Monday, September 26, 2016

CELTIC FRINGE


Manchester City and Celtic have never met in a competitive match before. The 2016-17 Champions League Group C therefore puts City into an all-but unprecedented situation, playing a competitive fixture against Scottish opposition. However, despite its lowly status, the Texaco Cup of 1971 saw City's first and hitherto only proper fixtures against a Scottish side.

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While there have been many high-profile matches between sides from either side of the border (Leeds v Celtic, Liverpool v Aberdeen, Manchester United v Celtic, Nottingham Forest v Celtic, Rangers v Leeds all spring to mind. Even Dunfermline and West Brom and Aberdeen and Ipswich and Leeds and Kilmarnock have squared up to each other over the years), City have steadfastly avoided being paired with Scottish teams.

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AIRDRIE!

Two games against Airdieonians in 1971 delivered a 2-2 draw at Maine Road and a 1-2 defeat at Broomfield Park sending City packing from a tournament that did not last long, despite its interesting format. Just over 15,000 watched the first leg end in stalemate, with City's goals from Ian Mellor and a Mike Doyle penalty cancelled out by Goodwin and Busby for the away side, who had played with understandable - yet on City's part underestimated - spirit.

Ian Mellor nets for City in the 2-2 draw with Airdrie at Maine Road
A large Broomfield crowd of 13,700 saw Airdrie prevail in the second leg by a 2-1 scoreline. These two fixtures - played some 45 years ago - remain the only competitive matches between City and sides north of the border to date.

Even non-competitive games with Celtic can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The first was a 1-1 draw in 1953 pre-season, a game which saw City field a very strong side - Trautmann, Branagan, Little, Revie, Ewing, Paul, Hayes, Hart, Broadis, Clarke and Cunliffe.

In 1970 Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer took a strong side to Parkhead to play Jock Stein's remarkable side (picture at the top shows a gathering of football minds). The match had been switched to Hampden Park, as the photos and programme stills show. Still feted as the first British winners of the European Cup, after the Lisbon Lions beat Internazionale in the Estadio Nacional of Lisbon, Celtic held City to a 0-0 draw.

Reporters were issued with crampons and a roll of rope.
Francis Lee takes on Jimmy Johnstone
John Hughes gives skipper Tony Book plenty to think about
Programme cover and inside shots courtesy of Graham Ward 


TOLKA!

It would be over 20 years before the two sides met again, in a pre-season friendly at Tolka Park in Dublin.  With the customary strong southern Irish backing for Celtic, City's supporters were treated to a difficult afternoon's viewing as Celtic ran out 3-1 winners. It formed part of player-manager Peter Reid's preparation for the all-new Premier League, which would kick off that August for the very first time with a Monday night live-tv fixture against QPR.

Fitzroy Simpson and Paul McStay tussle at Tolka Park, Dublin in 1992
The 70s witnessed two City pre-season appearances in warm-up tournaments for the coming action in Division One. In 1976, City were part of the Tennent's sponsored Caledonian Cup, drawing with Southampton, before losing a marathon penalty shoot out to go into a 3rd/4th place play-off with Partick Thistle, a game won easily 4-1.

SKOL!

Three years later City returned north as invitees in the Skol Cup, taking place at Tynecastle, home of Hearts. City lost 1-3 to Coventry City, resplendent in their new brown Admiral away kit, then drew 1-1 with Hibernian, before ending their presence in Scotland with an identical score against the hosts.

In modern times, City faced Celtic in pre-season in two consecutive summers, 2008 and 2009, one taking place in Manchester, the other in Glasgow.

As far as Manchester's competitive record against Glasgow is concerned, City will attempt to uphold a near-perfect record established by neighbours United, their only defeat in eight competitive fixtures with either Rangers or Celtic came in the 2006-07 Champions League tie at Parkhead, won 1-0 by Celtic.

1979-80 City v Coventry at Tynecastle Park


Celtic also showed little interest in holding on to manager (and ex-hoops legend) Billy McNeill as their boss in 1983. With City freshly relegated and looking for a new messiah to lead them back to the promised land, McNeill was persuaded to come south and duly took City back two seasons later, before jumping ship in ignominious circumstances to join Aston Villa.  As both Villa and City went down that season (1986-7), many City fans later enjoyed recalling how McNeill had managed to steer two clubs to relegation in the same season.

Here are all the other City matches against Scottish opposition:

In 1953-4 City played Hearts at Maine Road to inaugurate the floodlights, winning 6-3.

1972-73
Partick Thistle
Sweden
5-0
1973-4
Aberdeen
away
1-0

St. Johnstone
away
1-0
1981-2
Rangers
away
0-2 see image below
1984-5
Hibernian
away
0-0

Partick
away
1-3
1995-6
Hearts
away
1-5
1997-8
Livingstone
away
4-0

Stirling Albion
away
0-0

Kilmarnock
away
4-0

Falkirk
away
1-1
2014-15
Dundee
away
0-2

Hearts
away
2-1


Monday, September 12, 2016

LESSONS IN LOVE

It has taken Pep Guardiola exactly six games to banish the doubts of even the most narrow-minded members of England’s football fraternity: it is now quite clear that Manchester City are playing a different brand of football to the rest of the Premier League.
I'm watching other football teams play and it's like switching from F1 to trap racing. -MikeNumber5 on Twitter

Before Saturday’s smooth dismantling of neighbours Manchester United, certain voices in the press began to express doubts about Guardiola’s ability to overcome the likes of Jose Mourinho in the tough world of mind games and blocking tactics. There was a palpable sense of anticipation for that first defeat to allow the “told-you-so” brigade out of their boxes to start carping and whooping.

What the world saw at the weekend was a team sweeping its supposedly dangerous opponent away on its own pitch with a brand of passing and moving that currently makes the rest of the contenders look like they are playing with cement bags strapped to their backs.

It is not just the scintillating passing, the movement on and off the ball, but the way that each player makes himself available to his team mate to receive the ball. There was hardly a single moment in the first 40 minutes at Old Trafford, where a City player found himself blocked in and without a safe pass to play.

Options presented themselves in every space, however hemmed in the City players seemed to be. 

That this has been achieved so quickly with predominantly members of Manuel Pellegrini’s squad is eye catching to say the least. Those eager voices waiting gleefully for Guardiola’s first fall will have to wait a little longer and -- one suspects -- it could be quite a wait.

Jose Mourinho in contrast looked like a man chewing on a wasp as his team was given a complete run around in that first half. That they recovered was partly down to Claudio Bravo’s ultimate risk taking and the knowledge that United had to press the spaces in front of the goalkeeper to have any joy.

Having weathered an aerial storm that lacked all subtlety but might have been effective in the circumstances, Guardiola calmly changed things around and retook the tactical high ground. Fernando’s introduction to deep midfield closed the gaps that United’s bolstered midfield had begun to find and allowed Fernandinho to charge forward and spread panic. Ander Herrera's introduction had given United a foothold in the middle but influence was soon back in City's hands.

United were out of options, resorting to Wayne Rooney walloping high balls towards the towering figures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. The same player took on his now familiar mantle of "judge, jury and whistle blower" as he continually harangued Clattenburg for any morsels that could feed his side. United were gradually being starved.

Kevin De Bruyne has been showing this quality since his move from Wolfsburg a year ago, but Guardiola’s tactics, leaving the Belgian and David Silva as free running “half-number eights” is benefiting him richly. Silva too has regained his status as midfield catalyst after a tricky last season under Pellegrini. Linking with Nolito and Sterling/Sane, plus the advancing Fernandinho/Kolarov/Otamendi/Stones, the two master passers weaved their tight triangles of magic time and again.

The Chilean’s third and final season at City, highlighted by ponderous football and weak spirit among the players, feels like the middle of the night to Guardiola’s mid day sunshine. Players all over the park are rejuvenated, running, supporting and passing as if they are different people.

Nowhere is the contrast greater than with Aleksandar Kolrarov. The left back had gained a deserved
reputation for falling asleep on the job and for having the positional sense and speed of reaction of one of Manchester United’s official tractors. He is now an integral part of a team playing wonderfully fluid football, confidently stroking the ball around the back four, up the left side or in midfield, depending where the Catalan’s flexible tactics take him. Happy to play it long when the occasion requires, his punt forward led directly to City’s opener.

With confidence high in the outfield, Guardiola and his staff have little space to get to work on new goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who enjoyed a torrid introduction to English football at Old Trafford. The coach’s liking for a sweeper keeper who can play out centrally to feet in midfield is well reported, but kamikaze football across the back four will eventually be punished by side’s reacting more quickly than Manchester United were able to.

Bravo must adapt quickly and learn the important lesson that he will be closed down rapidly by teams hoping they have found the possibility of an Achilles heel in City’s impressive early season armoury.
With Champions League and League Cup matches to be added to the busy fixture list, there are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead. City in this mood, however, have the look of a special team. Seldom has a coach had such a dramatic impact on English football and seldom can so many City fans agree that this is already shaping to be a season that promises high rewards if the start can be maintained.

The next test comes against continental opposition, in Borussia Monchengladbach, but it is already patently clear that the players are learning fast and that the man they are learning from really does know precisely what he is doing. City in this form really look like they will be the team to beat this season.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

TAKING HART



Having to choose between Sunderland and Torino might have made Joe Hart think he’d been transported magically and without warning to the 1940s, but it should in fact have carried the City 'keeper back to the 1970s.

Down the years, City have had some wonderfully blunt experiments with the goalkeeping position, some of which have left the club wishing they had gone for Option B, whatever that may have been. Those denizens of the old Kippax terrace, who remember the likes of Perry Suckling, a 40-year-old John Burridge, Bobby Mimms, Mike Stowell, Barry Siddall and Martyn Margetson have not always been able to sleep soundly. 

Modern times have brought City fans Stuart Pearce’s experiment with goalkeeper-strikers and David Seaman’s dabbling with cubism, space and the unspecified effect of riotous hair extensions.

Joe Hart’s story should really have ended differently to a one season loan at Torino, however. Here is England’s international keeper without a proper home to go to. The questions asked of Hart are – in no particular order – is he over-confident, a common problem with goalkeepers who reach the top at an early stage, can he stop shots low to his left – an area looked at in depth here by Skysport’s AdamBate – and, perhaps most poignantly of all, can he play out of defence quickly and accurately to feet as Pep Gaurdiola wants it done?

The purchase of Claudio Bravo the ultimate sweeper-keeper, has already answered the third question. The other two are being hotly debated around Manchester as we speak.

In 1973-74 City’s goalkeeping situation went through a similar crisis of confidence. New manager Johnny Hart switched between Ron Healy, Joe Corrigan and new signing from Motherwell, Keith MacRae. In the end, all that was created was a situation where all three of City’s ‘keepers entered a period of simultaneous self-doubt, scuppering any hopes the club had of fighting for the league title that year.

Corrigan, later to pull himself together and become a long-time England squad goalkeeper at the same time as Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton, was the obvious fall guy to start with. Having been damned by his team mates, skipper Mike Doyle being particularly scathing of his weight problems, Corrigan was dropped and told to slim down.  The Manchester-born shot-stopper had always had problems keeping his weight down to a manageable level, but in 73-74 things finally came to a head.

Dropped for the LeagueCup tie with Walsall in favour of Healey, Hart’s patience had finally run out with Corrigan over a series of sluggish performances, where he felt City had conceded unnecessarily. Ironically, in those days, little importance was attached to the goalkeeper’s ability to set up attacks with passing ability, as the big hoof forward was favoured by almost everyone. In 1970, Corrigan’s lack of ability to do even this unskilled task had been drastically highlighted by a grave error in his kicking against West Ham in Jimmy Greaves’s debut match at a slightly muddy Maine Road. This was an error in a 5-1 home defeat that was replayed mercilessly on television throughout the decade.



Millwall’s Brian King and Gary Sprake, the Welsh international 'keeper in goal at Leeds, were touted as possible replacements for the fumbling, podgy Corrigan, but it was Healey that got the nod in the end. Following his apprenticeship with City in 1969, he had made an early debut at the age of 17 and was thrown in by manager Hart after biding his time on the fringes of the first team.

Within three weeks, however, it had all unravelled for Healey too, as Hart bought MacRae from Motherwell, making him the second most expensive goalkeeper in Britain. Both Healey and Corrigan were left licking their wounds. This public castigation did nothing for either 'keeper’s confidence, with Healey disappearing to Cardiff City soon after (what turned out to be his last appearance for the club had come the week before in defeat at Newcastle) and Corrigan taking the long hard route back to the first team via the reserves, while MacRae was left to stand in the glare of the public eye.

For Joe Hart it has also been a very public character assassination. Over-confident to the point of arrogant to some, needlessly letting in low shots to his left to others and incapable of playing the ball out properly with his feet to yet others, he is on his way to the foot of the Alps in one of the most bizarre transfers of recent times. 

It is written in stone that goalkeepers will be subject to the most public of examinations. The nature of their role almost demands it. Hart’s fall from grace was bookmarked as early as last Christmas, however, when Guardiola’s arrival at City was rubber-stamped for this summer. He has had ample time to work on his weaknesses. Instead he put in a summer tournament for England that was full of pre-match adrenaline and in-match errors that cost his country dearly. It was a slightly odd combination that cast him as an easy villain for the tabloids looking for scapegoats.

Guardiola’s liking for a goalkeeper that can sweep and set up new attacks is well documented. The fascinating story of how it came to be Claudio Bravo who he needed is to be found here in Adam Bate's detailed analysis of a long and precise search. It has been a time-consuming and well considered process, involving many people and many hours of training and honing of skills. 

Hart, meanwhile, has perhaps simply been found to be the wrong man in the wrong place. A more than capable goalkeeper, he is to an extent the victim of his own success. That he has chosen Torino to get his act back together is both a brave, thoughtful and logical step. There are no obvious places free at this late stage among the Premier League’s big hitters and a loan spell out of the limelight will do him no harm. Being the first English keeper to roll up in Serie A will also attract its fair share of positive attention in the meantime.

Corrigan was back as 1st choice for City's 1976 League Cup win v Newcastle
Hart should also take heart from his predecessor's resurrection. Under new manager Ron Saunders, Corrigan actually found himself on the transfer list at the end of 73-74 season and on his way out of the club, but, by the end of 1974-75, it was Corrigan and not the expensive MacRae who had become City’s confirmed number one. For Hart, similar attention to what needs to be improved will almost certainly bring him similar redemption, even if it is most unlikely to be at the Etihad.

And so the spotlight for City falls onto Claudio Bravo, perhaps the greatest modern day exponent of the keeper as sweeper. The fast, straight passes out of the box to Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan or David Silva will seek to bypass the first line of opposition high pressing and launch City through the second rank of defence. It is a simple idea that – when executed accurately – will add devastating speed to City’s already liquid attack. If and when it goes wrong, it will expose City’s defence to all manner of hair raising situations. It is for this reason that Guardiola has sought out the pass master, Claudio Bravo.


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What became of Corrigan after his torrid public dismantling? 
He went on to produce saves like this one, at Leeds in a 1977 
FA Cup tie, on a regular basis and to play for his country. 


Friday, August 26, 2016

TODAY'S OPPONENTS: WEST HAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 















Saturday, August 20, 2016

COME THE REVOLUTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player ratings for ESPN.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

GUARDIOLA EYES EDERSON

Many and frequent will be the rumours linking Manchester City to players this close-season as the new era of Pep Guardiola is gently ushered in. With Manuel Pellegrini overseeing an ageing squad on diminishing returns, the onus on the incoming boss is to renew, rejuvenate and reestablish City's place at the top.

In order to do this the Spanish coach will need to recruit briskly this summer.

Needless conjecture surrounding Joe Hart's position in goal already surfaced towards the end of another exemplary season from the keeper. Hart is clearly England's number one and, after a short period when he seemed to have lost focus two seasons ago, he has performed as well as anyone in the City squad.

For this reason, perhaps, news of goal-keeping reinforcements should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, the positions behind Hart, and perhaps even at some stage challenging him for the number one jersey, should not. With Richard Wright ending an illustrious period of bench warming and Willy Caballero perhaps also surplus to requirements, a top quality back-up may well be needed.

On this subject, strong rumours dripping from the Portuguese press suggest Guardiola has a keen eye trained on Benfica's young shot stopper Ederson.

The young Brazilian displaced Julio Cesar during Benfica's sensational march to a third successive league triumph in Portugal, winning a host of admirers along the way. Among them was the coach of Benfica's Champions League quarter-final opponents, Bayern Munich. Held to a slender one goal win in Munich, Bayern only managed to overcome a spirited Benfica effort in the second leg in Portugal after an enthralling 2-2 draw.

Over the two closely fought matches, Guardiola spotted a goalkeeper, whose attributes are not so far removed from Bayern's present incumbent between the sticks, Manuel Neuer. Ederson, young, agile and energetic, commands his box well and is adept at using his feet to intercept and set up a new wave of attacks. He is alert, able to play beyond his penalty box and has great shot stopping agility. The Spaniard was taken by another of the goalkeeper's obvious attributes: his quick distribution upfield.

Guardiola was moved to state after the first leg with Benfica in April that, "Ederson made many long passes out of defence, forcing us to defend very deep. This caused us many problems during the second half.". Portuguese sports daily A Bola had Ederson as their man of the match in Munich and, when the sides played out a 2-2 draw in the second leg at the Estádio da Luz, Ederson again attracted plenty of plaudits.

The keeper, who a year ago was performing between the sticks at Rio Ave, is exactly what Guardiola looks for in a goalkeeper. The new City coach needs his last man in defence to be able to act as a sweeper, with rapid incursions towards onrushing forwards to clear up any danger. The ability to play
with your feet is essential in Guardiola's mind-set for the team. Much has been written of the high press, the fast to-feet passing and the ability to change players from one position to another, but his goalkeepers also play a vital role in the overall game plan.  

The 22 year old only made his Benfica debut halfway through the 2015-16 season, substituting Julio Cesar before the crucial Lisbon derby with Sporting at the Estádio José Alvalade. He did not once flinch, becoming an unmissable part of the club's third consecutive title triumph in Portugal. In fact, many would go further than that, stating that the young goalkeeper formed, along with striker Jonas, midfielder Renato Sanches and defenders Jardel and Lindelof, the main reasons for a magnificent 35th league title for os encarnados.

If a transfer is to be completed between Benfica and City, there will have to be some serious negotiating, as Ederson is part of the horizon-popping Jorge Mendes stable, whose agreement with former club Rio Ave is that they will receive as much as 50% of any follow-on transfer. With a release fee of around €45 million, he will not be cheap and the price may well fluctuate depending on the deal struck between Mendes's Gestifute agency, Benfica and Rio Ave, Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira has gone on record as saying €20 million would be a minimum asking price for the young goalkeeper, but that would mean a relatively paltry €10m ending up in  the Lisbon club's coffers. It may take significantly more to prize him away.

EDERSON IN NUMBERS


2011/2012
RIBERÃO (BRAZIL)
29
2012/2013
RIO AVE
2
2013-2014
RIO AVE
18
2014-2015
RIO AVE
17
2015-2016
BENFICA
17



Friday, May 6, 2016

ADIOS THEN, FRIEND

There was noise aplenty, smoke and mirrors and lots besides, but at the end of the day it was curtains for the side built by the delicate hands of Roberto Mancini and turned briefly into a fantasy goal-scoring machine by Manuel Pellegrini. (That was two years and counting ago, mind you).

The first great City side of the modern era is no more.

What a stage, what a place to bring it all to an end. And what an end it was too. Below the hulking, steep-sided cathedral of the Santiago Bernabeu, City’s big hitters finally ran aground. One sole shot on goal in the 88th minute was the total second half effort for a side trying to save its skin in its first ever Champions League semi final. Fernandinho had earlier hit the outside of a first half post, but it was meager gruel on feast night.

Asked to produce one last earth tremor in a season of tumbling bricks, there was nothing left to give. Drifting out of a tournament that had played witness to exhilarating away performances in Monchengladbach, Seville, Kiev and Paris was deemed a stronger idea than throwing caution to the wind and going for broke.

Asked to produce one last ground-shaking performance before he left, the Elephant of Bondoukou ate grass. His rampaging, dust-scattering charges are no more. The majestic old beast rolled slowly but conclusively onto his side, issued a noise like the air escaping from a small party balloon and passed away.

Like all great beasts of the Savannah, his long and comfortable reign over all he surveyed, was finishing in an undignified heap. His demise not to coincide with a triumphant return to the Champions League final stage he bestrode in the colours of Barcelona, but a beaten, exhausted husk, removed from the field in full view of the world.

The curtain that came down on City’s season of European improvement was besmirched and of frankly dubious quality. Threadbare in the middle, see-through in parts, its fabric far from the Italian silks Roberto had bestowed upon us, far even from the early hand-knitted Andean rugs the kind Señor Pellegrini sneaked beneath our acheing feet to start with. This was a mottled quilt with mould and one of Manuel’s half eaten enchiladas underneath.

Still, the way to build enthusiasm and optimism when they are in short supply is to arrive in the great cities of Europe and set about abusing the hospitality. The shisha pipe of life, hot, sweet and bubbly, soon puts you in a frame of mind best described as chilled out.  It was almost as if Yaya had been blowing on the other end. If some were relaxed in the hostelries and tabernas around Sol and Plaza Mayor, down the side streets of Tribunal and the little bistros off Gran Via, our Ivorian powerhouse looked like he’d received a tranquiliser dart to his left flank.

Madrid is a grand old city that carries off the concept of “big” very comfortably. Everywhere you wander there are monuments and convents and squares that are as big as a medium-sized English town. Traipsing the sun-baked Passeo de la Castellana that cuts through the centre of the city like one of the world’s major rivers of concrete, it at no time reminds you even vaguely of a rain lashed Chester Road.

Taxis, resplendent in their Rayo Vallecano home shirts, ply the thoroughfare like their lives depend on it. Women with smoking brown eyes lounge on terraces and draw on cigarettes, while rotund men with slicked back hair shuffle their pastle coloured pullovers into a comfortable knot around their nonchalant latino shoulders. The size and magnificence of Spanish vivacity, virility and vaingloriousness almost makes one understand how Cristiano’s pouting and preening could be misconstrued as a good old fashioned slice of Madrileño bravura, but of course he was like that in Manchester too and he hails from a village on a rock in the Atlantic so there’s no excuse really.

A feature that had been evident by its absence on the last occasion City played in the Spanish capital (hark at this, frequent fliers, we’re here nearly every year now) was beginning to make its early presence felt: organization. Police were relatively civil (they didn’t crack you on the head with a truncheon for daring to drink beer in the open air at least) and a steady flow of Blues were being supplied with their tickets from a well ordered
room in D wing of yet another of Madrid’s colossal office blocks. As I staggered parched past the Plaza de Pablo Ruiz Picasso, an unedifying patch of red brick and cement that did the great man’s memory no favours whatsoever, I was aware that I had at last found something that reminded me properly of the Arndale Centre. Unless of course the joyless patch of tarmac was some kind of horrendous ironic statement that people like me are not supposed to get.


In town, the usual footballs were being punted around the dazzling bright Plaza Mayor, good natured sun bathing and back slapping the order of the day. An odd man in his 40s dressed entirely in black did his best liquid Michael Jackson impersonations and another pretended to be a deer covered in tinsel. Rewarded with a ten euro note Jackson then revolved in the sun checking its authenticity, as if scarcely credulous that someone could be drunk enough to reward him for his bandy-legged cavorting. It was developing into one of those kinds of days. Two blocks west in the superbly ornate Mercado de San Miguel, plates of oysters, olives stuffed with anchovies, freshly frittered calamares and the omnipresent blocks of tortilla were being washed down with smooth as silk Rioja.

With the sun dropping over the skyline, the trek up the Paseo de la Castellana began. By now a heaving mess of excited traffic, our Atletico supporting taxi driver wished us well against his sworn enemy. As it turned out, our wine-fuelled promises of sticking it to them would turn out to be grossly over-optimistic. Still, there’s nothing quite as historically relevant if you have followed City from the Cowards of Europe speech through to the present day to turn up boiling with intent and leave with your trousers around your ankles.

The traffic was so intense at the Plaza San Juan de la Cruz, there was no option but to hop out and walk the rest, aware that the normally sedate hordes of Real fans were a little more than emocianados for the occasion. Swerving into one last café before the ground, the tv showed pictures of a flare wielding crowd welcoming the team bus as it edged through the scrum. Throaty roars of City City The Best Team in the Land and All The World drifted up through the smoke and fire crackers. So, this is what Champions League semi finals are like.

A tingling vortex of noise and expectation carried us on through the ranks of nervous Madrid police and up the great spirals of Bernabeu Fondo Norte. The view from the top is exceptional, a great steep twist of tightly packed seats curving round in a majestic arc. This the scene of daring deeds from Butragueño to Zidane, Di Stefano to Redondo, Camacho to Juanito, Figo to Hugo Sanchez, the Galloping Major and Ivan Zamorano and on through Steve MacManaman to tonight’s solid dose of Fernando.

Juntos no hay imposibles - Pic:Mike Hammond
For several of Fernando’s mates out on the big Bernabeu stage it is be their last proper call to arms in a City shirt. The bell has been tolling for months.

We did not have to wait long before our first dollop of Cityitis arrived in the shape of captain Kompany's eight minute cameo coming to a sudden and familiar end. The team that struggles without him, the player that struggles with them. It was like a plot line from early Mr Ben. Off Kompany hobbled behind the magic curtain, reappearing in the muscle-bound form of Eliaquim Mangala. Now for some fun and games.

Ten minutes later the ball, billowing in a strange arc off the stretching form of Fernando, drifts high and wide of Joe Hart and into the top corner. A burst of noise from the Madrileños, the like of which we hadn’t heard in Barcelona, sharp, raucous and triumphant, splitting the hot night air with a whip-crack.

City’s reaction is more passing across the newly formed back four. More dinks into Fernando and back to Otamendi again. More little scraped passes aimed at Sagna and Clichy but going straight into touch. Aguero, lost in the distant fog of City’s forward positions, is not getting a touch, as De Bruyne, the ginger savior, appears paralysed with fear of the big occasion. Pepe and Ramos growl from the back and, as they had done a week earlier in Manchester, look frighteningly solid, compact and aware of what they need to keep on doing.

City are playing to strange orders. The team that has delighted in passing the whole world to sleep in the Premier League this season is suddenly painfully incapable of holding onto the ball for more than three contacts. Real and their crowd are growing into their role of unassailable favourites, untouchable aristocrats, as City wither back into their traditional scruffy Moss Side chancer outfits.

Kroos and Modric, at ease with the ball, stroke it around, while De Bruyne stutters and chases, flips and flaps. Toure, slowing even from his first half dawdle, is whipped off in ignominious fashion, followed shortly after by Navas, suffering from tunnel vision.

Gareth Bale, later to be chosen as Marca’s “el Dandy” and the strutting, half fit Cristiano, keep City fully occupied. Pepe at the back can hardly believe his luck. The English scrappers have come in their carpet slippers.

Manuel opts for penalties
And so it all peters out. Aguero fires one over with two to go. City’s magnificent support, trying to suck the team and the ball towards the goal, rock the old ground with songs of encouragement, but the players don’t want it, cannot find it, daren’t risk it. Instead of the barnstorming finish we all desire, to go out with a defiant bang, all guns blazing, City are pushed back for 4 minutes of injury time spent defending. Pellegrini’s reign, intent on ending on the most imperceptible of light notes, will have no trumpet blast. The City end, falling silent in the grim realization that the team is spent, watch the home fans celebrate their second local derby final in three years.

It is not what our Atletico taxi driver had wanted. It is not what we had wanted. But here it is.

Manuel’s brain trust ran out of ideas months ago. Despite the League Cup win, this is the end of a second consecutive season of considerable underachievement. It is surely a mark of where City have now arrived that a season involving this ground-breaking semifinal in Europe and a fourth-ever league Cup win leaves many feeling distinctly underwhelmed. After Madrid, the incoming Pep will suddenly be aware that the initial reorganization job needs to be a touch more profound than at first thought. For Pellegrini, who has made his name from swashbuckling campaigns with Villareal and Malaga, it is lights out on a feeble exit. Memories of that first scintillating season of attacking football seem distant now. The first great City side of the modern era is over. The team that Roberto Mancini assembled, that Pellegrini took on for a while, has stalled and halted. 

As we prepare to look down on the likes of Yaya and Vincent, Kolarov and Zabaleta, David Silva and Clichy for perhaps the last time, it is difficult not to feel a deep pang of sadness. They have formed the basis of the best City team in living memory and now, in the shadow of the great Bernabeu, we must take our leave of them.   

No, you're el dandy


Poets and Lyricists