Friday, August 26, 2016

TODAY'S OPPONENTS: WEST HAM

Trevor Sinclair, who played for both sides, is tackled by Joey Barton in the 2002-03 game
Almost exactly a year ago, West Ham descended on the Etihad and inflicted City's first defeat of the season after a wonderful 5-game winning start to the season.

Early goals from Moses and Sakho had caught the Blues on the hop, with Joe Hart watching Moses's low shot creep past as early as the 8th minute.

It would herald a season of stuttering progress and the initial burst of five wins was proved a false start after all the gleeful hand-wringing it had provoked.

The Hammers would go on to have an excellent season under new boss Slaven Bilic, finishing high enough (7th) to qualify for European competition.

West Ham have in recent years been a relatively supine opponent for City, with only two defeats since 2009, although they have both come in the last two years, so things may be beginning to take a turn for the worse in that respect. West Ham's best spell against City in modern times was in the 90s when they pilfered five victories against a City side heading for dark times at the end of the decade. In the 70s and 80 both clubs had a reputation for rich attacking football and served up many a match for the connoisseurs, with City more often than not coming out on top.

City's current form is identical to the form they were in a year ago, having started with four straight wins, although two of these have come against the befuddled men from Steaua Bucharest. The Hammers have already made a massive meal of their European quest, exiting to the "Romanian farmers" of Astra Giurgiu before the group stage draw had even been delivered.

No History Whatsoever: Founded in 1895, the Hammers have been going since 1900 as West Ham, before that as Thames Ironworks, where their Irons nickname hails from. Prolific in the FA Cup in the 70s, they reached two Cup Winners Cup finals, wining one in 1965 v 1860 Munich and losing one in 1976 to Anderlecht. Their FA Cup triumphs in 1975 (v Bobby Moore's Fulham) and in 1980 (as a second division side v Arsenal) were iconic events in that decade, with scoring heroes Alan Taylor and Trevor Brooking going down in Upton Park folklore. The stooping header that Brooking defeated Arsenal with, however, was the last trophy West ham won. In 1980.

Quirks: Provided the three stand-out stars for England's World Cup side of 1966. Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and the incomparable Bobby Moore formed an integral part of the World Cup winning effort. Hammers fans have lived off that fact for several decades. Moore, England's trophy winning captain, was in fact indebted to City manager Malcolm Allison for his football education. Moore was an apprentice at Upton Park when Big Mal held the future England centre half's position in the first team. Allison, a keen tactician and student of the Hungarian national team that had become the first overseas side to win at Wembley in 1953, took the young Moore under his wing from an early age. The Hammers icon always cited Allison as his mentor in the game right through to his sadly premature exit from football and early death from cancer.

Playlist: In March 1970, West Ham slid out onto the grass-free mudheap that was Maine Road in that era for a game that would become infamous for a cataclysmic goalkeeping error by Joe Corrigan. It is a blooper that the big goalkeeper was never allowed to fully forget. With Jimmy Greaves making his debut for the Hammers that afternoon, the fateful goal, scored full on the volley to keep the ball as far away from the clogging mud as possible, was netted by Ronnie Boyce. Catching Corrigan's weak clearance and knocking it straight back into the goal from the halfway line, the City 'keeper was still wiping the mud off his shorts. The look of shock and awe on Corrigan's face as the ball landed in the net will have kept him awake for many a night and he was beset with confidence problems in the next two years of his City career, before shaking off the demons and becoming a regular England squad keeper in the 70s and early 80s.


Ironically, the match was the first ever City-West Ham game to be covered by television, the BBC's prying cameras catching Corrigan's despair in full and glorious colour.

In August 1974 the Hammers provided City with their opening day opposition in a game that was Asa Hartford's debut for City. Hartford had been part of an aborted attempt by Leeds to sign the feisty
Rodney Marsh pulls away from Tommy Taylor in 1974
midfielder from West Brom, but a medical scan had revealed a hole in the heart and Hartford, after a single day training with Leeds, was sent back to the Hawthorns. Three years later he signed for City and made his debut in a  thrilling, sunlit 4-0 victory over the Londoners, with goals coming from Mike Doyle, Dennis Tueart and two from Rodney Marsh.

It would be the start of a decade when City experienced good fortune and great results against their London rivals. West Ham, as now, were seen as something of a soft touch on their travels, but were a different proposition on their tight Upton Park pitch, where the crowd seemed to be practically spilling over the touchlines.

As the end of the 70s loomed, West Ham were relegated and, having won the Cup in 1980 as a 2nd division side, came back up to face City again in the early 80s. The match at Upton Park in 1982-83 season was notable for City's lack of self-discipline and once again Asa Hartford was to play a leading role.

In a match won 4-1 by the Hammers, City had both Hartford and Kevin Bond sent off. This could have been taken as a signal to those paying enough attention that City were not in great shape. The Hammers might have returned to the big time, but City were about to exit stage left. By the end of the season City were hanging on for dear life and a 2-0 home win over the Londoners provided something of a lifeline. Manager John Bond had jumped ship after a cup thrashing at Brighton and the hapless John Benson was attempting to steer the ship away from the rocks. The Hammers were just what a winless and lifeless City side needed, triumphing 2-0 to keep alive their hopes. It was all to no avail as the last day drama at home to Luton would scar a whole generation of City fans for life.

Strangely, after spending the 80s drifting badly, City again found relegation staring them in the face when West Ham hove into view four years later. 1986-87 was yet another dark year in City's history. The last game of the season, in East London, was memorable not for the result - City losing two-nil meant relegation was once again sealed - but for the crowd's reaction at the end of the game. The 80s had been riven with discontent, hooliganism and trouble. The atmosphere at grounds was febrile and dark, with wire fences and segregated pens commonplace around the grounds.

As the whistle went at Upton Park, a huge flood of fans came onto the pitch from the home end and charged towards the desolate City supporters. It seemed an ugly end to an already dreadful season was upon us, but the wave of Hammers fans stopped at the far touchline and began to applaud and serenade the City fans. To this day, a mutual respect has existed between the two sets of supporters because of what happened on 9th May 1987.

By the time West ham travelled north for a 4th round FA Cup tie at Maine Road in 1997-98 season, City were once again in the second tier and about to drop further. As an established Premier League side, the Hammers came north expecting to win comfortably but, on a day of blustery wind and bright sunshine, a live television audience saw City fight hard and witnessed one of Georgi Kinkladze's many sublime moments in a sky blue shirt. That the little Georgian's weaving magic for the equalising goal was cruelly snuffed out by ex-City schemer Steve Lomas's late winner gave a heavy pointer to how the next couple of years were set to play out for the club. Uwe Rosler's missed penalty eventually cost City dearly in a 2-1 defeat. Manager Frank Clark would be on his way within weeks as Joe Royle arrived to steward the club's first-ever descent into the third tier.

Steve Lomas in action v City for West Ham in 2000
By the 2002-03 season's final home game, the tables had been turned, with West Ham - now led by club ambassador Trevor Brooking - about to take the drop. With the Hammers desperately needing the points to avoid relegation and City playing their penultimate game at Maine Road before the move to the Commonwealth Games Stadium, tension was high.

In the end, a late goal by Freddie Kanouté brought the visitors all three points, but they still fell through the trap door two weeks later. Kanouté's sublime skills upfront were mirrored at the other end by another marksman with dubious mental strength, Nicolas Anelka. To match the Upton Park reception from 15 years earlier, West Ham's battling performance was roundly applauded by the home support, cementing the good relationship between both sets of fans. Anelka would score twice on his return to Anfield the following week to help lift Kevin Keegan's City to an unprecedented 8th spot after years of underachievement, as West Ham drifted to the division below.

Although the clubs have met in the FA Cup again in recent years (a win in 2008 and a defeat in 2006), the most memorable games came in the League Cup semi-finals of 2014, as Alvaro Negredo's exquisite hat-trick helped blow the hammers away 6-0. That the prolific Spaniard played - and was injured - in the second leg a week later was the beginning of the end for him at the Etihad, but City had laid the foundations for a classic triumph v Sunderland at Wembley in the final.

Truly a history of fluctuating fortunes, with one club usually meeting the other when their luck ws on the wane and vice versa. On this occasion, they both arrive in good health, enjoying big crowds in new stadia and with bright futures ahead.

Played in both directions: Steve Lomas, Ian Bishop, Kevin Horlock, Trevor Morley, Eyal Berkovic, Trevor Sinclair, Paulo Wanchope, David Cross, Mark Ward, Marc Vivien Foé, Stuart Pearce, David James, Phil Woosnam, Clive Allen and Perry Suckling.

Steve Kinsey knocks in a cross ahead of Steve Walford in a League Cup replay 1984-85


 















Saturday, August 20, 2016

COME THE REVOLUTION

Pep Guardiola's tactical revolution at City walked out into its biggest test so far: the noise, the wind and the energy of Stoke and emerged smelling of roses.

Although Mark Hughes has developed Stoke's play from the thrash and flail of olden times to a more sophisticated counter-attacking game, the Britannia it is still the kind of place that gives you a raw, bear-pit atmosphere that can - and often does - unsettle the so-called Rolls Royce sides of the Premier League.

This time, however, the home side had some puzzles of their own to work out. With the home crowd inexplicably booing Raheem Sterling ("One Greedy Bastard" the most ironic of the chants coming from the locals in a Premier League full of them) and a strong wind blowing, it was a decent test for City.

What we have witnessed so far from Guardiola is nothing short of a tactical revolution in England. The shape of City's side against Sunderland was something new, even after all these years of nip and tuck. The last time City possessed a manager who could be called a tactical guru was Malcolm Allison in the late 60s. His tactical thinking had been formed largely from watching how the Hungarians skillfully dismantled a tactically blinkered England at Wembley. Innovation since then at City has amounted to playing a six foot four goalkeeper upfront to try to gain entry to the UEFA Cup. Take a bow, Staurt Pearce.

The fascinating movements of the two full-backs, drifting inwards and forwards to become central midfielders - Sagna and Clichy even overlapped at one stage against Sunderland leaving the right back in left midfield and vice versa - was just part of an afternoon of first level tinkering from the Catalan. At one point at Stoke, Kolarov, pushed forward high in midfield, chose to veer into the middle of the park and passed forward...to Pablo Zabaleta, even more advanced in the central areas. It was this kind of bewildering positioning that had done for Sunderland on the opening day and Steaua in midweek.

This change alone had dragged Sunderland's nominal forward midfielders into a congested midfield, where they found their own confused full backs trying to do their usual job of tracking City's flank defenders, who had drifted inside.

This in turn allowed City's wide attackers, Nolito and Sterling to move into largely unoccupied spaces where Sunderland's fullbacks should have been, had they not got stuck in no-man's land between sticking to their guns and wandering around after Sagna and Clichy. With Fernandinho dropping back to aid John Stones and new centre back Aleksandar Kolarov - another startling innovation - City's changing shape must have been a nightmare to track.

That Sunderland not only held on but actually gained a foothold at 1-1 could be put down to City's players getting used to a totally alien set-up. The pace of the game was slow and, despite massive advantage in possession, it was evident that City's players were still unfamiliar with the runs that they needed to make. For a first go, it was impressive, however.

Kolarov's reinvention as a left sided centre back was a revelation, with the Serb - infamous for a legendary lack of positional awareness - suddenly impressing in a Beckenbauer-esque strutting performance.

Fernandinho, impressive for large chunks of a moribund season under Pellegrini, found himself as an unusual pivot, moving in between the back two to make a three, then holding the line when Stones or Kolarov ambled forward to launch attacks.

Upfront, Aguero was quiet, but this was about to change radically in Romania, where Steaua, a decent side, were made to look like a shambling arrangement of strangers. Here City's movement and speed of thought had been notched up a level or two from the opening game in the Premier League. Players' movement was more fluid and triangles of sharp passing between Nolito and Silva, Silva and De Bruyne and Sterling and Aguero became a mesmeric nightmare for Steaua's poorly arranged defence.

Some have attempted to play down this performance on the grounds that the home side were so poor, but nothing should be taken away from the fact that City had travelled far to play a European away game in a hostile sttadium at an early stage of development and had absolutely wiped the floor with a side that has a European Cup win of their own under their belts. 5-0 amounted not only to City's biggest ever away win in European competition, but also an early marker to what this side is going to be capable of.

The movement, the passing, the quick-thinking all bode well for what might come next. Guardiola has never been one to rest on his laurels and there are sure to be more examples of his fascinating innovations in the weeks to come, but already he was providing ample evidence that City's squad is one of the best, and - when in harness with a coach of this calibre - it looks difficult to stifle.

Stoke and Mark Hughes could not work it all out during a punishing first half, as City's shape morphed from a starting point of 4-1-4-1 through a three-man defence with five in midfield to something approaching 2-1-3-2-2 when the screw was being turned.

With Otamendi's agricultural contribution an eye-opener alongside the smooth as silk passing of John Stones, it was left to Sterling and Silva to pull Stoke out of shape. With Aguero and De Bruyne prowling in the holes left free, the Stoke defence were chasing shadows up to half time and in the last ten minutes. The speed and persistence of Navas, then Nolito, brought more dividends, as City's
John Stones was imperious bringing the ball out of defence
incessant pass and move gradually wore Stoke and their braying supporters down.

Sterling, despite one or two poor touches, played a lively part on both flanks. Criticised later on Match of the Day by Phil Neville for "not providing a good enough final ball" and then for "not being selfish, going for goal, that's what all the good wingers do" (selfish wingers, even Guardiola hasn't experimented with that one), he was again the bizarre focus of the crowd's vitriol. This of course has nothing to do with his performances in Euro 2016 and hopefully nothing to do with racism, but can only be the weird overspill from the press coverage of his transfer from Liverpool more than a year ago. It is not clear whether Phil Neville has an opinion on that.

We have come a fair way from the salt and pepper pots of Malcolm Allison's tactics morning in Cassettari's café outside Upton Park, that spawned a generation of innovative coaches, including Manchester United-bound Dave Sexton. Guardiola is the modern day reincarantion of this genre and we can only guess what comes next. For now an invigorating start has been made.

Player ratings for ESPN.

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.


Poets and Lyricists