final. The very same man, we learn, he has nurtured through the difficult moments, coached through the dark moments of self doubt and made sure it was possible to stand there and fill the goal confidently and capably with 86,000 pairs of eyes waiting and watching for your first fumble. A fumble that never came. 

David Silva's free kick sails over
Hart will have many more big days out but for the 34 year old serial reserve, this was the culmination of a dedicated career spent partly in the shadows, wholly without the jewelry of success. No wonder he was wiping away the tears.

Step forward too, Jesus Navas, who with Pablo Zabaleta had led a late onslaught towards the weak left side vacated by Alberto Moreno and by now being filled by James Milner, with Kolo Touré and Lucas filling in as best they could. Navas, the poor little Spanish kid who might never have made it out of Spain because of the debilitating bout of homesickness that had laid him low before. The winger that couldn’t find his bearings. Well here he was, standing tall for the critical second penalty after Fernandinho’s miss, firing home nervelessly, then giving the crowd an adrenaline-packed display of his spirit as he booted the ball towards where we were shouting ourselves hoarse on the third tier. The same ball that had to be retrieved. The same ball that returned to the pitch half way down the left side. The same ball that Philippe Coutinho had walked up to the spot without. The same ball he had to wait extra seconds to be reunited with, then dead-legged and unsure of himself, sent harmlessly into the waiting gloves of Willy. Come to Willy, my darling, Come to Willy.

As the fourth Liverpool penalty, struck well and to the goalkeeper’s right by Adam Lallana, still nursing a bruised neck from being heaved a foot off the floor by Touré, also found the same willing destiny as the others, it became clear that Caballero was indeed to be the headline-maker, but not in a way that many could have anticipated. We should, of course, have known much better than to doubt the powers of Manchester City to confound us all and we should have known better also than to doubt the gloved gentleman of Santa Elena and his boss, the wise old gentleman of Santiago.

Then there was the captain, who has transformed City's defence back into a viable unit, simultaneously changing Nicolas Otamendi from a whirling dervish into solid block and tackle. As you would expect from Manuel Pellegrini, the side's figurehead on the pitch is also a man of empathy and humanity. As his team mates began the rush from the halfway line to free Willy from his lonely vigil at the end of the penalties, Kompany lingered just long enough to commiserate with the losing players. A typically gentlemanly gesture in the midst of all the streamers and wailing.

So, the good guys do win after all. You can stick to your principles and still come out alive. You can live your life in the shadows and still come out into the sunlight before all is too late. Football is not as important as keeping your word, but sometimes it comes pretty close..  




Poets and Lyricists