Thursday, April 28, 2016

ALL OUR YESTERDAYS

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

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

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

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


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

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


Friday, April 8, 2016

TODAY'S OPPONENTS: WEST BROM

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Playlist:

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


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


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




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

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

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


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

Spencer practises the all-important bouncing before his debut. 

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

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

ENGINEERING YOUR OWN DOWNFALL

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


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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

YET ANOTHER BIG FINISH REQUIRED

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

GENTLEMEN


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, February 27, 2016

SACHIN NAKRANI ON CITY - LIVERPOOL

David White cracks his shot past Gary Ablett in 1991-92 at Maine Road
The Guardian's Sachin Nakrani, not afraid to nail his Liverpool colours to the mast in a job where there are plenty of people lining up to accuse journalists of perceived bias, answers some questions pre-League Cup Final. 

DTKS- What are your earliest memories of Liverpool v City? I bet it's of a stonking win. 

SN - I have a vague memory of a league game early on in the 1991/92 season. It stands out because, I think, it was the match in which Dean Saunders and Mark Wright made their debuts for Liverpool having arrived that summer from Derby County. Saunders was our record signing at £2.9m - yes kids, £2.9m - so him playing in a red shirt was an event. It was a midweek game and wasn't live on the telly. And I can't recollect the score. In my defence, I was 10 at the time. 

DTKS - Well, Sachin, we need few excuses to help you with the scoreline, as victories over Liverpool are as rare as hen's teeth. 2-1 to City on that occasion. Moving swiftly on, do Liverpool fans view the relationship the same as City's supporters do - ie that Liverpool have a strong, seemingly unbreakable 40 year hoodoo over the Blues (with the exception of the game you helpfully reminded us of and a paltry handful of others)?

SN - In my 27 years supporting Liverpool we have beaten City a fair bit. Largely that's because however poor we've been, City have been worse, no more so than in October 1995 when the Reds gave Alan Ball's Blues a 6-0 pasting at Anfield. What's slightly strange is that post-Mansour takeover, Liverpool have still managed to do rather well against City, especially at Anfield. So yes, there does seem to be some sort of hoodoo there, but given City's strength in depth and the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola, I'm sure they'll win in L4 sooner rather than later.

DTKS - Congrats on the highly deserved Guardian award the other night (Guardian Sport picked up the SJA website of the year, whilst Daniel Taylor was awarded the journalist of the year gong). The football and indeed sports writing of the whole team is always top notch and - almost always - without obvious bias, as it should be. At the same time, you nail your Liverpool colours quite happily to the mast, whilst some of your Guardian colleagues do not openly support a team. What's the balance in the office? We know of obvious Forest and Everton men, and a high suspicion that Jamie Jackson is a little fond of United, but what about the rest?

SN - On the editing/commissioning desk, where I mainly work, there's a real spread; couple of Liverpool supporters, an Evertonian, a Man United fan, as well as followers of Celtic, Plymouth, Barnet, Leicester, Tranmere, Hereford FC and West Ham. So the idea that we're all sitting around looking to be horrible to one club simply isn't true, as I'm sure is the case at other national newspapers. Yes, the mainstream media do focus heavily on the big clubs, but that's because they're the ones most readers are interested in. 

And yes, I am very open about who I support, but that's because I passionately feel just because somebody works as a football journalist that doesn't mean they should hide who they support, particularly if it doesn't impinge on their work, which I feel is the case with myself. And in regards to Jamie - he's not a United fan, honest!

DTKS - That'll take some time for certain people to digest. Klopmania: still in full swing or slightly stalled?

When Liverpool had a classy keeper. 1981 LC s/f
SN - Oh it's in full swing alright, with lots and lots of Reds still madly in love with the mad German. I've keen on him too but have never gone all giddy, partly because I actually want him to prove himself before I hail him as the Messiah. So far Klopp has done well - a 7/10 - and of course the pedigree is there to suggest he will be a success at Anfield. But it's a big old job and I think that's something the manager himself has realised in the four months since he arrived at the club. 

DTKS - What does he need to do to the squad in the summer when he gets his first chance to tinker?

SN - Buy a goalkeeper who can actually save shots and kick the ball properly. That's an absolute priority. A commanding centre half and a decent striker to replace Christian Benteke, who clearly has no future at Liverpool, would also be nice. 

DTKS - Where can the two sides hurt each other at the weekend?

SN - Red or Blue, shoot on target - this will undoubtedly lead to goals as both teams have terrible goalkeepers (on the basis Manuel Pellegrini sticks to his word and plays Willy Caballero). That aside, it's important Liverpool start quickly and confidently, press City back and take their chances - in other words, how they performed in the 4-1 win at the Etihad in November. It's obvious City don't like it when teams put pressure on them and this is something Liverpool have become increasingly good at under Jurgen Klopp. From City's point of view, attacking Alberto Moreno is a good idea as he has the ability to be utterly brainless at left-back. Oh and stick loads of crosses into the area, we hate that.

DTKS - Are you on duty or will you be raging in the stands with the rest of us?

SN - I'll be in the stands for what will be only my second time watching Liverpool at Wembley as a punter, with the previous occasion being last year's shocking FA Cup semi-final loss to Aston Villa. I'm rather excited, partly because I was raised near Wembley (in Kingsbury) so seeing my team play there alway feels like a really special occasion. I'll probably pop into my parents' afterwards for a brew.

DTKS - Liverpool are the record League Cup winners. What would it mean to win it again, as it is the "other trophies" that have constantly escaped the club and not this one so much? 

SN - It would mean a huge amount to win on Sunday - the club's first trophy in four years and Jurgen Klopp's first as manager. It would signal the start of a new era and give the players a real belief/confidence that they can achieve great things with the club. Losing wouldn't be a disaster given the quality of the opposition but, for the same reason, winning would be huge.

DTKS - Your prediction for the game's flow and outcome?


SN - I think Liverpool will start brightly and score first. City will definitely score themselves and then, hopefully, the Reds will go on to get a winner. It feels written that Daniel Sturridge will play a key role on Sunday, providing he's fit of course. I just hope there is no extra time as due to Sky Sports' typical meddling with the kick-off time, the match is starting much later than it normally would and there are lots of supporters from both sides who need to get back to the north. 

DTKS - Thanks for your time, Sachin. All the best ... against United in the Europa League.

You can follow Sachin on Twitter here and see regular input from him on the Guardian's excellent football pages here

Random fate-tempting City/Liverpool final image

Thursday, February 25, 2016

HITTING THE GOLDEN GATE

A magnificent night’s football in Kiev saw City match the score and performance in Seville before Christmas. These two away games in the Champions League now represent City’s best performances of a patchy, undulating season that has threatened to clank into action so many times it looks like a Hillman Hunter.

Manuel Pellegrini was entirely vindicated for resting his main players last weekend against Chelsea with a performance on this occasion of power, drive, control and efficiency. Apart from a period early in the second half when City allowed control of the game’s flow to change hands, the away side came up with all the answers.

Dynamo, who had kept match fit with a string of friendlies during the Ukrainian winter break, could have done little more to prepare themselves for an onslaught of this kind. City were just too hot to handle.

Pellegrini pulled a rabbit out of the hat starting Fernandinho wide right. It soon became apparent that this was a masterstroke on several levels. With the Brazilian’s lung power and willingness to slide inside and dig in with the others, City had a solid block of four, sometimes five that Dynamo’s middle orders could not cope with.It moved up, down and across the field as a resolute and cohesive unit that the home side found impossible to deal with.

High foraging allowed City to gain possession on numerous occasions from their hassled opponents deep in enemy territory. Manager Sergei Rebrov became so frustrated by City’s stranglehold that he was forced into a very early change, taking off swamped midfield hope Denys Garmash and replacing him with the more robust Miguel Veloso.

By this time it had become apparent that City had taken to the air. Raheem Sterling, in the midst of one of his most impressive nights of football in a City shirt, was liberated on the left thanks to Fernandinho’s solid presence on the right. With Fernando finally showing us exactly what he could do, the stomping presence of Yaya Toure further forward was also paying great dividends.

At the back the usual robust approach from Nicolas Otamendi looked suddenly more like controlled power than a juggernaut with the brakes failing. Thanks to the imperious presence of Vincent
Yaya strolls through the Dynamo defence
Kompany alongside him, the Argentinean was having an absolute ball. Even when his towering header fell outside the box to Buyalskiy, Otamendi was unlucky to see the resulting shot flip in off his shins for 1-2. 

The cornerstones to City’s total tactical success over Dynamo were thus laid. Solid through the middle, thanks to the Kompany-Otamendi axis and the brilliant shoplifting of Fernando, with Sterling and Yaya menacing in every attack. As if that was not enough, the two forward elements not yet mentioned – those that would have been the biggest concern to Dynamo beforehand – were also doing a fine job, with Silva’s pirouettes and Aguero’s surging forward runs pulling the craggy Vida and Dragovic all over the place. The long haired Vida appeared to be spluttering and cursing his way through an exasperating midfield experience. 

Aguero’s finishing brought him a single goal, which should properly have been tripled by the end. Penalty shouts went begging and Fernando was close with a header too. When Yaya bent in a magnificent third from Fernandinho’s perfect wall pass through the Dynamo defence, the curtain came down on an outstanding City display. With the second goal also a poetic cocktail of flicks and one-touch passes, right the way through to  it reaching the stretched right boot of David Silva at the far post, all had been delivered in just the manner requested.


Pellegrini, still unbent from the hail of criticism afforded him over the weekend, could allow himself a wry smile. In a season of stuttering false starts, League Cup final opponents Liverpool will be hoping that this is merely more of the same, rather than the beginnings of a typically robust sprint for the 2015-16 finishing line. With plenty of time to go and the team showing itself suddenly so capable of fluidity and composure beyond the humdrum contents of the season up to now, that little shiver of optimism you are feeling in your bones right now need not be out of place. 

Poets and Lyricists