Friday, March 23, 2012

THE GOOD SHIP DIGNITY

Giving the old moral compass an elaborate whizz this morning, it comes to rest pointing straight at the shining domes and gleaming turrets of Old Trafford, for here we have some very worried individuals doing their utmost - what ever it takes, some would say - to upset the applecart. But the cart is heavily loaded. The apples are ripe and plump and heavy. When you bite into one, a worm waves back. Let us only hope that it is not a woodworm.

Somewhere in the corridors beneath the gargantuan Mecchano set that is Old Trafford, there is an insignificant noticeboard. made of faded cork. It is, my mole insists, dotted with coloured drawing pins and pocked with little holes. On it linger various bits of paper: A please wash your hands memo for the Two Hobbits; an exhaustive timetable for David de Gea's thrice-weekly motor reflex sessions (Ball Catching Monday, Moving left and right Thursday, Dropping Bollocks Saturday/Sunday); Wayne Rooney's Burger king menu and other bits and pieces. Apparently, at its centre is a coloured sheet with hand written boxes and lines. Someone has written at the top in bright red felt pen, "Press Interview Schedule" and listed below every single player and ex-player, plus assorted coaching staff and The One and Only Mick Hucknall. The idea, my informant assures me, is to wheel out one or, in times of great desperation, more individuals to drop a few handy, user-friendly and not-at-all-transparent quotes for the energetic and upstanding men of the press to deal with.

This morning, it was the turn of what might be called "The Heavy Cavalry" or "The Special Shock Troops" to turn out and do its bit for the cause. Rio Ferdinand. Bryan Robson. The grand old men of Manchester United. The Mainstays. The Pillars. The Columns. The Posts. Wit, intellect, eloquence, logic, lucidity, gravitas. None of this matters when you front up the junior reporter from the Mirror. I once saw these guys in action after City's win in Porto and, let me tell you, the phrase "leave no stone uncovered" was not invented for these chaps. Give them a lazy lie or a banal bit of banta and the notepads flip shut as sure as someone shouting Bacardi Breezers! All Free!! Served by the pool!! Kerry Katona!! The stampede produces a Tunisian sandstorm from the carpet.

Sometimes this heavy onslaught is exacerbated by even bigger guns from behind the lines. Alan Hansen, Mark Ogden, Gary Lineker wait, training their bazookers on the slim frame of Roberto Mancini. Some of the shots are subtle ones, across the bows, making the cheap jibes of the spotty trainee at the Mail look like a 4th form essay on why the tide goes in and out. City were "under the cosh" said Lineker, referring, incredibly, to last Wednesday's game against Chelsea, when the London club played as languidly as Bette Davis on Ketamine, led through a deflected goal (their second attempt on goal after 60 minutes) and still managed (despite the huge force of good luck evidently flowing in their direction) to be beaten by a City side producing a will to win not seen since Stalingrad fell. According to the lethargic intellect of Hansen, this piece of gargantuan effort and thrust was City "getting lucky". This just a week after a single goal defeat at Swansea was deemed to bring us to "the brink of capitulation".

When Hansen's pet project, the laughably over-hyped Liverpool of Kenny Dalglish, went from 2-up to 3-2 down in the final ten minutes at Fortress Loftus Road, this was considered "nothing to be worried about". No capitulation though, please remember that. Capitulation is losing at Swansea and winning 20 consecutive home games. This new Premier League record was lost to the High Wire Performers on Match of the Day, as they worried themselves sick about Balotelli missing a one-on-one with Peter Cech instead.

But I digress. Once again my paranoia is getting the better of me and I am letting myself think that the world doesn't like me, or indeed you, or any of the other meagre hundreds climbing out of the woodwork this morning to hunt for glory in a sky blue shirt..

For, as Rio says, there are many of us coming out of cupboards and closets, ambling out from behind bushes and trees, climbing down from hiding places in lofts and disused cement mixers, to straighten our hair, try to look normal and pretend we have been "City all along". He even calls us "plums" for reacting to his well aimed drivel, as if all this golden banta is so sacrosanct, it smells of purest musk glands and shimmers like the golden fleece itself. However, maybe we are being hard on him. And on Captain Marvel too, with his Solid Words of Wisdom ("You can never do anything by looking down a fixtures list but..." - *glances down a handily placed fixture list* - "City do have the harder run in". Kerboom! Kerrrang! Kerplunk).


For, if we return to that little coloured chart on the corkboard deep in the sweet-smelling intestines of that venerable old stadium, we can see that, far over to the left, is another column marked "suggestions". Here are the topics to be planted by the day's special forces for good. "Plastic Fans" says one. "Out of the Woodwork" comes another. Under Wayne Rooney, it says, tellingly "UNITED BETTER LIKE". Further down, though, in Paddy Crerand's column (he is due to be wheeled out next Tuesday, just after Ryan Once Again Giggs) it says "Wife-beaters", "Ugly Stains" and "Romanian Mafia". So hold onto your hats, good folks, because the Old Trafford Propaganda Truck, all 56 tonnes of it, is rolling towards us all on big over-inflated tyres and it won't stop until we are all as flat as the proverbial pancake.

City get lucky in front of 47,000 woodwork students

Friday, March 16, 2012

THE WILD BUNCH

"Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour...". In that case someone just stole my bruschetta.

Having cantered a lethargic Iberian kilometre or two and fallen asleep under a cork tree, those fine fellows in blue finally decided to wake up. Just in time. Or ever so slightly too late. That depends on your view of Joe Hart's slowly diving header, his shirt being held firmly by the desperate panting figure of Daniel Carriço, as he lurched towards the ball and his unerring date with destiny. 

"The Lion King"
So, it's goodbye cruel Europe, goodbye strangely attractive Europa League and goodbye oddly plastic Champions League. We can't quite say it's been a ball. Things are too raw for that, but we've had our moments. Our first bite at the Champions league could not have been more sour, departing with ten points, a feat not achieved by anybody for seven years. Instead we left with memories of the Munich Oktoberfest, the flare-lit Naples sky, the birth of the David Silva song in a concrete Spanish precinct. We swayed and chatted on the tree-lined streets of Lisbon and down by the river in Porto. The "craic" on occasions was as epic as any of us could manage. We rearranged the plastic furniture, banged the tin trays had quite a time.

Until now that is. Last night, we had so many moments, we could have opened a clock shop. Still Signor Mancini tells us this morning it is all his fault: "After Porto, maybe we thought Sporting will be easy," he says, echoing his remarks after underestimating Everton too. How so. Do we not do our homework anymore, so sure have we become of our own dizzying powers? Nobody in their right mind thinks a visit to either Goodison Park or Lisbon can be deemed an opportunity to pick daisies.

Back to the maelstrom. Quite how City had plugged the holes and dragged themselves back into it is unclear. A misfiring David Silva (so this is what it looks like when its batteries have gone), transparent Adam Johnson (is he there? I can see straight through to the other side!) and a wide-eyed David Pizzaro left the field and the come-back began almost immediately. Dzeko the totem pole, such a figure of fun these last few weeks, wound the whole place up and we charged back into a game we had already cast to the four winds.

We all know what momentum does in football, both during games and whole chunks of the season, but this City side - if it has a weakness - is sometimes a bit slow on the uptake regarding how to make it work for us, preferring one more little sideways pass back to De Jong or one more little dink into space for Savic to lope back towards his own goal and chase. The goal and indeed our goal is at the other end, however, and, once we had re-tuned Yaya's direction-finder, we were off and running. If Dzeko was the catalyst, Aguero was the little metronome, who delivered the gifts.

A City Moment
So quiet in the first leg, the little Argentine suddenly got those tree trunk thighs pumping down the right, the immaculate ball control backed by the foul-me-if-you-dare runs into the box, swerving, jettisoning defenders in his bubbling wake. In went the first one, a marvelously hooked snapshot. In went the penalty, a slightly dubious award (outside or in, a foul or a breath of wind?) as Aguero again came flying into Renato Neto's view and out again. In - amazingly by now - went the third one, Aguero again, marginally onside thanks to substitute Carillo's positioning, displaying his uncanny ability to trap, deaden and dispatch the ball in one fluid blur of that stout left peg.

But we needed four by this time. Matias Fernandez's peach of a freekick and Van Wolfswinkel's cool finish after Iszmailov had outfoxed Kolarov (surely not) and swept a teasing, curling, arching right foot cross to the far post, meant Sporting were already in heaven, or at least standing proudly on Cloud Nine, preparing to push the bell on the big golden gate post marked "the Kingdom of Dreams: Europa league Quarter Finals this way. Mind your head". 

The truly injured Pereirinha
Yet, nobody had gone to heaven yet. Five minutes of Pereirinha time (it's my ankle, no it's my calf, ow my leg, no it's my arm. My arm!! oh, look ref, it is my calf after all*) was announced. Time to think of Gillingham and the seven minutes that Mark Halsey bestowed upon us that time, just enough to die and be resurrected. In the fifth and last of those minutes came The Joe Hart Header. Having burst up-field, as often happens in these hair bear bunch moments, the ball fell to the goalkeeper and as he made decent contact with his head, Manchester went into slow motion. A Paul Dickov shivver eased its way down spines from Lisbon to the North West and back. As Hart fell to the turf, on his knees, watching his handywork dip towards the goal, we watched too, the ball arcing slowly round Rui Patrício and.... And. And?   

To be continued....

Decoration:  Matias Fernandez, Kun Aguero
Foulplay:  Pereirinha (
Curtains:  Sá Pinto
Supporting Cast:  Dzeko
Limping man:  Balotelli
Storyline: Mickey Mouse
Visual Effects:  Sam Peckinpah
Grip:  Rui Patrício
Stunt department: Joe Hart
Disclaimer - Characters and incidents portrayed and the names herein are fictitious, and any similarity to the name, character or history of any person in reality involved in the technicolour dream sequence that is Manchester City FC is entirely coincidental and unintentional.

* The Portuguese press later reported that Pereirinha had fallen awkwardly in a challenge with Dzeko and had had a dislocated shoulder popped back into place on the sidelines. This does not explain his other "injuries" that occurred beforehand.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A SPORTINGUISTA SPEAKS

Tom Kundert has been lounging around the press box at Estadio José Alvalade for many moons and is well placed to answer some pivotal questions ahead of City's Europa League tie in Lisbon:

1)       HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP SPORTING’S SEASON SO FAR?
A summer revolution at the club promised a bright new dawn, but unfortunately it’s been as disastrous as the last two desperately poor seasons. This is particularly painful for Sporting fans after a new president, a new coach who had enjoyed remarkable success over two years at Braga, and practically a whole new squad appeared to signal that Sporting where back in the big time.

After a sketchy opening spell, things started falling into place as Domingos Paciência oversaw a run of ten straight victories. “Sporting are truly back. We are no longer the laughing stock of the três grandes!” Sporting’s long suffering supporters, myself included, felt with warmth in our hearts. We were wrong. Some key injuries and an incomprehensible loss of form and confidence led to a horrible run of results in the New Year. Only two wins in ten games led to the shock sacking of Domingos, supposedly the most integral part of a long-term project – less than 24 hours after president Godinho Lopes had categorically told reporters Domingos was at the Alvalade to stay. What was that I said about being a laughing stock…


2)       OF THE 18 SUMMER RECRUITS, HAS ANYBODY MANAGED TO GEL?
Several of the new players have shone to varying degrees and at various times – but the crux of the matter is in the question. Bar the aforementioned purple patch in September and October the TEAM has not gelled. Giant centre-back Oguchi Onyewu, left-back Insúa, central midfielders Schaars and Rinaudo, wingers Capel and Carrillo and striker Wolfswinkel have all looked like excellent players on occasion, but only sporadically and rarely in unison.


3)       SÁ PINTO? THE RIGHT MAN OR A STOPGAP?
It was a huge gamble bringing in the man better known for punching the national team coach Artur Jorge after failing to make the squad and punching team-mate Liedson than for his commendable career as a fully committed attacking midfielder and Sporting icon. Pinto’s only previous coaching experience was with Sporting’s youth team. The players seem to have taken to him, but the jury still very much out. If pressed, few in Portugal would bet on him seeing out his 18-month contract.


4)       THE BOARD – DO THEY KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING?
No.

5)       THE SUPPORT – STILL STAUNCH OR BEGINNING TO FRAGMENT?
This is perhaps the saddest part of a broken season. The wave of enthusiasm that heralded what was supposed to be a new chapter in the club’s history completely enveloped the club’s fans. The sheer numbers turning up and the unstinting support at the Alvalade during the first four months of the season was at complete odds with the flat, unhealthily tense or utterly unbelieving atmosphere more conducive to aiding the opposition than the hosts in recent seasons. Alas, still several months from the end of the season and this optimism has all but dissipated.

6)       PLAYERS TO LOOK OUT FOR?
Spanish winger Diego Capel is full of willing running, albeit often choosing strange diagonals, and a fine crosser of the ball. Young Peruvian winger André Carrillo has shown flashes of genuine brilliance, although at 20 years of age he is still very raw. Dutch striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel couldn’t stop scoring during Sporting’s good spell. A chronic lack of confidence has blurred his sights, but the feeling remains there is a big talent there. If fit, the all-action Argentine midfielder Fito Rinaudo will make sure the Manchester City midfielders do not have it all their own way.


7)       WHERE CAN SPORTING DO SOME DAMAGE?
Out wide on either flank. Both Diego Capel and André Carrillo have the ability to trouble the best defences on their day.

8)       WHERE CAN CITY MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
A big worry for Sporting will be that they are simply outmuscled. City showed their physical power against FC Porto (probably Portugal’s most physically robust team) in the last round, especially at the Dragão. Particularly if Rinaudo does not play, the Lions will find hard to live up to their nickname.


9)       EUROPA LEAGUE CAMPAIGN SO FAR?
A record of 5 wins, 2 defeats and 1 draw does not sound bad on the face of it. However, Lazio is the only team of any standing Sporting faced, having got the better of the might of FC Zurich, Vaslui and Legia Warsaw in their other matches. On the plus side for Sporting, the thrilling 2-1 win over the Italians at the Alvalade is without doubt the high point of their season. Perhaps the occasion will inspire a repeat. Sporting can also draw a measure of confidence from a run of 13 matches unbeaten at home in Europe. The last two teams to beat them in Lisbon were Bayern Munich and Barcelona in 2008/09 (both of whom scored five times).

10)   OUTCOME?
Football is a funny old game they say. Football matches are unpredictable they say. Not that funny and not that unpredictable. Sporting 0-2 Manchester City.

Read all about Sporting and the world of Portuguese football at the excellent Portugoal.net site

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A SPORTING CHANCE

Diego Capel, the ex-Sevilla flier who now plies his trade down the flanks at Sporting Lisbon, is adamant: "We are playing better and better each game," he concluded, after a blistering finish from Russian striker Izmailov sealed a slender one-nil victory over Rio Ave two weeks ago. Whether the speedy Spaniard is talking up his club's current form or they are actually beginning to get their act together is open to conjecture, as they followed up this slender win with a disastrous 0-1 reverse at lowly Setubal last weekend.What is not open to debate is that Sporting are the nation's soap opera and, for that reason alone, City supporters should feel some sort of empathy already.

What cannot be argued is the fact that Sporting have been a shambles for more or less the entire season. Much had been made of the eighteen new recruits brought in over the summer, the brand new manager, Domingos Paciencia, hired from Braga after the remarkable success he had had in leading the Arsenalistas to Dublin and the Europa League final against fellow countrymen FC Porto, and the relatively new board and president. Nothing, it seems, stays the same at the Estadio José Alvalade for very long.

Already the relatively new manager has been replaced by a brand new manager, in the shape of the robust Sà Pinto, an ex-Sporting hero on the pitch, who was often dangerously close to controversy during his playing days and who is the proud owner of a notably short fuse. He is short on management experience and is seen as a trumpet blowing stop-gap until the summer, but his Sporting credentials should see him through that far at least.

The grand old lady of Portuguese football has certainly seen better days and plenty of them.As recently as 2005, Sporting played in the UEFA Cup Final, ironically in their own stadium, cruelly nicknamed the Casa de Banho by Benficistas, after its brightly coloured decorative tiles. That they lost the final to CSKA seems to fit with a modern penchant for shooting themselves in the foot, but it was not always thus. As Sporting's founder José Alvalade famously announced:
"We want this Club to be a great club, as great as the greatest in Europe"

Alvalade awaits
The 40s and 50s ushered in Years of Plenty for Sporting, winning 10 out of their current total of 18 Championships during these decades, with 4 out of their 13 Portuguese Cup triumphs also happening at this time. From 1946–47 to 1953–54 season, Sporting won seven of the eight championships contested. This was the era of the Cinco Violinos ("The Five Violins") that would bring international fame to the club. The term was coined by a journalist called Tavares da Silva who wished to compare the sweet music constructed by the club's enigmatic and potent forward line of Jesus Correia, Manuel Vasques, Fernando Peyroteo, José Travassos and Albano to an orchestra. Certainly, the sweetness of the music of this era has seldom been replicated to the same melodic heights since.

Sporting's successes would continue in the 60s and 70s, with a trail of glorious titles and a long line of illustrious players, topped perhaps by the arch Argentinian goal-getter Hector Yazalde a striker who could not stop scoring for the green and whites. In Europe Sporting's reputation stems from daring deeds in the 60s and 70s, winning the UEFA Cup in 1964 and were losing European finalists in 1974 and 1991, as well as 2005. Recent years have ushered in a barren spell, which threatens to place this grand old club amongst the chasing pack of the Portuguese professional elite. These days, Braga and Guimarães are vying for 3rd, 4th and 5th places with the green and whites, whilst Benfica and FC Porto push on at the front.

So, where do we start to analyse a club, which creates such a funk wherever it goes? Perhaps it is sensible, first of all, to state that Sporting are really not a patch on FC Porto, already dealt with in a summary execution in the Manchester rain three weeks ago. This in itself should be heartening news to City followers everywhere and appears to be the main reason why the vast majority of Sportinguistas appear to be preparing themselves for the worst, come March 8th, with a resolute form of pessimism that truly reminds me of happy days following the misfiring backfiring Manchester City of the mid-eighties or the even worse spectacle of the misshapen lump that was Manchester City in the mid-to-late nineties. Truly, our green and white hooped brethren have taken up the mantle of arch pessimists with a power and passion that reminds the casual observer of the true Portuguese soul of melancholy, Fado, "saudades" (a longing for the past and for missed ones) and quiet introspection.

Still, they sit a somewhat shaky 5th in the table, behind Maritímo of Madeira, well adrift Braga in 3rd, and Benfica in 2nd, plus new leaders and recent City opponents FC Porto. With Guimarães picking up pace in 6th place, there is a real danger that the green and white hoops will not even make it into the Europa League next season. If they fail in the league, however, they will have a second chance come May, when they confront Académica de Coimbra (City's only other Portuguese opponents in European competition) in the final of the Taça de Portugal at Jamor in May.

None of this can take anything away from the clear and painful fact that 2011-2012 has been a disaster for Sporting. From the failure of Domingos Paciencia to match the board's wishes, through the mildly ridiculous tunnel affair when Sporting's directors sanctioned the use of giant murals depicting some of the club's hooligan element "in action", to Valeri Bojinov's farcical penalty episode when he took the ball from usual penalty taker Matias Fernandez and proceeded to miss a vital last minute penalty himself, Sporting's season has lurched from comedy to tragi-comedy and back again.

It is without doubt nigh impossible to make a squad containing 18 new recruits gel properly and this was undoubtedly what undid Paciencia, but the squad has been together for eight months now and is plainly neither strong enough nor deep enough to challenge properly at the high end of the season. There is definite star quality in the shape of athletic 'keeper Rui Patricio, excellent right back João Pereira, attacking wide man Diego Capel, artistic playmaker Matias Fernandez and the ever-willing young Dutch pair Stijn Schaars and the enigmatically named Ricky van Wolfswinkel, but the rest of the squad does not pass muster. The sight of Anderson Polga, a slow-to-turn Brazilian defender who has played at Alvalade for nine seasons, still occupying a central defensive birth alongside the giant American Onyewu, should say enough.

City should be on their mettle, however. This is a side with nothing to lose. In Sà Pinto, they have a green and white legend, who might be notoriously short of brain cells, but who is passionate and will set the side up to have a good go at their northern European counterparts. Expect the lively João Pereira to cause plenty of havoc down the right, where City's defence is not at its strongest, and although Van Wolfswinkel has not scored in European competition since a December group game with FC Zurich, he is Sporting's only hope of a goal, as replacements Rubio (12 games) and Ribas (6 games) have yet to score their first goals for the club. This is how Sporting set up in their last game, a one-nil defeat in Setúbal:

Rui Patrício
Arias -- Xandão -- Polga -- Insúa
Carriço
Elias -- Schaars
Izmailov -- Ribas -- Capel

May your God go with you

With Oguchi Onyewu injured, the inexperienced Xandão may be asked to continue in defence, whilst Ribas should drop out for Van Wolfswinkel. It is not entirely clear whether the recently injured pair Jeffren and Rodríguez will be available in time, but - whoever plays - rest assured Sporting under Sá Pinto will not go down without a fight, will be well backed from the terraces, where a larger than normal turn-out is expected (recent attendances have fluctuated between 20 - 25,000) and will be spiky and energetic in their pursuit of an unexpected Premier league feather in their cap.

** Sá Pinto participated fully in the elimination of Newcastle United from the quarter finals of the 2004-05 UEFA Cup, a run which included defeats of Middlesbrough and AZ Alkmaar, before Sporting lost in the final in their own ground to CSKA Moscow.Here he is scoring the second in a 4-1 win that knocked the Geordies out >

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Imbiber of Amantis 2005, cold water, black coffee. Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; hapless dreamer, willing accomplice and crafty left sided midfielder.

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