Wednesday, December 23, 2015

FAC93

Jamie Carragher called it "unbelievably selfish" whilst BBC Radio Manchester’s Ian Cheeseman said he had been "awesome". Mark Ogden's opinion was not yet fully formulated but you knew approximately what it would constitute. Human beings all have two eyes and a brain, linked by a clever bit of technology known as the optic nerve. Evidently, after that, it’s every man and woman to themselves.

However you saw Yaya Touré’s contribution at Arsenal, however you interpreted City’s defeat and made up your mind about it, City had succeeded in losing a match that they had dominated territorially for long periods and with it the hope of being close to the leaders as 2015 turns into 2016.

History tells us not to worry unduly. That City can turn things round  and in fact have turned things around  in much tighter spaces than this. History also tells us that City have definitely not finished with us yet. Since when did this club arrive at Christmas, any Christmas, and announce in blithe spirit "that’s all you’re getting from us, just more of the same from now until May"?

Nevertheless, the fractious nature of this 2015-16 season, littered as it has been with untold injuries, dreadful defensive howlers and mountains of managerial speculation, does not seem to be offering great hope for a positive outcome. For a club that has always thrived on a healthy dose of confusion, there is slightly too much of it around at the moment. Even the club's badge is at present nothing more than a series of rumours posted on walls around the city.

For a start, whatever they have added to the soup at Carrington to weaken the hamstrings and tighten the tendons, someone needs to take responsibility and change the recipe. City have lost players to more days of injury than any other club in the division and it is beginning to damage more than just the back of Samir Nasri's knees.
Those still fit (and miraculously there are still a few) are shouldering a heavy burden. Poor Kevin de Bruyne, fresh in from the cosy Bundesliga, where you can relax in your slippers for a month over Christmas, had to be removed for the Swansea game as he was seeing double from his exertions. Ex-City lothario Jerome Boateng, pictured recently on social media feeding himself from a coconut on a tropical stretch of sand, can vouch for the beauty of the mid-season break. Watching poor Fernandinho run himself into the manicured Emirates turf on Monday, who would have begrudged him half a coconut with a straw poking out the top?

He, Yaya Toure and David Silva formed part of a midfield five at the Emirates that spent a large part of the evening keeping the ball off a home side eager to quell the doubters' fever. City’s possession stats had already gone through the roof (78% during the early part of the second half) revealing just how much they dominated this aspect of what had been heralded as the first proper title face-off of the season, despite the fact that Leicester are sailing away over the horizon at the top of the league.

That the Blues went in two-nil down at half time and ended up scrambling frantically to get any kind of result in the last ten minutes, would have made the onlooker think he was on high powered antibiotics. Once again City had dragged a poor result from a reasonable performance, which is a variation on a long running theme that now includes the inexplicable collapse at White Hart Lane, the dreadful shambles at the Britannia, the trousers-down rodgering from a henceforth wafer thin Liverpool and the Billy Smarts runaround first half against West Ham.
City were undone when and where it mattered most. Arsenal - having been forced to play second fiddle for long periods of an engrossing match - had all the answers when it came to the crunch. With Silva ably shackled by the tigerish Flamini and Ramsey, all City’s midfield could do was pass it sideways and, occasionally, when they felt the risk was manageable, back towards the lurking figure of Eliaquim Mangala.

Here of course lurks another problem. Mangala must be a confident boy. He would have to be to continue to put his head above the parapet after some of the gross errors he has performed in the name of the City defence this season. This is no longer a bedding in period for the ex-Porto man. It is no longer learning the ropes. Something more devilish and more serious is at work with his thought processes and limb manipulation.

With the gung-ho Otamendi alongside him, it all looks a little too Keystone Cops at the back these days. There are potential mistakes in every tentative opposition attack, hurried air shots waiting for every opposition prod forward and ludicrous shanked clearances to the nearest dangerman  in this latest case the adequately skilled Mesut Ozil - for many a chance to fall out of cold, thin air.
If Pellegrini’s 2013 construction was so intent on attacking it hardly needed a defence and his 2014 version was so intent on going on holiday it hardly bothered to try, then this, his third building project, looks the oddest of all. Well endowed, luxuriously upgraded, the silk cushion and embossed tablecloth version, it just doesn’t seem to want to function.

With the long shadow of Pep Guardiola hanging over the Chilean’s every step, it is unfeasible to imagine a coach in his position not wavering a little. You can speak the good speak and with the best intentions set up your side to do some serious damage, but is your heart going to be in it for the long cruel slog through December and into the barren wastelands of January, pocked as it is with more potential exploding mines versus Leicester, Watford and Everton no less than three times? Can the Chilean say, hand on heart, that none of this is affecting his concentration?

And what of Pep, attempting to look interested in Bayern’s latest galloping runaway Bundesliga season? Is he thinking how Thomas Muller, Philipp Lahm and – God forbid  Jerome Boateng might fit into a future Etihad equation?

Toure has been the absolute lynchpin at City throughout this Phase One Golden Era that will be forever remembered by us all. His reputation will forever fly high after what he has dragged out of his team mates in the name of Manchester City football club. Truly one of the absolute giants of this club’s modern history.
Need we be reminded of his goals to beat United in that époque-defining FA Cup semifinal in 2011 and the subsequent final v Stoke at Wembley. Swatting the likes of Fedinand and Evans to one side as he carried City across the threshold and into a brave new world of shining pots and blazing flashbulbs.

Barnstorming, pitch-length stampedes against West Ham and Aston Villa produced other goals in the League Cup and Premier League respectively that will remain scorched on the memories of City fans as indelibly as anything that the club has produced in the last 30 years. Tales of this giant man of the Ivory Coast and his daring deeds in the sky blue shirt will warm the hearts of generations of City fans to come.


But time waits for no man, even such an imposing example of athletic prowess as this. Although many midfielders come into their own at 32, Toure’s current age, his brand of pitch-eating thundering takes it out of lungs and legs in equal measures. No one in their right mind would expect him to be able to carry on what he has done so exhilaratingly for five years at City and nobody appears to be asking him to except his manager Manuel Pellegrini. Maybe the Chilean isn’t expecting this from his midfield general anymore and plays him as he remains the best option for the position, but his successor will not need to much of a long hard look before drawing his own conclusions on the matter.

With Fernandinho 30 and David Silva one month away from the same landmark, City’s midfield is ageing gracefully but rapidly. With 80 minutes gone of a tumultuous top of the table clash at the Emirates, circumstances demanded that they step up a gear and take the game to Arsenal in the last ten minutes. This was carried out on the back of substitute Jesus Navas, another 30 year old, and Toure, who produced a late cameo as good as anything seen from him this season.

The latter’s spectacular strike to reduce the deficit ushered in a grandstand finish, during which City might have snatched the draw that many will say their play deserved, but that would have masked other weaknesses in their armoury.

Once again -- and for the umpteenth time since his arrival in Manchester in the summer of 2014 --Eliaquim Mangala’s performance at the back had something of the night about it. Caught out of position, playing others on side, losing possession cheaply for Arsenal’s killer goal and ambling upfield in a misguided attempt to right all of these wrongs, were just some of the antics of the wayward central defender in this game. Talking up City’s defensive frailties without captain Vincent Kompany is a well trodden path, but the truth and the numbers will not go away.

Pellegrini: between a rock and a hard place
City’s season now depends on several factors being taken care of as the busiest part of the football calendar envelopes them. a) How to turn hugely positive possession statistics into goals and wins, b) how to get the defence to work as a tightly drilled unit c) how to keep manager Pellegrini at the top of his game when he knows his successor is being courted and prepared for immediate action as soon as the curtain falls on 2015-16.

These are season-defining problems that need to be addressed immediately by the club before Leicester’s scarcely believable lead at the top widens to a cavern and Arsenal’s self belief solidifies beyond its usual winter brittleness. This then is the dilemma facing Txiki Begeristain and Ferran Soriano, as they strive to create a global superpower in east Manchester. Nobody ever said the transition would be easy and that last step up that the club intends to take is proving a tricky one to manage just now.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Minute by Minute Notts County v City 1984-5

To celebrate a new book published this week by Howard Hockin and myself, here is an extract from one of the games that did not make the cut for our final choice of ten. 

The book, "And He's The Left-Back, Remember" is a minute-by-minute guide to ten incredible City matches stretching from 1981 to the present day. Build-up, context and minute details are all included as the reader is transported on a roller coaster ride not dissimilar to the actual action when it happened. 

You can order your own copy here 

Before the modern day onslaught of the internet, mobile phones, live streams and global connectivity, there was just football and newspapers and Gerald Sinstadt’s curiously immobile moustache. In this book, the authors revisit some of Manchester City’s most memorable matches and, layer by dramatic layer, give old classics the minute-by-minute treatment, allowing the reader to share the nerve-tingling build up of tension that those who were there on the day felt themselves. This beautifully written and exhaustively researched book follows the dramatic developments in ten all-time classic Manchester City matches - and not necessarily ones that ended well for the Blues. They are dealt with in And He’s The Left Back Remember in intimate detail and in chronological order, giving the following chapters: 1980-81 Tottenham 3 City 2 - FA Cup Final replay 1982-83 City 0 Luton Town 1 – Division One 1987-88 City 10 Huddersfield Town 1 – Division Two 1988-89 City 5 Manchester United 1 – Division One 1995-96 City 2 Liverpool 2 – Premier League 1998-99 City 2 Gillingham 2 – Division Two Play-Off Final 2003-04 Tottenham 3 City 4 – FA Cup 4th round replay 2010-11 Manchester United 1 City 6 – Premier League 2010-11 City 1 Manchester United 0 – FA Cup semi final 2011-12 City 3 Queens Park Rangers 2 - Premier League The full range of human emotions, covered in ten enthralling contests that sum up the spirit and core of Manchester City Football Club.

Monday 6th May 1985
Division Two. Notts County v Manchester City 

1330 WHAT A SCORCHER It’s a sweltering hot, scorcher of a day here down by the banks of the Trent and City fans have been pouring into the town from about ten o’clock this morning. There is noise, lots of it, and there are sky blue favours everywhere. Every pub, every tavern, every off-licence has been commandeered and is the venue for impromptu partying and huge amounts of raucous singing, almost all of it in good humour, it must be added. All hostelries are prop full of expectant Manchester City fans, hollering more loudly with every metre taken towards Meadow Lane and with every swiftly downed orange juice, for today is the day that they expect Billy McNeill to lead their City team back to the glory and the glamour of the First Division.

They will have to go some, however, as the promotion jitters have really been kicking in during the last few weeks and injuries are also beginning to mount up for the Maine Road side. Here is City’s recent form in full gory detail:

          Oxford (a)       0-3
Cardiff (h)      2-2
Barnsley (a)   0-0
Leeds (h)        1-2
Grimsby (a)    1-4
Sheff U (h)      2-0
Pompey (a)     2-1
Oldham (h)      0-0

In effect then, they come into this game in frighteningly dubious form, having been thrashed at Grimsby, lost at home to Leeds and – in their most recent outing – been held at home by a physical Oldham side in a game that bordered on anarchy (referee Peter Willis, a policeman to boot, ended up being hit by a meat and potato pie at half time as he walked from the pitch and, having allowed some vicious Oldham tackling to go unpunished, he sent off Andy May for protesting at the heavy-handed (and footed) treatment dished out by Gary Hoolickin of the visitors).

City, then, approach this one in quite an agitated state, with various tired players leaking confidence as they go along and a massive and slightly impatient support also beginning to feel the shivers of trepidation as that last promotion spot behind Oxford and Birmingham shimmers in and out of proper focus for them.

It has been a difficult season for all at Maine Road and they are, of course, absolutely desperate to rejoin the big boys at the second time of asking, having missed out so disappointingly to Newcastle, Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday last season.

Here’s how the table looks at start of play today:

1. Oxford United                   pld 40             Pts 80
2. Birmingham City              pld 40             Pts 78
3. Manchester City               pld 40             Pts 71
4. Portsmouth                         pld 40             Pts 68
5. Blackburn                           pld 40              Pts 67
6. Leeds United                      pld 40              Pts 66
7. Brighton                              pld 40              Pts 66

With Leeds, Brighton, Portsmouth and Blackburn all still capable of passing City for that third promotion place and City displaying the nerves of a high diver who has just spotted the tide receding to show uncovered rocks far below, you can bet there will be more twists and turns to the promotion story before it ends next weekend.

13:40 FIXTURE ROUND-UP Just to remind you of the critical fixtures this weekend and who plays who on the last day of the season, they are as follows:

TODAY:          Sheffield Utd v Blackburn
                        Leeds v Shrewsbury
                        Portsmouth v Carlisle

LAST DAY:     Birmingham v Leeds
                        Blackburn v Wolves
                        Huddersfield v Portsmouth
                        Brighton v Sheffield United
                        City v Charlton Athletic

Depending on what happens today, some of those last day games may become absolutely critical.

13:41 It has just been pointed out that, but for City’s dreadfully stuttering form over the last two months, none of the nail-biting the fans are presently going through would have been necessary. As recently as March 2nd, City were leading the table, after that memorable win at Ewood Park, when Steve Kinsey shot them to the top of the pile. Things have gone quickly and severely pear-shaped since then in true sky blue fashion with Billy McNeill’s boys getting a bad case of the jitters in the run-in.

13:45 AND COUNTY? It’s not all about City you see. In case nobody has noticed, extra spice is added to today’s Meadow Lane fixture by the fact that County themselves are absolutely desperate for the points as they currently sit in a relegation place at the foot of the table, four points ahead of Wolves at the bottom, but one behind Cardiff in 20th and two behind Middlesbrough in the first safe place, 19th. You can be sure, therefore, that wee Jimmy Sirrell, the tough as granite Scotsman in charge of the Meadow Lane men, will have his side fighting for every inch of turf out there this afternoon.

County come into this game in slightly improved form. A win at Huddersfield and a draw at champions Oxford have shown that they are nobody’s mugs and they come into this game in good spirits and with few injury worries. Strikers Rachid Harkouk, Justin Fashanu and Alan Young, all of whom have seen service in the higher echelons of English football with QPR, Norwich and Leicester respectively, are available to play if needed.



13:50 TEAM NEWS IS IN: Team news is just reaching us and it’s a mixed bag for City. Jamie Hoyland, the youngster pole axed by Gary Hoolickin at the weekend, in the incident that led to Andy May’s red card and referee Willis’s early dinner offering, is out. McNeill’s already injury-ravaged side is thus deprived of yet another player. Hoyland’s replacement this afternoon will be another youngster, Geoff Lomax. We’ll have to wait and see if this triggers a reshuffle in the City ranks, as Lomax usually plays at full back.

Meanwhile for County, ex-QPR man Harkouk is fit to start, as are ex-Forest and Norwich ace Fashanu and long time club servant Pedro Richards. Alan Young also starts in an attack-minded side. It looks very much as if County are going to give it a go this afternoon. Perhaps the most poignant detail of all, though, stands at the back for County this afternoon in the imposing shape of Dave Watson, who played 146 times for City and has now returned to the club where it all started for him in 1966. What an afternoon in prospect for him. 

NOTTS COUNTY line up like this:

1. Mick Leonard
2. Pedro Richards
3. Keith Downing
4. Dean Yates
5. Dave Watson
6. Steve Sims
7. Mark Goodwin
8. Justin Fashanu
9. Alan Young
10. David Hunt
11. Rachid Harkouk

Sub: Ian McParland

And MANCHESTER CITY like this:

1. Alex Williams
2. Kenny Clements
3. Geoff Lomax
4. Nicky Reid
5. Mick McCarthy
6. David Phillips
7. Paul Simpson
8. Andy May
9. Paul Power
10. Neil McNab
11. Steve Kinsey

Referee today is Mr I. Borrett of Norfolk. I hope he’s brought his asbestos underpants, because he is going to need them.

14:00 AN HOUR TO GO It is still a full hour to kick off but the place is already throbbing. Not Meadow Lane exactly, where tea urns are being prepared and the press men are eating their sandwiches with consummate calm, but looking around outside, Iremonger Road is bulging with City supporters in a varied array of conditions. All optimistic, all loud and all getting a little bit boisterous. Side roads and bushes being used as temporary toilets, police attempting to make their presence felt, but it is clear already that a heady combination of the warm bank holiday weather and the famed promotion fever has persuaded many more fans to travel down from Manchester than was anticipated. Notts officials had mentioned an expected 5 –to – 6,000 travelling away support and have made the entire Kop end available to City today as a result of police recommendations. The terracing at that end of the ground holds approximately 8,000 fans, so County should be ok with that calculation, but it is already abundantly clear to anyone walking between the central bus and railway stations and the ground here that the entire length of London Road is completely awash with City fans.

14:05 Passers-by at the Trent Navigation Inn reporting frenzied singing and chanting in front of a flag bedecked pub. Children with their faces painted sky blue, old men in flat caps and many many hundreds of boisterous adults shouting “We’ll be up by five o’clock”. Two teenagers on the roof of the pub were busy arranging a giant MCFC Union Jack and attaching it to the chimney pot, whilst downstairs youths were escorting two cigarette machines complete with electrical cords and plugs gingerly through the front doors of the public house. It would seem the City fans are settling in well and making themselves at home.

It’s still a good walk from there, so they’d better get a move on if they want to see the start of the match. Absolute biblical flood of humanity coming down towards the bridge across the River Trent and not one of them is walking in a straight line. The view from the Main Stand affords us a glimpse of Forest’s City ground and an array of cranes and warehouse roofs, all looking splendid in the early afternoon sunshine.

14:15 DELAYED KICK OFF AT MEADOW LANE? Some rumours circulating that the game will not kick off on time at 3pm, as the crush to get in is increasing now. maybe as much as a couple of thousand City fans have already taken up their places on the shallow terracing on the open end to our left and there appears to be a surge into the terracing and small reserved seated area in the County Road side of the ground that may or may not have been allocated to the visitors too and that is also filling up very swiftly. The County Road gable, that famous pointed white roof with the Notts County Football Club Founded 1862 legend, stands proudly above a seated area, that to be frank, looks a little like a chicken coop. Great atmosphere and much singing can be heard from the streets outside as the bulk of the arriving away fans are yet to enter the stadium.

14:30 City players out on the pitch warming up a little tentatively as they see the numbers entering at the far end. The Kop is now full to bursting behind the goal, with some spaces at each end by the corner flags still free, but the flow of fans coming in at the top of the terrace does not appear to be abating and we will have way more than the 8- to 9,000 crowd that home officials were predicting. It looks very much like there might be that number from Manchester alone, already in the ground and, judging by the noise outside, there are more to come! Let’s hope this slightly dilapidated old ground holds up to the test today. It has been barely touched since the war and, with the exception of the far end where a sports complex and new changing room complex rears up right behind the goal (a bit like at Hull and Bolton but without even a few steps of terracing), Meadow Lane looks and feels like a football ground from another age. If you look carefully at the roof of the Main Stand, where we are, towards the Kop End terracing, I’m told you can make out bomb damage from the Second World War!

14:31 CLEMENTS SHOCK The Main Stand roof is not the only thing in the wars. Kenny Clements, sporting a great shock of permed hair, appears to be holding the back of his leg. He is being joined by physio Roy Bailey and they seem to be deep in conversation down on the edge of the pitch. Clements it was who scored the vital second goal in a wobbly but deeply decisive home win over Sheffield United two weeks ago, a win that stopped the rot somewhat, as City’s promotion jitters began to chime rather loudly. It looks a bit iffy at the moment as to whether the big stopper will be able to start or not.

14:45 HOUSE FULL HOUSE FULL Meadow Lane has a capacity somewhere around 19,000, we think, after the afore-mentioned renovations to the Meadow Lane (gymnasium) End were carried out and we are getting close to the point where the gates will be closed. The ground is rammed on three sides now. Only the opposite goal, with its strange brown wall complex, has a spattering of ball boys and fans standing in front near the touchline on the four lines of terracing that County introduced there last season. The Kop End has been full for twenty minutes already, absolutely heaving, a noisy swaying mass of sky blue scarves and favours. There are lots and lots of City fans in both the other stands, in both designated and non-designated areas. The County Stand has plenty of terracing and that small area of seats, where both sets of fans appear to be mingling freely. Controlled chaos would be the phrase that comes to mind at the moment.

14:55 HERE COME THE TEAMS The teams are out, including Kenny Clements for City, looking no worse for wear. Referee Borrett is calling the two captains, Richards and Power to the centre circle. Meadow lane looks splendid, absolutely full, the Kop End a sea of clapping hands as Alex Williams takes up position in front of the City fans. There must be 12- to 13,000 of them in here now, over double the expected number!

What an atmosphere as the ref tosses the coin. It looks like City are starting with Simpson wide on the left, Lomax at left back, which releases Power to midfield, alongside Phillips, May and Neil McNab. County start three up front.  

15:00 KICK OFF We’re off with County playing towards the packed Kop and City heading downhill towards the gymnasium. There’s a gusty wind and bright sunshine for defenders and goalkeepers to deal with and the ball is immediately in the air with Alex Williams, wearing a cap, searching desperately for its flight. A little ripple of noise from the home fans is swallowed by the shuddering roar from the mass ranks of City fans. This is quite a spectacle to see, I can tell you.

Kinsey and Simpson chase down a loose ball
05:00 Nervous start with the ball pinging around like it has a bomb inside. Nobody wanting to put their foot on it and calm things down. Frenzied atmosphere is lending itself to the uncontrolled movements of the players down on the pitch.

10:00 Scrappy start to the game continues. Nobody taking control and nobody wanting to hold on to possession. The ball, being fired about on the wind, is the proverbial hot potato this afternoon. Notts are more than holding their own, it must be said. Jimmy Sirrell has really instilled some belief since coming back to relieve Richie Barker of his duties.

20:00 First real chance for the home side, as a slip by young Lomax lets Richards in and his pass to Young finds the striker on the back foot. He still manages to get to it before Clements and fires narrowly wide of Alex Williams’ near post. County beginning to turn the screw and the noisy City faithful bellowing for their side to wake up. Sterling stuff.

25:00 GOAL! NOTTS COUNTY! County 1 City 0 What a turn-up at Meadow Lane. And it has been coming. Ex-Forest man Fashanu has the ball in the net. He stuck out a long leg in a goalmouth scramble and managed somehow to divert the ball past May and Williams on the line. Pandemonium here as the relegation fighters lead the promotion chasers. Pockets of County fans celebrating tentatively among the Manchester hordes.

29:00 Cautious City break but they will have to do better than that. David Phillips dispossessed on the edge of the box with Simpson screaming to be released down the left flank. Power was also available outside him.  

32:00 GOAL! NOTTS COUNTY AGAIN! County 2 City 0. Wow, this is incredible. County
Harkouk with number two
go two up and City are all over the place. Rachid Harkouk stretching those long legs of his, put through by
 
McParland and managing to keep a step ahead of Geoff Lomax before snapping his shot low into the net. Great finish. Unbelievable scenes here. County fans really beginning to believe this could be their day, whilst the Kop has fallen a little quiet for a moment or two.

34:00 City attempt to hit back straight away, McNab feeding Power, who gets in a bumbly sort of cross to nobody in particular. Andy May is close to connecting but the ball is worked away for a throw in to City. County looking very sprightly now.

39:00 GOAL! NOTTS COUNTY! County THREE City 0. I cannot believe my eyes. I cannot believe I am watching this. Notts County, so abject for so much of the season, are tearing Manchester City to shreds in what must be the most jaw dropping first half display seen from a Notts team since Moses parted the waters; 3 goals in 13 minutes has whipped Notts fans into ecstasy, absolutely incredible. This time it’s Alan Young who scores, after hesitant defending by Mick McCarthy. The burly defender has time to clear it up the field, but dallies and Young nips in to score. Absolutely amazing scenes here.

41:00 Anger erupts I was talking of amazing scenes and there appears to be a bit of a disturbance now behind the goal being defended by City. The City fans have had a close up view of the carnage in their own area and don’t appear to have taken too kindly to it. Lots of arm waving and a few objects flying in the air. I will keep you posted as the game carries on in a slightly surreal atmosphere.

HALF TIME: NOTTS COUNTY 3 MANCHESTER CITY 0

45:00 Half time analysis Well, we have reached half time here, but with growing unrest behind the City goal, in the Main Stand and also across in the County Road Stand, where there has been something of a stampede.

The 13,000 or so City fans here today are very unhappy indeed with what they have seen from their team so far. There are pockets of disruption all around the ground and, as the players went off, it started in earnest. We now have fifteen minutes of half time to let everything cool off again. Let’s see.

As far as the game is concerned, City have been utterly taken by surprise by County’s willingness to take risks and go for it. City may well have been expecting a cagey tight affair to start with and have got the opposite, with County rampaging forward with three upfront. This unsettled them early on and they have just never recovered their composure. Now they must try to find something, but with a riot going on outside, I would think that City dressing room will be quite a tricky place to concentrate at the moment.

There is no way the second half will start on time here at Meadow Lane. The stampede in the County Road Stand led to a lot of home fans making for the other end of the stadium, where of course there is little or no accommodation behind that far goal, so we have people milling on the pitch and just along the touchline to avoid being near the trouble. Worst than that, at the away end a large part of the fencing at the front of the Kop has come down, or should I say has been brought down by eager hands and there is now a pretty large invasion of the pitch going on from that end too.

1610 We are already ten minutes late for the start of the 2nd half and I can count one, two, three.... six police horses now on the pitch, trying to round up invaders and either cart them off or herd them back onto the terraces. Fans scattered everywhere at the moment. 

We are also receiving news that the City dressing room was invaded during Billy McNeill’s half time team talk by irate City supporters with an opinion to express on City’s dreadful first half collapse. Everything happening here today evidently and a lot of it can be put down to police and County officials massively underestimating how many would travel from Manchester.

1618 Most of the supporters are back on the terraces, but we are not ready to restart. A malevolent, powder keg atmosphere persists and a group of City fans have just been escorted out of the players tunnel, where it looks like they were indeed attempting to give Billy McNeill’s half time team talk for him. McNeill meanwhile is ambling towards the disheveled Kop End with his counterpart Jimmy Sirrell. Two tough old Scots but I bet they’re squeaking a bit now. Sirrell appears to have a megaphone in his hand. Is he going to open a dialogue with that huge bank of braying City fans?

1620 That’s exactly what he is doing! In his broad Scots accent, he has just told them that the match will not be abandoned. Billy McNeill has also spoken, but his words were drowned out by the noise, some clapping, many booing and the rest chanting and singing. There are still plenty of people on the pitch and still a lot of movement in the crowd. Police statement is that the match will not restart until they are happy that they have the place under control but that it will go ahead. Billy McNeill is now taking up the loudspeaker. Let’s hear what he says:

“If the match has to be abandoned, the 3-0 scoreline will stand. I beg you to support the team properly.”

Second half about to commence. That seems to have done the trick. We are slightly late due to the disruption here, but the players are out and the second half is going to restart any second now. A total of 30 minutes delay during half time.

Monday, November 30, 2015

SLAMMING THE DOORS SHUT


Manchester City’s major failing so far this season has been an inability to keep key defenders fit. The lack of stability and consistency at the centre of the defence has been the overriding factor in the team making a stumbling half-success of their title quest so far.

It is easy to criticize anything that moves these days and City at the top of the table and already through to the knock-out stage of the Champions League is, of course, a qualified success. However, the loss to Juventus and defeats to West Ham and in particular Spurs and Liverpool, where Pellegrini’s side was casually undressed one garment at a time, have set alarm bells ringing in some quarters.

City could and perhaps should be clear at the top of the Premier League and about to proceed in Europe as the top club in Group D. Given the paucity of proper challengers at the top of the Premier League, it is an indictment of City’s somewhat frail challenge so far that they are merely "in among the runners and riders" with a frisky but limited Leicester, a wholly uninspiring Manchester United and an Arsenal side unable to shake off any of its traditional ailments. Even Tottenham, annual deception artists, appear to be in with a shout in a season that has not yet thrown up an outstanding side.

Much of City’s problems can be put down to defensive frailties and the constant chopping and changing of personnel in this vital part of the team. 
Up to now, twenty games into the season, City have had five different centre back partnerships already. It is no coincidence that any that have featured Vincent Kompany also feature good results, but it must be said that contrary to popular belief Eliaquim Mangala’s stats are also pretty persuasive.

City’s five game opening streak, where they managed consecutive wins and conceded no goals, saw Kompany paired with Mangala. Whilst the Frenchman has spent much of his City career being heavily criticized, his darting, muscular approach actually dovetails pretty well alongside the calmer, more domineering Kompany. It is by far the best partnership City have tried out so far this season. In fact it even remained unbeaten in the sixth game, at home to Juventus, as the score was still 1-1 when the pairing was broken up by Kompany’s 75th minute injury.

City's most successful centre back pairing
Kompany’s partnership with new boy Otamendi has also showed promise, with three games played: the tight draw at Old Trafford, the superb win in Seville and the laboured home defeat of Norwich. 
On paper it looks like Otamendi has also produced the goods in partnership with Mangala: but of the three games, two wins were the thrashings of Newcastle and Bournemouth, hardly taxing for the defence, and four goals were conceded. In the four games shared by Kompany and Otamendi, only two goals were conceded. Plus the Otamendi-Mangala duo also have a bizarrely out of synch first half against West Ham to their names.The real problems arise when the lumbering shadow of Martin Demichelis appears. A lot has been said about the Argentinean’s loss of form, speed and awareness after his sterling efforts over the last two seasons. Whether he has been kept on a season too long or not is open to discussion, but the figures are certainly not sympathetic. He has been paired with Mangala twice and Otamendi five times. The partnership with Mangala includes the debacle against Liverpool.

In his latest outing this weekend, Demichelis had coped reasonably well with the first half efforts of Southampton, but when they went for the jugular at the start of the second period, his game disintegrated towards the lethal moment when he could be seen actually stepping out of the way of the advancing Shane Long. It was a weird attempt at a dummy, but looked a little like a man getting out of the way of an approaching train.

On the other occasions he has been paired with the eager Otamendi, things look patchy, with eight goals conceded in the five games they have shared. This includes the desperate cave-in at White Hart Lane, where City's defence did a passable impersonation of Billy Smart's Christmas Circus when the hooter announces the arrival of the guys in the oversized shoes.

The only combination not yet foisted on Manuel Pellegrini by the God of Hamstrings is Demichelis-Kompany.

Taking City’s worst results so far this season, the two four goal beatings by Spurs and
No circus this Christmas
Liverpool, have both occurred on Demichelis's watch. Strangely there is another link that might also be relevant: Fernando was also picked in defensive midfield in both those games. Clearly, the work done right in front of the back four is essential to its proper functioning too. City have dabbled with a Fernandinho-Fernando axis with Yaya Toure pushed forward and the more frequently seen Fernandinho-Toure pairing with only creative players beyond.

Question marks remain about Touré's continued ability to charge up and down the field as in the days of yore. he attempted two such runs at the weekend and made a mess of both. Fabian Delph's surprisingly sprightly performance alongside Fernandinho against Southampton brought fresh possibility to this area. When Fernando arrived and Tadic took control for Southampton, Delph's energetic presence was immediately missed.

Perhaps what Pellegrini might have learned as we near the half way period is this: City need Kompany back as quickly as possible. Whether he is paired with Otamendi or Mangala, might be less of an issue than the importance of persevering with Fernandinho and Delph as a really combative shield for the defence.

With Silva and Aguero back in the fold to galvanise City's forward options, the Chilean might not be too far away from finding his best team for the busy Christmas period.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

PHASE THREE TEETHING PROBLEMS FOR CITY

Come on in, the door's open
Could it be that we are beginning to see a Phase Three Manchester City emerging?

Since the takeover by Sheikh Mansour in September 2008, City have been moving along like something strapped firmly to the side of a medium sized rocket. The impatient climb and the thirsty lust for silverware have already reaped their rich harvest, with an FA Cup, a League Cup, a Community Shield and two Premier League titles in the brief and exhilarating seven years that have ensued. 

A couple of Community Shield duds and a failed FA Cup final with Wigan can also be added to the list, as City fans have been deposited in aland of milk and honey that has necer tasted so sweet.

Clearly, given the investment, there is more to come. Just as clearly, more, much more, is expected too and City’s dreadful cave-in against Liverpool will have started a number of sizeable alarm bells ringing in the marble corridors Chez Mansour.

Manuel Pellegrini, it would seem, has been unlucky enough to have his hand on the tiller just as the good ship Manchester City sailed into a new and perhaps époque-defining era.

If Phase One of Mansour’s City was the beginning, the construction, the grand projet, the breakthrough to the edge of the Champions League and the excited baptism, trophy-wise, of the noisy infant, Roberto Mancini can think himself fortunate that it coincided with his stay on watch.
"Mancini, the man who got City up and running. The man who made us all believe. The man who delivered at a club where non-deliverance had become religion."
With expectations only moderate to good, owing to the 40 years of chaos and ridicule that City had produced before, Mancini’s efforts were always likely to be seen in a positive light. That they conjured a magical FA Cup victory over Stoke (that included an even more defining moment in knocking United out at the semi-final stage) and the most sensational league title win in English club history, cemented the Italian’s place in City folklore forever. The recriminations from a coach more than happy to show huge displeasure with his playing staff in public have faded to leave the mythology firmly in place: Mancini, the man who got City up and running. The man who made us all believe. The man who delivered at a club where non-deliverance had become religion. Mancini, the man who sent us all a love letter when he left, for God's sake, just in case anyone was in any doubt.

This tumultuous first phase was represented, then, by massive outlay, huge turnover in playing staff to begin the empire building and the biblical tornado of actually winning things. As a result City have affected a great many changes, among them an enlarged Etihad Stadium, the sumptuous football campus, a burgeoning youth academy and the regeneration  of large swathes of east central Manchester. Nothing more incredible, though, than a complete and successful overhaul of fans' traditional hangdog mentality.

Pellegrini’s arrival coincided roughly with a new, second phase, in which expectations now ran very high, as did confidence, spending and rhetoric. City were not just joining the elite, but they were rocking it enthusiastically from side to side. They were not just rubbing shoulders with the likes of United, they were rubbing their noses in the dust. Mancini had produced the shock and awe of the 6-1. It was for Pellegrini to remove the shock element from beating United and make it commonplace.

Saturday felt like most of the 70s and 80s felt against Liverpool: absolutely rank.
The Chilean’s era was signed and sealed with a 5 trophies in 5 years mantra. This really defined Phase Two at Mansour’s City: a self-assured, up-front acknowledgment that City were now big players with the squad to prove it. European participation had become a yearly staple, rather than an odd and irregular quirk. Winning trophies and being there at the culmination of all big tournaments was now more than a distinct possibility, more than a distant desire, it was a prerequisite if you wanted to keep your job.

And Pellegrini has delivered. To a point. This, his third, season will be absolutely critical. He will either maintain the target or fall below it for the first time. He won himself time and breathing space with the Premier League title and League Cup double in his first season (2013-14), which was just as well, as last season nose-dived. Either circumstances helped save him (the managers City were interested in weren’t available) or he had amassed just enough brownie points to maintain a reasonable grip on the rough edges at the top of the cliff.
"It is the one area where continual belly flops remind us of a cold and bleak past inhabited by balloon-induced defeats at Sheffield United and eight goal Sven-farewells at Middlesbrough."
Now things have changed again. We are entering what might logically be termed Phase Three, the End Phase. With the Liverpool performance still fresh in the mind and the team selection of the Chilean widely blamed for the unusually heavy home defeat (worst ever Etihad collapse and only the second time a visiting side has hit four), one line of thought has it that the Champions League has now taken priority over everything else. And why not? For Sheikh Mansour, there are probably a finite number of four goal thrutchings over Norwich and Aston Villa before it all becomes a little… you know, run of the mill.

What now looks exotic, enticing and perhaps even mildly realistic is a good tilt at the Champions League. It is after all the one place City still tread like Bambi rather than the self-assured beast we are now used to in England. It is the one area where continual belly flops remind us of a cold and bleak past inhabited by balloon-induced defeats at Sheffield United and eight goal Sven-farewells at Middlesbrough. We could of course travel further back to Cock-up County, but there is no need. City were still doing stand-up ten short years ago.

Phase Three, then, is underway and it is characterized by risk. Huge fees were again used to bolster the squad and make it fit for purpose. Fit for purpose in Phase Three looks increasingly like fit to win the Champions League. Why else would Sheikh Mansour once again produce the big bucks for Raheem Sterling , Kevin de Bruyne and Nicolas Otamendi? Why else would Manuel Pellegrini rest important players for a game against Liverpool?

Another one.
Since when did City have the arrogance or desperation to put out a below strength side against Liverpool, the one team above all in the history of English football to rejoice in pushing City’s heads continually underwater? The countless four and five-goal drubbings in the 70s and 80s; the 4-0 and 6-0 defeats within four days under Alan Ball in 1995; relegation at their hands under the hapless Ball the same year, when Liverpool – actively trying not to win – couldn’t help themselves and beat City almost by mistake to send them down. The Liverpool against whom City have a masterful 26% win rate over the history of the fixture, the absolute worst of all their opponents.

This then smacked of an intensifying pressure on Pellegrini to land top spot in Champions League group D. Having started badly, yet again, with home defeat to Juventus, City have turned things around dramatically in a tricky group. For the first time the club is beginning to carry itself with a degree of upright confidence in this parade of monarchs. Finishing above Juventus, who City meet this Wednesday to fight for first place, will ensure no more Barcelonas at the last 16 stage. It might mean PSV Eindhoven instead of Bayern Munich. It could mean Phase Three is being realized and bedded in with some success.

What it evidently means for Mr Pellegrini is the unenviable pressure to bring in trophies this season whilst also making proper progress on the continent. On Saturday, City fans paid the price for this as the manager took his eye off the ball just long enough to receive a massive bloody nose. Liverpool shredded City’s half-hearted plan. With no Kompany and Otamendi at the back, the manager produced a rickety central defensive pair that played like Abbot and Costello. In apparently also resting City’s player of the season so far, Fernandinho, he exacerbated the problem of playing facing a team set up by Jurgen Klopp (perhaps wise to expect speed, ferocious pressing and an unremittingly energetic approach?), leaving City's midfield utterly overwhelmed and the flimsy Demichelis-Mangala Show open to all sorts of possibilities from Liverpool's mobile attack.

Was this the first sign of a serious transfer of eggs into the European basket? It would seem so. Phase Three is marked then by risk-taking, either calculated or gung-ho, that City’s squad can compete on both major fronts. In a way, the manager is right. This squad can do that and probably will, but what it cannot do is survive against a feisty and well-drilled title rival (because Liverpool on this form will surely join those vying for top spot) with three pillars of the side missing and its creative force also out injured. Klopp, jovial and relaxed before the match, will have scarcely been able to believe what his eyes were telling him. He was quickly joined by 54,000 others in this respect.

The pressure of Phase Three at City now means, for this oversight to be forgiven by the masses, City must prevail in Turin, at the home of last year’s Serie A winners and Champions League runners-up. Then at least a flawed plan would have been seen to be partially effective. There has never been pressure quite like this at City and Manuel Pellegrini has only succeeded in ramping it up an extra notch or two with his feeble team selection at the weekend. 


Sunday, November 1, 2015

LOVE, SPEED AND THRILLS

"Officer Hart did WHAAAT?"
This was a game put together like an ill-conceived chase scene from a silent movie: it began going after its own tale and only stopped to allow the main protagonist, an over-muscled man of Ivorian descent, to occasionally stand on a misplaced rake. A clunking soundtrack of tuts and sighs followed our hapless hero's every move until, suddenly tiring of going around in ever-slower circles, the whole show exploded in our faces with twenty men running after each other at top speed. 

For Mr Wilfried Bony, it must have felt like he had played the whole game with a grand piano parked on his big toe. 

A dull match illuminated by ten extravagantly ridiculous minutes right at the end.

And so things were at the Etihad. What should have been a gentle picnic ended up giving everybody indigestion. Norwich's garishly-coloured  blanket kept them comfortable and warm, while City tugged at its edges with varying degrees of failure, until the whole thing finally blew off in a fully fledged hurricane right at the end. 

With Yaya chugging in midfield and a front two unable to deal with Norwich’s extra numbers at the back (five at all times, ably abetted by four more that were midfielders by name only), it was down to what creativity City had at their disposal to break the green and yellow barrier down. Unfortunate then that this comprised a slightly below-par Kevin de Bruyne and a speedy and eager Jesus Navas. The former contributed the corner from which Nicolas Otamendi, the game’s outstanding player, thumped an imperious header, the latter a series of runs down the outside, delivering crosses that a big, fast, intelligent centre forward would have dined out on.

Unfortunately for City, not only did they not have one of those on the pitch, they don’t possess one in the squad. Thoughts wandered idly to Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo, feeding on a stream of such lofted balls in Rome and Valencia respectively. Instead we were treated to the Wilfried Bony Show, an epic catalogue of trying too hard, leathering decent chances like he was trying to hit a far off planet and running head-down-headlong like a man trying to escape from a padlocked barn. 

By the end, with a looking-at-the-floor run that ignored two colleagues well placed in open space, it and he had become a parody of himself. When an argument broke out right at the end as to who would take City’s second penalty in Yaya Toure’s absence, you closed your eyes and hoped the ball didn’t end up in his fellow Ivorian's hands, because – on a day like this, in a season like this, in fact – he would have taken some poor punter’s head clean off somewhere towards the back of the second tier of the North Stand.

Instead it was left to Aleksandar Kolarov to offer the final slapstick image of a last ten minutes that had copied the script of The Keystone Cops in Love, Loot and Crash starring the Bangville Police and a heavily sweating Fatty Arbuckle, when the Serbian swiped City's second penalty of the match casually wide. It was the hilarious culmination to a late period in the game, where everything had melted like the middle of Delia's chocolate drizzle cake.   

With City sauntering to an ill-gained one-nil win, Joe Hart took it upon himself to drop Brady’s speculative left foot cross onto the knee of a deeply surprised Cameron Jerome. The big striker didn’t know whether to laugh or do the hopscotch, but the chance to score could not have been easier if Hart had produced a silver tray and rolled the ball onto a well folded napkin.

City were duly asked to show some mettle and – bless their socks – they did just that, with Sterling, who had
The penalty went that way. After it.
rejuvenated the attack when replacing Iheanacho, playing his part in a desperate late onslaught. Still it took another goalkeeping howler to put City back in front, Ruddy fumbling a cross out to the edge of the box, where Sterling's goal-bound shot was shouldered away by Martin. A red card and penalty brought us the climactic end to the hair-brained chase.

Touré, an increasingly peripheral figure as the game had gone on, hit a lovely penalty low into the corner and all seemed well again. Still there was time for a ridiculously elastic stop from Hart as a deflected shot almost zipped past him and for Sterling’s late trickery in the box to end with a second penalty when he was dumped on his stomach by O'Neill.


By then we had all been thoroughly scorched by the contents of the game’s last 10 minutes . City’s Cake of Many Layers had done for us once again. Cue credits and fast music.

Poets and Lyricists