Monday, August 10, 2015

TABLA MORAL WEEK ONE

Thanks to Down the Kippax Steps, Solo Fútbol's Tabla Moral from the 80s in Argentina is enjoying a re-run in the 2015-16 Premier League. In it, we hope to highlight blatant wrongs, crass errors and large slices of injustice:

The opening day of the season produced several lumpen performances from fancied sides but, despite some of the more precious managers' protestations, little in the way of controversy.

Whilst José Mourinho tried his best to produce a theatrical piece to camera from Chelsea's 2-2 draw with Swansea, the red card for Thibaut Courtois was deserved and the penalty award to Swansea correct, the keeper taking out Bafetembi Gomis at thigh level as he was entering the penalty area.

Elsewhere the only noteworthy explosion of ire was heard at Carrow Road, where we were treated to a brand new Premier League referee and a brand new intepretation of the 100 year old rules of football to boot. In Simon Hooper's * shoes, what would you do: opt for a low key performance to ease your way into the way of Premier League things on your debut or go for broke making one of the wierdest football decsions in many a year, wiping out in one ill-conceived sweep of your arm a century or so of fantastically acrobatic goal scoring?

Doesn't require an answer, of course, as the hapless man went for broke and decided to take us all

Mr Hooper explains his new rule change
into the new and thrilling territory of judging overhead kicks dangerous play. Thus in one fell swoop Dennis Tueart, Denis Law, Jurgen Klinsmann, Trevor Sinclair, Stan Bowles, Charlie Nicholas and a host of others could forget the airborne heroics they had treated us all to down the years. The feet were too high. There marvellous goals should not have counted.

Good call, Mr Hooper and, yes, you are now successfully part of the Premier League's refereeing community.

As a result of this moment of Numb Brain in the Sun Syndrome, Norwich were docked not only a perfectly good goal, but a stunningly executed one. That, along with the clearest penalty of the weekend, also not given by the prodigious Mr Hooper, makes Norwich the first recipients of the Tabla Moral slight readjustments.

So, awarded the goal that they deserved and the penalty that should have been given, the Carrow Road Tabla Moral result is corrected to Norwich 3 Crystal Palace3.

No other troubles elsewhere, unless you judge Peter Cech's performance for Arsenal to be contravening the rules of normal goalkeeping ("It's Wojciech Szczesny in a hat" shouted the usually unfunny Independent), thus making the first table of the season look like this:

TABLA MORAL WEEK ONE TABLE -





1. MANCHESTER CITY     1     3-0    +3               3

2. LEICESTER CITY          1     4-2     +2              3

3. WEST HAM                      1     2-0     +2             3

4. ASTON VILLA                 1     1-0     +1             3

5. MAN UNITED                   1     1-0   +1              3

6. LIVERPOOL                     1     1-0   +1               3

7.CRYSTAL PALACE         1      3-3   - 1              1

8. NORWICH                        1      3-3    -                1

9 CHELSEA                          1      2-2    -                1

10. SWANSEA                      1       2-2   -                1

11. WATFORD                     1       2.2   -                 1

12. EVERTON                      1       2-2   -                 1

13.NEWCASTLE                 1       2-2   -                 1

14. SOUTHAMPTON          1       2-2   -                1

15. STOKE CITY                 1       0-1   -1              0

16. BOURNEMOUTH         1       0-1   -1              0

17. TOTTENHAM               1       0-1   -1               0

18. SUNDERLAND              1       2-4   -2               0

19. ARSENAL                       1       0-2   -2              0

20. WEST BROM                 1       0-3   -3               0
 +1 3


* Remember the name. He looks promising in a Hairless Mark Clattenburg sort of way.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

BOSNIAN BULLETS

When Edin Dzeko arrived at Manchester City for a fee of £27m from Wolfsburg in January 2011, nobody noticed that he wore the vacant expression of a man receiving first time instructions on how to tackle the Moscow underground.

That would only become relevant later, when he started missing sitters against Norwich, doing a good impersonation of the chap with the map upside down.

Neither did anybody notice that the Bosnian reminded them vaguely during these first passing moments of frivolity of a free-flowing floral dress on a breezy summer's day: it looks kind of interesting but the nagging thought remains that all that billowing up might just be hiding something underneath that we needed to know about before it was too late to turn back.

He had departed what had been an unexpectedly rapacious attacking duo at the German club with his reputation sky high. An exhilirating and unexpected Bundesliga title had arrived in Volkswagen Land in 2008-09. The essential YouTube compilations of his feats made him look like the healthy offspring from the marriage of the Cannonball Kid with Wyatt Earp. His partnership with the unheralded Brazilian Grafite had brought a cavalcade of goals, helping to establish the lanky Bosnian's credentials to perfom higher up the football food chain.

Manchester City, at the time of his arrival, might already have considered themselves a more wholesome proposition than Vfl Wolfsburg in some ways, but in reality were still something of a lumpen weight looking for a little momentum from somewhere. City were climbing the foodchain alright, but there were still some steps to go before they would break through the clouds.

That has now been accomplished with City's seasons since his arrival looking lke this: 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd.

As Dzeko departs, he has not only been an integral part of each and every one of City's recent glut of prizes, but he has also cemented his name in the annals of the club's history for being right in the limelight for some of the individual highlights too. He was not just a part of the party, he was frequently the focal point and occasionally the prime cause of it.

City's back catalogue of tall front men has some legs. Having graduated from the knock knees and

White Hart Lane
chopstick legs of Trevor Christie and the barren hulk that was Tony Cunningham in the 80s, the club took it upon itself to resurrect the career of a gangly Irishman, who had been moving like a new born giraffe on the fringe of the Arsenal first team. Niall Quinn would grow into one of the most prolific and trusted strikers of City's successful early 90s campaigns, when two consecutive fifth place finishes under Peter Reid represented a high water point before the trusted and timeworn dive back into troubled waters.

Even whilst negotiating those choppy seas, City entrusted the goal scoring to another striker whose limbs appeared to have been dropped off from an Ikea reject plant. Shaun Goater, with the movement and touch of a runaway step ladder, grew into one of City's greatest heroes in their darkest hours. Goater possessed a similar feathery grasp of the ball to Dzeko, employed knecaps, elbows and shins to divert the ball goalwards, but shared the Bosnian's ability to create havoc whenever there was a following wind. 

By the time Dzeko appeared on the scene at City, the club had spent the intervening period yo-yoing between the divisions, even hitting an unharmonious low point of third tier football for one desperate season in 1998. With £350,000 pat of butter impersonator Lee Bradbury up front it could hardly have been any other way. In those desperate, parched, end-of-century days at Maine Road even tall people had begun to look small.

The £27 million City shipped out across the North Sea represented the club's second highest transfer fee ever at the time, just 5 million or so down on the Robinho purchase the previous summer. Roberto Mancini's exuberant spending spree had made Dzeko the sixth most expensive Premier League recruit ever and for that sort of money, hopes were high that the Bosnian could boost City's chances of tangible success.

To underline what would become an ability to play meaningful parts in each mini chapter of City's success story, Dzeko's first goal in sky blue came at Notts County in the FA Cup in a game that City were struggling badly to deal with in the proper manner. City survived by the skin of their teeth thanks to his equaliser and thrashed County in the Etihad replay with Dzeko again scoring. He would not play in the final that May, but he had played his part in getting City's to their crucial first trophy win since 1976.

Before his first half season with the Blues was done, he had notched two more crucial goals. First the winner at Wigan and then, on the final day of the season, one of the goals at Bolton that helped City clinch a 3rd place finsh and a first-ever qualification for the Champions League. For an initial impact, the Bosnian's work had been pretty enlightening.

Tackled
What came next would cement his reputation in the Premier League, however. Dzeko began 2011-12 with a bang, hitting a superb goal to put City ahead in the Community Shield against Manchester United, a game eventually lost 3-2. Within weeks he had carved his name into Premier League folklore with four goals in a sun-drenched romp for City at White Hart Lane. That day, he revealed a knack for powerful heading, right foot placement and finished the show with a left foot curler from distance that flew into the top corner. Edin Dzeko and Manchester City had truly arrived in the upper echeleons of the English league. The panache and elegance of his performance at Tottenham would be a far cry from the stumbling, disinterested displays that littered his later appearances in sky blue and would perhaps act as a rod to beat him with when he fell below this astonishing level of performance. He had laid an early marker of the highest calibre.

He continued to play his role of Johnny on the Spot with a canny ease, scoring a vital goal at Wigan as City began to overhaul United in an incredibly tense title run-in. In the final denouement against a relegation-threatened Queen's Park Rangers, when the Blues famously considered enacting the most City-esque belly-flop of all time, his header on 90 minutes brought that last surge of momentum towards the Aguero seconds no football watcher in modern times will ever forget. If it had stopped there, the Bosnian's contribution would have had his name up in lights on City's hall of fame: a solid but not-always-reliable, sometimes spectacular sometimes misdirected input that had helped drag English football's most unwilling winners over the golden finishing line.

But Dzeko wasn't finished. In a less successful second full season his tally of 15 goals was part of an effort that brought City to Wembley again, a second FA Cup Final in two years, this time lost to Wigan. Despite the bitter disppointment of the culmination of Mancini's eye-watering tenure in Manchester, Dzeko had still managed to notch an iconic goal for City in their first ever appearance in the Bernabeu and get on the end of a stunning sweeping counter attacking goal at West Brom in the league, a strike that mirrored another breath-taking break out at Arsenal in the League Cup, when Dzeko revealed himself to be more than a gangly goal scorer, picking up a clearance and hauling the side forward to notch a late clincher through Sergio Aguero in a break that had also invloved the twinkling feet of Adam Johnson.

Dzeko was once again pivotal in City's much more successful campaign in 2013-14, scoring regularly in Manuel Pellegrini's blitzkrieg debut season. The Chilean had recruited Spaniard Alvaro Negredo and a flood of goals burst upon an unsuspecting public. The Bosnian was perhaps also taken unawares of Negredo's raw power and suddenly found himself falling down the pecking order for places. Being taken unawares had in the meantime begun to be one of Dzeko's specialities.

Despite the Moscow metro look never really having completely left him, Dzeko's less impressive displays (and there were an increasing number of these by now) were always likely to be balanced by sudden bursts of unerring savvy and fast-whirring brain cells. You just never knew when it might break out next.

Dzeko would keep his powder dry until later in the season, as Negredo's goals spectacularly and suddenly dried up. In stepped the Bosnian - having already passed the 50 goal mark - to hit the fastest ever away goal at Old Trafford in Premier League history (32 seconds) as City began to rise again. As City closed in on Liverpool, Dzeko netted at Palace, two vital goals at Everton and another two at home to Villa as City hauled in Liverpool metre by painful metre to win their second title in three seasons. Once again the wily Dzeko had been thrust into the limelight at the most appropriate moments of another tear stained success for the club and had come up trumps.

By now many observeers had descended on the Bosnian's ability to look disinterested, caught gazing at his feet or loping back slowly from another misshit attempt on goal. For every goal, his detractors told us, there were untold games where he disappeared, if such a tall man could manage such a feat, and was basically a clumsy, error-strewn passenger. To the rest of us, he had the uncanny knack of netting from all angles when it mattered most.

In many ways, Dzeko was damned by the company he was forced to keep. Those threaded passes

Connection
from David Silva and the rocket heels of Sergio Aguero began to make him look like a second class citizen, slow to pick up the pass and slower still to finish it off. Anybody could look a little one-paced and brain dead alongside that gilded pair, but Dzeko was unlucky to find the club he had aided so strongly on the way to greatness actually beginning to outgrow him.

There will be those that voice the opinion that, as time went by, he began to look uneasy, lazy some said, lolloping around like a grazing giraffe on the Serengeti. Others will force us to remember the howling misses and the dreadful lack of control that seemed to afflict him like an apprentice violinist with delirium tremens. It was often very off tune, they will tell you, the desperate scraping and whining.

Dzeko may well have left a bigger legacy, been even more productive, even more deadly in front of goal, but that was not his style. He had a languid, easy movement that carried him hither and thither at his own special pace. When resting he looked like he had been closed down. The facile expression, at once blank, vague and empty, offered few clues as to how emotionally involved he was becoming as the tears and shivers gripped the rest of us on the sidelines. Even some of his spells down on the turf injured seemed to last longer than other players, but there can be no doubt that Edin Dzeko deserves the heartfelt thanks of the City support for the critical part he played in the club's most invigorating period of success for nearly half a century
.

***
 
Extract from a piece I wrote for Champions Magazine on Dzeko, August 2014:
 
When Edin Dzeko's wonderfully cushioned back heel lay-off fell perfectly into the path of David Silva's left foot in the 44th minute of Manchester City's opening Premier League game of the season at St James Park, Newcastle, many onlookers were moved to comment that the beanpole Bosnian striker must have been taking secret lessons in deft touches and body movement whilst out in Brazil for last summer's World Cup.
A long, looping through-ball from Ivorian midfielder Yaya Touré had descended from the heavens towards Dzeko, who was closely marked by Fabio Coloccini and Mike Williamson. Seconds later the two defenders were left staring into space, as the ball dropped in from above and immediately departed again off Dzeko's heel, in one deftly-volleyed manouevre. Silva, taking it in his stride, took one extra touch to prod it a little way in front of himself and finished with aplomb beneath the onrushing goalkeeper Tim Krul with his second touch. The ball had been propelled from deep midfield to deep in Newcastle's net in four rapid touches.
And in one split second Edin Dzeko had demonstrated the folly of underestimating his talents.

Having a good touch for a big man  is one of those football phrases that commentators have uttered into folklore in the English game. From Niall Quinn through to Andy Carroll and Carlton Cole, the Premier League's existence has been dotted with strikers with the physical attributes (and occasionally sprightliness of mind) of a telegraph pole....
English football and its sometimes rather rudimentary tactics have provided a safe haven for what purists might call the dinosaur, the huge brick-reinforced number nine, who will rough up the opposition defence and - with some luck -barge his way to a small portion of your team's required goals.
Modern systems in the game require much greater subtelty, however, and Edin Dzeko is amongst the foremost examples of the mobile, capable, yet powerful central striker that these days prowl the eighteen yard boxes. Size can remain a hindrance, however, and some experts and casual onlookers alike remain non-plussed by the Bosnian's attributes. Even amongst the Manchester City faithful, there remains a large (mainly) silent minority, who find it difficult to acknowledge Dzeko's worth in City's stellar squad.
City manager Manuel Pellegrini is obviously one person leading the "yes" vote, as Dzeko became the fifth major star of the summer - after David Silva, Joe Hart, Sergio Aguero and skipper Vincent Kompany - to put his signature to a contract extension. In amongst the big summer imports to the top of the Premier League, these contract extensions for players who make up City's redoubtable spine could turn out to be just as important in the long run.
It takes only a cursory glance at the Bosnian's scoring record to see why Manuel Pellegrini was so keen to lock him into a new contract. He scores regularly and is just as likely to curl in a devestating left footer from 20 metres as he is to nod in at close quarters from a corner or free kick. His size and movement make him extremely difficult to mark and his ability to drop into midfield and link play with City's revolving midfield personnel is a noticeably efficient part of what makes the sky blues so difficult to pin down. What stands out even more, however, beyond the consistent scoring rate, the broad variety of finishes and the evident team ethic of the player, is his knack of scoring on the big stage, when goals are critical

 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT



In a little under a month Manchester City will walk out for their first home fixture of the new season. The Etihad Stadium, formerly known as the City of Manchester Stadium (and briefly before that even, as the Commonwealth Games Stadium), continues to grow upwards and outwards as City’s owners assiduously follow their masterplan to have the club join the elite of European football.

Champions League participation has already brought the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona (twice) and Bayern Munich (an incredible three times) to Manchester to play on an increasingly well-recognised world football stage. Rangers and Zenit also brought some kind of scruffy limelight upon the place for the noisy and ill-behaved 2008 UEFA Cup Final. The giant scoreboards, the huge pylons and shimmering slabs of aluminium and glass fibre, the arcing bridges of threaded wire are a common sight these days, just 13 years on from the exuberant weeks when Manchester successfully hosted the Commonwealth Games.


City fans greet the Blues and Barcelona for the opening of the stadium
“The Commonwealth Games has almost single handedly salvaged the reputation of Britain as a country to stage major sporting events,” wrote Duncan Mackay in the Guardian, on the first anniversary of the games, as City prepared to launch a bright new future for themselves in the revamped stadium.
The London Olympics would seal this renaissance well and truly, but the tide had turned in Manchester in 2002.


Looking back today, the opening match in the stadium looks like an artistic piece of weird and wonderful prescience, as it involved a visiting team that in those days was a more or less complete stranger to Blues fans but today appears to be one of the club’s most frequent stumbling blocks to meaningful advancement in the Champions League.

On Saturday 9th August 2003 the stadium was christened in bright sunshine with an exhilarating 2-1 win over the Catalan flag bearers of Barcelona, a side containing Xavi, Marc Overmars, Ricardo Quaresma and Carles Puyol. The occasion, given a sad touch by the final appearances in sky blue of previous City heroes Shaun Goater and Ali Benarbia, on top of a last chance to bid farewell to Marc Vivien Foe, who had died that summer in Cameroon's Confederations Cup match with Colombia in Lyon, was nevertheless seen as a pivotal moment in the club’s attempts to find stability. The occasion also gave the City fans a hilarious opportunity to sing the praises of Ronaldinho, who had just turned down the lure of a place at Old Trafford. The look of bewilderment on the Brazilian’s face as he was met with wild songs of praise will live on for some beyond the toings and froings of the frenetic match itself.

City had spent the previous two decades changing division like it was going out of fashion and an increased capacity ground with untold revenue streams and possibilities for growth in all directions seemed to be pushing the club inexorably towards a new and perhaps uncomfortable future. For City, a club steeped in history, much of it quirky and slightly embarrassing, this would indeed be a giant step to take. Locking into a serious and upwardly mobile future at this early stage of the ground's occupation seemed riddled with pitfalls.

As supporters flooded in to the new ground that day, they were eager to see the club’s new signings for the season. The faces and the names on the shirts would tell regulars whether City indeed meant business or not. Although he names look underwhelming today, that is more because of the unprecedented growth surge which has taken place than the player's dubious quality at the time. Keegan had dregded up the following:  Paul Bosvelt from Feyenoord, QPR’s Trevor Sinclair, the still pony-tailed David Seaman, Bayern’s utility defender Michael Tarnat and the little known Antoine Sibierski from Lens.

David Sommeil saves City blushes against Portsmouth
Fortress Keegan” chirruped the Daily Mail on the following Monday in an article apparently lacking the ironic tones the paper these days uses when reporting on City. In truth, what Keegan would bring to City that first seasons would be so far from anything resembling a fortress that sand castles facing an onrushing tide came to mind. True the team played to full galleries week after week, but there was something terrifically fragile lingering in the dank Manchester air, as indeed with most of Keegan’s teams. Added to this City had managed to scrape into European competition for the first time since 1979. Although qualifying via the fair play regulations would be classified as a huge embarrassment these days, it was clasped eagerly with both hands in 2003.

The club had bade European football farewell with a mud spattered defeat at the Bokelburg to a ravenously talented Monchengladbach side in the 1979 UEFA Cup quarter finals, but returned to the fields of Europe with a tie against Total Network Solutions, of Wales, hardly the big name desired for the stadium’s competitive christening. That evening Daniel Taylor wrote in the Guardian: 


“There are many things Manchester City will miss about Maine Road but not the sense of foreboding.....”
A 5-0 win told everyone that, on top of the friendly baptism against Ronaldinho’s Barcelona, things were going to be alright, we could drop the worried looks and start to enjoy ourselves. As surely as we were all sat there in our smart new surroundings, so the club was pulling its socks up.


This feeling was quickly dispersed by the time the first Premier League game of the season was played in the ground, City needing a last minute David Sommeil equaliser to get anything from a game against Harry Redknapp’s tactically pliable Portsmouth team. By the time Arsenal arrived for the second home game, City had clocked up impressively Keeganesque wins at Charlton (3-0) and Blackburn (3-2) but were undone by lax defending and a performance by the unable Seaman that moved Martin Lipton in The Mirror to chortle that his name should be changed from Safe Hands to Sieve Hands.

The Mirror captures David Seaman's embarrassment against his old club.
With the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman in Keegan’s fantasy side, it was always likely to be an up and down ride. So it proved, with City’s return fixture with Portsmouth, on 14th February 2004, leaving the old romantic Keegan with a star-studded side lingering 3 points above the drop zone after a 4-2 defeat at Fratton Park. At this stage of the inaugural City of Manchester Stadium season, some of those new bucket seats were home to a number of squeaky bums. 

Could the club haul knotted catastrophe from the golden chalice that had been proferred one last time?

Certainly second division football in such a grand setting would have been a financial and public relations disaster. City though were no strangers to relegation scraps in those days and pulled themselves together, beating United 4-1 in a stunning first derby match at the ground and later on in a most critical game, Newcastle 1-0 with a looping Paolo Wanchope header sealing the precious points. It had been a terrible struggle, thanks mainly to Keegan’s profligate tactics. Only the sparkling Shaun Wright Phillips, who had gained England recognition by the end of the season, and the on loan defensive rock Daniel van Buyten really came out of it smelling of roses.

A slapstick 3-3 draw with bottom of the table Wolves typified City’s season, with Keegan’s underachievers only saved by Wright Phillips’s equaliser in the 90th minute. An already outspoken young midfield academy prospect by the name of Joey Barton, managed to fire off some frustrated quotes to the Guardian’s Dominic Fifield, saying: 

At one stage I was telling people what their jobs were during games. That’s the responsibility of an experienced pro not a 21 year old. We’ve lacked a leader all year…”.
For all his future pasted-on worldliness, the young Barton had hit the nail on the head.


One of the few hits of the season, Shaun Wright Phillips, seals a desperate point v Wolves
A 1-3 reverse to Southampton in the stadium’s 17th home game of the league season almost spelled disaster, as the club once again flirted with the dreaded drop. This was followed by a tremulous 1-1 draw at Leicester and the afore-mentioned release of joy against Newcastle, as City closed the season in an atmosphere as euphoric as that for the derby win earlier in the year. The big open ground, with its elusively fetching lines, had been a huge change from the tight cauldron of Maine Road. It had proved difficult to recreate the febrile atmosphere of City's old home on those occasions when the whole place seemed fit to burst.

On a balmy summer’s afternoon, City closed out the stadium’s first season of football action with a stunning demolition of Everton. The atmosphere was loud and celebratory, but the noise still seemed to be disappearing into the big hole above the pitch. Watching from high up in the stands, one was struck by the beauty of the ground’s curves, the great swathe of sky blue across the tiers and the magnificence of the setting. As each of City’s five goals hit the net that afternoon, the thought in many people’s minds must have been eerily similar. With the club once again spluttering unconvincingly over the finishing line, could the wheezing colossus that was Manchester City bring the standard of football to this fine setting that it so obviously deserved?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

STERLING CRISIS



Manchester City’s £49m purchase of Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling has unleashed a tidal wave of excited opinion across the British football media and beyond. Whether it is more apt to build a couple of new hospitals or his fee is obscene and ruinous, is open to question, but be reassured that the democratic notion of free speech to all (even Phil Thompson) has been unleashed upon us like a hurricane wave hitting the low-lying sands of Formby.


Variously voted Europe’s Golden Boy (in the slipstream of the likes of Mario Balotelli, Lionel Messi and new team mate Sergio Aguero), called Liverpool’s most valuable and talented player, the “best young player in Europe” (an earlier incarnation of Brendan Rodgers) and held up as England’s next great hope, he suddenly, at the stroke of an undoubtedly expensive pen across the bottom of his new contract, turned into a variety of less pleasant things in various parts of the country. A villain, a turncoat, a waste of time, were some of the more printable words and phrases offered up.

Welcome, dear readers, to the febrile world of modern football where everyone’s grip on reality is as fragile as the gossamer threads holding Raheem’s delicate designer shirts together. This is a world where, these days, history is cheap and banter trumps everything, where you can be king of the castle one day and a spurned and criticised pauper the next.

Sterling has not suddenly become a poor player overnight, as the most insightful of Liverpool’s support have been trying to tell us above the din of the outraged masses. His fee is not as outrageous as many think, given other clubs’ similarly high spending rates for older, lesser talented players. City, damned if they do and damned if the don’t, are paying -- or being forced to pay -- the going rate (or above) for absolute top quality (English) footballing pedigree. Make no mistake, Sterling is not yet Paul Pogba quality, but he is a fantastic young player with the world at his feet, feet presumably that will continue to twinkle for City as well as they have done for Liverpool.

Feet that -- in fact -- twinkled so well when the two sides last met at Anfield, he managed to wrong-foot half of the City defence with a deft swerve, a classic pause for thought and another lightning quick jerk to the right, before dispatching a smoothly placed pass into the Kop end net beyond a bamboozled Joe Hart. If the old adage of making yourself stronger whilst weakening your rivals is one worth believing in, City are following a well trodden path here.

City, meanwhile, must now move on quickly to their next transfer targets. The market is in a state of full bodied flux. This topsy turvy atmosphere was perhaps one of the reasons the haggling over Sterling had to come to an abrupt end. In signing the Liverpool player, City have sent out a message to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba -- both thought to be next in the firing line of Txiki Begiristain --- that City will be put off neither by FFP nor the criticism at home in their attempts to recruit the talent which will carry them up a level.

The club has reached the rarefied sub-plateau of those teams feeding close to the game’s kings. The biggest challenges of all perhaps still lie ahead.  How can the club hope to compete on an even keel with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, whose modus operandi acts like a giant suction pump to the football world’s talent? The electrical energy around these two clubs is like no other on the planet. City are already engaging comfortably with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea on the domestic front. As relative newcomers to the top table the club still finds itself criticised for its extravagant spending, its creative accounting, its over-generous wages. People conveniently forget the money mountain that is modern football can only be climbed using more of the same commodity. In many ways it has always been like this. Money has always spoken loudest and those that decry or deny this are shying away from the distasteful truth.

Manchester City, once the blue eyed boys of English football fans for hovering pathetically on the high moral step of continued, slapstick, decades-long failure, are now denigrated by many as nouveaux riches upstarts, upsetting the established order at the top of the pile. Ironically, with the strong feeling that they are one of the last to crawl over the gap before the drawbridge thuds shut, it may never happen again. We may be stuck with an elite group that gets bigger and stronger from now on. It is hardly something that we all, as football fans, should applaud, but one would do well to get used to seeing Manchester City as a part of it, for better or worse. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

EL MAGO OF ARGUÍNEGUÍN




On 17th October 2010, David Silva announced his arrival on the football pitches of England. 
It involved a flourish of blazing colour that all who were there will remember vividly. In many ways it embodied an entrance to the English football scene that shed bright light on just what kind of player City had managed to purchase that summer.
It is worth remembering, in those days of early influence from coach Roberto Mancini, that City's side had a very different look to it than the team millions across the planet are familiar with today.
That only Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany remain in Manchester from that afternoon in Blackpool four and a half years ago is a clear indication of the massive turnover of staff that has taken place at the Etihad in recent times. David Silva, who did not even make the starting eleven against Blackpool on that brisk Sunday afternoon, is also still there of course, a constant reminder that if you are good enough, you are big enough even in the rough and tumble of English football.
                "People were saying about me that I was too small to be a success with City, but I reminded them that Spain had become World Champions with little players..." -                                                                                                                                          David Silva
With a side featuring the likes of Jerome Boateng, Wayne Bridge and Emmanuel Adebayor, City struggled manfully with the dual challenges thrown up by an Irish Sea gale and a gutsy newly-promoted Blackpool side. Midway through the second half Mancini made a change that would bring a sumptuous new sight to the British football-watching public. The floundering Adebayor was replaced by David Silva, hardly a like for like swap, but nevertheless one that would have eye-opening consequences.
The game, being transmitted live on television, was about to feature an immediate injection of urgency and accuracy from the tiny Spaniard.
In two flashes of utter, ice cold  inspiration, the little man from the Canary Islands would embed his skills in the psyche of a nation. First, he slid Carlos Tevez through for the opening goal with one of those slide rule daisy cutter passes in from the left flank that have since become as much a trademark of the player as his low key Spanish accent.
Having announced his arrival thus, he played in James Milner for a shot onto the bar, set up Carlos Tevez for his second goal of the match and hit the post himself after drifting through the Blackpool defence with a subtle shimmy of his hips. The stage was now set for the piéce de resistance.
With Blackpool making a spirited fightback, as the game drifted exhaustedly towards its conclusion, there came a moment that would hoist the little man's reputation in neon capital letters. Receiving the ball from Milner near the touchline on the right wing, Silva jinked inside Stephen Crainey, leaving him sprawling, shifted his weight to the other side and left David Vaughan in a similarly distressed state, before turning back onto his left foot and with one laser quick movement, curling a left foot shot around Charlie Adam and inside the far post of goalkeeper Matt Gilks. 
In one sublime, serpentine movement, the era of David Silva in the Premier League was upon us.
                "In Manuel Pellegrini we have a man, who encourages us to attack and score goals. I think you can see that many of our players are shining brightly under him...."
                                          - David Silva, February 2014
Silva curls in at Bloomfield Road
Born and raised in Arguineguín, a tiny Canarian fishing village, whose name translates aptly into the English quiet water, David Silva is one of those players, who let their feet do the talking for them. A tiny left-footed midfielder, he is deceptively resistant, royally gifted and not disposed to showing off for the sake of a few television cameras.
It is the Manchester derby of 2011-12. When Silva slots Edin Dzeko through on goal with a diagonal volleyed left foot pass that opens the home defence with a surgeon's precision, setting  the big Bosnian striker straight through on goal, to some it may have looked a little like a Hollywood pass. The seemingly extravagant delivery was put through full on the volley, with laser precision, with his side already - quite incredibly - 5-1 ahead, but was no piece of arrogant show-boating, but in fact a slice of improvisation of the very highest order. To get a quickly moving ball to go right where Silva intended it in the shortest possible space of time, he had executed one of the passes of the season. Without needing to break his stride, Dzeko ran on to the pass and struck City's final goal in the never-to-be-forgotten 6-1 win over their fiercest rivals that heralded a changing of the guard in Manchester's football fortunes.
Purchased by Mancini to bring life to City's middle orders as the club built towards a trophy-winning future under the Italian, he has not only achieved that, but has also surpassed anything seen in that area of the pitch for as long as anyone in Manchester can remember.
Whilst Colin Bell's game was constructed from coruscating runs, driving passes and a cornucopia of well taken goals, Silva adds the subtle arts to a powerhouse midfield directed by the elephantine Yaya Touré. The little Spaniard can be found twisting and turning, orchestrating and prodding on the left hand side and - when needed - tucked inside just behind the front striker.
His innate ability to maintain clean possession of the ball in the tightest of corners and patiently wait for an opening has become legend. The ultimate sign of genius - praise from opposition supporters - now comes his way with embarrassing frequency. Silva, it seems, is loved and coveted by all.
His is the vision that picks passes that nobody else sees, even from high in the stands, threading them through the eye of the needle to set up City's rapacious front runners. 
Making his debut in a rough and tumble first day of the season battle at White Hart Lane on 14th August 2010, Silva was seen to be given a robust buffeting by the home side's irascible defenders and many commentators quickly proclaimed that "this was probably not an appropriate arena for such a slightly built technician". 
The opposing manager on that occasion, Harry Redknapp, was heard to say "City have payed £24million for Silva. He doesn't look a £24million player to me..."
How right he was.

 Within a very short space of time, Silva had fully adapted to his new environment and many more doubters were being forced to eat their premature words.
It had become quite apparent to all that here was a man with a small frame that knew how to take a bruising, withstood the roughest sliding tackles and the most evil elbows and simply came back for more. He picked himself up, non-plussed, when clattered to the ground by burly defenders. He continued to find space where there seemed to be none and find team mates where there appeared only a thick wall of opposing players. In short, Mancini and City had unearthed a true diamond.
Today, five seasons later, El Mago proudly possesses two Premier League medals, an FA Cup winners medal and a League Cup winners trophy to prove his success. As for all of City's squad, however, there remains a space for one very important addition to this domestic clean sweep: a Champions League medal.
Curiously, Silva's first European goals for both City and Valencia, were scored against Salzburg, the latter in 2006 Champions League action, the former in the 2010 addition of the Europa League.These days his European foes are of a higher caliber altogether.
Silva's artistry and resistance are now only too well known amongst the Europe's top defenders, who continue to try to plug the inspiration at source. Those diagonally delivered passes, almost always skimming close to the ground, almost always pushed delicately forward with the left foot, caressed, juggled into position, remain as much of a nightmare for opposition players to defend as they were when he first burst upon the scene against Spurs and Blackpool.
The body language, the disguised touches, feints and dribbles as if the ball is attached to his foot by an invisible cord, make him a true master of his passing trade. He ghosts in and out of the danger area without ever giving the impression that someone is capable of catching him up.
He is worth a king's ransom to a City side, which regularly finds itself playing teams stacking up two rows of four in front of them, nervous of going toe to toe with a side renowned for its devastating attacking intent. Silva is one of the main reasons for this mindset in the opposition. He is the first player to be targeted by the opponents' midfield enforcer, the first to feel the keen slap of a well aimed tackle to those dancing feet.
It is to Silva that this City side looks for its inspiration when all seems lost, when the opposition gates are bolted tight and no other way can be found through or around them. And more often than not, he is in possession of the key. That this tiny conveyor belt of exquisite through passes actually started life as a goalkeeper seems almost too ridiculous to be true.
Born to a Canarian father and a Philipino mother, Silva has made the journey to being a Spanish national team mainstay and treasure of the two-times Premier League champions via SD Eibar and Celta Vigo, where he was on loan for two separate spells, and the club that nurtured him through their youth ranks, Valencia CF.
When, on 14th July 2010, Manchester City announced the capture of Valencia's gifted little playmaker, they immediately awarded him the same number 21 shirt he had worn in Spain, in an initial effort to allow the player to feel at home. Such fripperies, it soon transpired, were not of much use to a man, whose frail physique belies his ability to tough it out in the most hazardous of situations and whose steely determination is built on far more than happy coincidence and familiar coziness.
For David Silva is one of those players, as rare as they are magnificent, who chooses all by himself when and how to make things happen on the football pitch.
The King of the Kippax
 >>
In a colourful and meandering 130 year history at eight different venues, Manchester City FC's directors have only once felt it necessary to name a part of any of their homes after an employee. That man is Colin Bell, universally regarded by City supporters of a certain age to be the greatest ever midfield purveyor of pinpoint passes, crisp tackles and superb goals ever seen in the famous sky blue shirt.
Nicknamed Nijinsky by the man who bought him, the legendary City coach of the late 60s Malcolm Allison, his innate ability to find the stamina to keep playing to 100% long after his team mates (and more importantly, the opposition) had run out of steam, served Bell well. If Allison chose to compare his midfield genius to a thoroughbred race horse , the supporters had a far simpler moniker for their midfield fulcrum. To those massed on the great terrace that ran down the length of the touchline at their characterful old Maine Road home, he was and always will be The King of the Kippax.
Bell was the pivot and lubrication in Allison's all conquering City side of the late 60s and early 70s that carried all before it. Winning the league title in 1967-68, the FA Cup in 1969 and both the League Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup in 1970, they were the best ever City side in terms of trophy-winning exploits.
That fantastic team has now been surpassed, in terms of trophies collected, in terms of consistent excellence (Allison's side regularly finished midtable in the league) and in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of supporters, by the present City side, constructed to a large extent by Roberto Mancini and fine-tuned by his successor, Manuel Pellegrini.  

Monday, June 22, 2015

REMEMBERING ROBINHO



It will not just have been Manchester City fans, who were surprised to see who was the man of the match during Brazil’s critical defeat of Venezuela on Sunday, a win that secured passage to the knock-out rounds of the Copa America.

At the ripe old age of 31, Robson de Souza, aka Robinho, was instrumental in ensuring his country’s continued presence at South America’s prestige tournament.

A career that has seemed on a long, winding and slightly unpredictable path -- much like one of the player’s trademark ambling slaloms down the wing -- has taken him from his beloved Santos, around the football globe and back again.

His time at City -- without being the moment of his greatest achievement -- may well, however, go down as the moment he attracted the most attention.

Cast your minds back to the summer of 2008. City -- a club with a rich past and a recent history of underachievement on a nuclear scale -- were approaching the end of the transfer window period in a state of some agitation.

There was nothing new in this and, therefore, nothing in particular for the fans to get excited about. The club, under the somewhat dubious stewardship of ex-Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra, was enjoying a period of relative calm after the turbulent years between 1996 and 2001, when a yoyo policy between the leagues left everyone feeling dizzy and disoriented.

Still, Shinawatra’s private financial situation was beginning to show up on the radar of certain renowned international law enforcement agencies and this in turn was beginning to set off some alarm bells in both Manchester and Bangkok.

What happened next will be for ever etched on the memories of City supporters on all four sides of the planet.....

Read the rest of this article on ESPNFC's pages here

SLOW START TO SUMMER BUSINESS



For those beginning to hyperventilate that Manchester City’s much-heralded transfer splurge is yet to break out of first gear, this morning’s ramble through the long corridors of Wikipedia has at least settled the fevered mind of this correspondent.

You see, I have been idly checking dates. It is the kind of thing one can do in the slow-moving, sun-drenched days of the close season.

On 28th July 2011 Sergio Aguero swapped the red and white stripes of Atlético Madrid for the sky blue of Manchester City. A year earlier David Silva had removed his white Valencia shirt for the last time and also moved north into the cold, bleak steppes of North West England, signing on the dotted line on June 30th 2010. It must have been quite a week at the Etihad, for -- just three days later -- Yaya Toure ambled through the front foyer with the air of a man in no hurry at all to do exactly the same thing.

The three most iconic and influential signings the club has made in the new, cash-driven age of success were, therefore, all signed in the end-of-June-beginning-of-July period of the summer. This means that the early bird getting the worm scenario is not necessarily true in football terms. It is clear that the pressure is very much on City’s Three Wise Men (Manuel Pellegrini, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano) to deliver the goods -- top quality, well wrapped, pristine goods at that -- in this summer’s transfer market.

Three seasons of mixed success in this area have passed since City last landed a truly global footballing icon. That the £24m spent on Toure, another £24m on Silva and the relatively huge (then) and bargain (now) £38m spent on Aguero was handed over a good month and a half into the transfer season, underlines the fact that the top transfers in world football these days take a very long time to iron out....

To read the rest of this article click here to go to ESPNFC 

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Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; bitter, confused and maladjusted. Watching City since 1974 with fluctuating amounts of disbelief.

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