Tuesday, May 26, 2015

RUNNERS AND RIDERS


A long and winding Summer awaits Manchester City and its legions of bedraggled and semi-bedraggled followers.

The press has long since started its compulsive chatter. People in the know point and gesticulate hither and thither about the undulating path through hot, hazy days of transfer bedlam. With mobile phones set to melt and agents hurrying over the horizon with arm's-length lists of demands, the silly season is upon us. Dmitri Seluk, that man of immaculate white suits and large, fuel-injected boats, is already primed to go off at midnight on May 31st, as is the ill-begotten fellow looking after Raheem Sterling's future. So, the question begs to be asked, where now for City with their looser purse strings and grand ideas?

Firstly, the good news with which to start the bonfire: Last summer's paltry spending, hampered by a UEFA cap of £49million, and possibly the one biggest reason for City's 2nd place finish, a whole eight points behind champions Chelsea, will no longer be a thing. If we are to believe Manuel Pellegrini, this was the one big reason for the points deficit on Chelsea. In a way, he has something of a point, although few will feel sorry for the manager of a club that can still shot off €40M plus on Eliaquim Mangala and live to tell the tale.

Certainly, City's progress in continental competition found itself bound by red tape from the start, with the club embarking on a 4th consecutive Champions League campaign with its legs tied together.

Meanwhile, every man woman and child in possession of ears and eyes has a clear idea of what City need to pull it all back together again. Although talk of wholesale renewal and massive overhaul is in the air, the excited hyperbole may well give way to a smaller number of crucial signings, rather than the scattergun collecting of médium-skilled artisans of late.

Certainly, City need reinforcements and now have the leeway to go out and capture them. Whether there will be as many as some are suggesting, is open to conjecture.

Denayer: superb season at Celtic
Stevan Jovetic's set of matching Samsonites no doubt stand ready by the hall door and, if only a tiny fraction of the stories on offer at the click of a button come to pass in the next two months, City's squad next season will be approaching the population of an Alaskan seal colony in the mating season and will be managed by a conglomerate of at least seven extremely high profile continental managers with the trusty support of Brian Kidd.

Here, then, are a host of the runners and riders, their suitability or lack of it and the likelihood of any of them showing up on the Costa del Irwell anytime in the next 68 days or so:

1) Managers: A month or so ago Manuel Pellegrini was what was then being quaintly called a dead man walking. Mention was being made (here as elsewhere) of his slightly drawn, weather-beaten look. Now there appear to be signs of life after City's vigorous pursuit of runners-up spot came up trumps, ending the season on the traditional six-game winning streak. Clearly still alive, but a bit under the weather, the question is whether the Chilean remains fit for purpose. There is a distinct feeling that now City have secured 2nd spot in the Premier League, another 12 months of Manueline persuasion would not be out of the question. His season review in the desert will be a sticky one, but the feeling is that he might just survive it.

If so, who are the players he will need to reinvigorate City's challenge at the top?

Meyer: Schalke flier
GOALKEEPERS: No real reason to spend more money in this area when Joe Hart is clearly the number one (in
the country) and more than good enough to remain as such now that he seems to have ceased to believe what his advisers have been whispering in his ears. Willy Caballero has proved a capable enough deputy on the odd occasion he has been called upon.

DEFENDERS: City's need here is at full back, particularly on the left, despite Aleksandar Kolarov's abrupt reawakening in the final weeks of the season. One year on from heralding the fact that the club had four excellent athletes to cover the two spots, only one of them continues to be fit for purpose at the very top level. This means that Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna could all walk this summer. Some of the following might be up to replacing them and making City's work on the flanks look a little more productive:
  • Abdul Rhaman BABA is currently one of the best left backs in Germany and doing great work up and down the left flank at the season's surprise package Augsburg. Previously at Greuther Furth, he has close control, a good engine and measured approach to the sometimes gung-ho world of attacking full backs. Baba has been part of an excellent Ghana side for a couple of years too. Another excellent African defender, this time on the right, is Serge AURIER, who now belongs to PSG and has shone brightly since the 2014 World Cup finals. Although good at his job, he is proving to be a bit of a loose cannon, calling ref Bjorn Kuipers a son of a bitch and stating that his dream move would be to the Emirates, thus not the Etihad. Southampton pair Nathaniel CLYNE and Ryan BERTRAND have both had excellent seasons for the Saints and Clyne is currently dithering over a contract extension. Both would add pace and grit to the full back berths, with Bertrand showing up well not only in the season closer between the two sides but throughout a profitable ten months work for Saints. Closer to home, Everton's Seamus COLEMAN has been a regular and dependable threat down the right for the Toffees, producing gritty pace going forward and a dogged presence at the back. City may well be reluctant to look at FC Porto after the debatable value of recent transfer raids in northern Portugal, but the current crop developing under Julen Lopetegui is rich in promise. Rampaging right back Danilo has already signed up for Real Madrid for next season, but on the left ALEX SANDRO is arguably as good as his right side partner. Fast, athletic and disciplined, he has close control and a real spirit of adventure and would also be a good fit on the troublesome left side of City's defence. 
  • With Pellegrini expected to stick with his main central defenders if he stays at the club, City are well stocked in this department with Kompany, Mangala and Demichelis fighting for two spots and the excellent Jason Denayer (44 appearances this season and 6 goals) and Karim Rekik due back from champion seasons at Celtic and PSV respectively. Despite the fact that the departure of Mateja
    Alex Sandro: a risk shopping at Porto?
    Nastasic last summer still puzzles many, there is unlikely to be further interest shown in reinforcing this section of the side. If there were to be, the Dortmund pair of SUBOTIC and HUMMELS could do a job in the Premier League, as could Atlético rock Diego GODIN. Closer to home rumours have linked City to John STONES at Everton, although he is as yet a little inexperienced and might provide the club with a Mangala-like first season of wildly oscillating bedding in, which is the very last thing City need after this year's shenanigans. Stones is clearly a great centre half in the making, although much the same has been and continues to be said about Mangala. Southampton's José FONTE, older and wiser, has grown into a central defender of necessary stature, however, and - on the back of his best ever season in the Premier League - would be a useful addition to the back-up ranks.
MIDFIELDERS: If we are to believe the rumour mill, City's midfield could also see some interesting revolving-door-action, with Yaya Touré almsot certainly on his way to Inter and Samir Nasri touted as a possible departure too. Long term Liverpool candidate James Milner appeared to be wishing the crowd a long farewell in the last games of the season and can be expected to be on his way as well. On top of all this, Fernando's first term contribution has been largely measured in misplaced passes and nervous dallying and on another occasion he too might not have survived the cull, had there not been so many others around him heading for the exits. Now there seems little point in offloading a player, who is ostensibly back up anyway. Fernando will surely get a second chance to show he is up to the fast moving midfield action of the Premier League.
Nainggolan: free spirit.
  • The obvious big name candidate for Touré's roaming role in the middle is Paul POGBA, who has shone so brightly at Juventus for two seasons now. But, Pogba may already be under close inspection from Paris St Germain, Real and Barcelona and Juventus' rise to the Champions League final has hoisted him into a spotlight where all the Giants of Europe are now looking interestedly at him. If he goes elsewhere, and European football expert Andy Brassell thinks another Southern European location might be his destiny, there are plenty of others,adept at either playing the pivot role or working on their impersonations of Yaya's box-to-box antics: Rumours used to circulate about Everton's Ross BARKLEY and English nationals will always be of interest for obvious reasons. Like team mate Stones, he does not appear to be the finished article and he is ending a less impressive season at Goodison this time around, hampered by injuries and patchy form in an underperforming side. PSG's Marco VERRATTI, however, is at 22, already the finished article and may just come free if Pogba swaps Turin for Paris. Verratti is a fantastic, mischievous little player in the traditional Italian "digger" mould, a ferret and a nuisance, who gets through massive amounts of work and would be a big hit in the Premier league. Don't mistake the ferretting style for a lack of technique, however. Verratti has been superb for PSG this season, with high pass accuracy rates and assist totals going ever upwards. Andy Brassell describes him as one of PSG's "un-transferrables", however, so replacing Yaya may well turn into a bit of a headache if Pogba heads south and Verratti stays put at PSG. Ilkay GUNDOGAN of Dortmund has also been mentioned in dispatches and is another energetic midfield performer apparently attracting the attention of neighbours United. He has also had injury troubles and has been part of the severe downturn at Dortmund in Klopp's final year, making his price and his reputation a little lighter perhaps. Down the East Lancs road, the Liverpool duo of Jordan HENDERSON  and Philipe COUTINHO have both had great seasons amongst the smouldering rubble at Anfield and may be tempted by the Champions League football City can offer, although Coutinho would be a Nasri replacement. Arda TURAN at Atlético would provide a new impetus with his sleeves rolled up attitude whilst the Portuguese-based pair of FC Porto's Hector HERRERA and William CARVALHO of Sporting might provide back-up but would not fill a Yaya Touré sized gap, although rumours persist about Arsenal's continued interest in the latter to do something similar at the Emirates next season. Two more candidates are PSG's energetic Blaise MATUIDI and Roma's canny Radja NAINGGOLAN, who played excellently against City in this season's Champions League games. FC Porto's CASEMIRO is also a brilliantly stable blocking midfielder in the mould of Nigel de Jong, with the added bonus that he can shoot accurately, which De Jong only managed twice in his illustrious time at City. Added to this impressive field must be the flair and ability of Atlético's brilliant KOKE, FC
    Kondogbia challenges Belgium's Fellaini
    Porto's Algerian flier Yacine BRAHIMI, the want-away Morgan SCHNEIDERLIN of Southampton, Geoffrey KONDOGBIA of Monaco and long-standing City target ISCO at Real Madrid. It may be a year too early for Kondogba, according to Andy Brassell, whose watching brief on French football makes him one of the most well-qualified to pass judgement. The same might be said of Schalke starlet Max MEYER, who might not dovetail too well in a side that already contains the mercurial dribbling and short-passing game of David Silva. Andy Brassell: "I like the idea of City having someone who can dribble in the centre of midfield, but how would he play instead of Silva? Best having him develop where he is for now."
    Denis PRAET at Anderlecht and Napoli's Dries MERTENS are two more skilful wide players, who have shone for their clubs. The former is 21 while Mertens at 28 is reaching his peak and showed a good turn of speed and a cool head at last year's World Cup finals in Brazil. Another wide player being linked with a transfer north is Benfica's flying lef winger Nico GAITAN. The left footed Argentinean could be ripe for a move from Benfica, as he is one of the last members of the older generation to have hung around at the Estádio da Luz.
FORWARDS:
  • With the touted departures of Stevan Jobvetic and Edin Dzeko, City will be in the market for one, maybe two strikers to give Aguero and Bony a run for their money. Whilst the papers naturally follow the fortunes of goal machine Alexendre LACAZETTE at Lyon (27 goals in 33 games does tend to draw the attention a little), there are others that could also provide an interesting option to the obvious pursuit of anyone who is a league top scorer. Andy Brassell: "Lacazette is the real deal. A great finisher, incredible work rate (having come into the Lyon team as a winger). Unlikely to go this summer though, unless an absolute mega offer is received".

    The much touted Raheem STERLING would not come cheap either but would also provide a more energetic and direct danger from the flanks than City have achieved with Jesus Navas, Scott Sinclair and Adam Johnson in recent seasons. The hoped for return of Portuguese-Brazilian prodigy Marcos LOPES from his loan spell at Lille should herald an important year for the youngster, as he tries to break into the first team ranks. First he will join the Portugal U20 squad and it is to be hoped that the many youth tournaments will not take their toll on him. Another Belgian getting a lot of attention is Wolfsburg's passer extraordinaire Kevin DEBRUYNE, another Chelsea cast-off,
    Lopes: ready for action?
    who has really come good in the Bundesliga. Debruyne is the ideal all action figure to sit in the hole behind a main striker and would provide a stream of passes through to the likes of Aguero at the business end of the pitch. Marco REUS and Jackson MARTINEZ may well feel it is time to leave Dortmund and FC Porto respectively, but there are many suitors for these two players and City would be unwilling to join a bidding war for strikers that are probably not their first choices. Another of Schalke's brightest stars, Julian DRAXLER might also come into the equation. Andy Brassell again: "Draxler has huge mental as well as technical strength and is a real leader of men (the pressure of playing at Schalke has been too much for many after all). Where would he fit in for City, though? Similar quandary to Jovetic in that sense...". In Germany, Monchengladbach's Patrick HERRMAN is one to watch and Bayer Leverkusen's Christoph KRAMER might have been an interesting option, had he not just signed for the Werkself from Borussia.
City clearly need to aim high this summer, if they are to turn themselves from merely dangerous challengers to the team to beat. For this reason, the likes of Denayer, Rekik and Lopes should be brought back on board and bedded in for the new campaign. Clyne for Sagna and Bertrand for Kolarov/Clichy would suffice at the back if the afore-mentioned youngsters return to challenge the central three of Demichelis/Kompany/Mangala. Pogba must surely be the summer's main target, ahead of everything and everyone else. Failing to land the Juventus player woud mean having to target the next best thing, which probably comes in the shape of Veratti. Neither player will be easy to shift, however, and City may well come up short in the face of competition from Europe's elite in the case of Pogba and from PSG refusing to budge, in the case of Verratti. If Nasri is lost, then Coutinho, Turan or Isco would provide tangible creative quality in midfield. Meanwhile in the front ranks, the expected need for two more strikers leaves a choice between Sterling and De Bruyne, if not both. Another EDS starlet Kelechi Iheanacho might save the club a pound or two if he manages to make the squad regularly at the start of the new season, however.

Clearly a lot of talking is to be done if City are to kick off next August with the personnel they need to mount a more convincing challenge on four fronts in 2015-16. 

My warm thanks to Andy Brassell for offering his opinions on the French and German-based players for this article. You can of course follow him, if you have been remiss enough not already to do so on Twitter here

Monday, May 18, 2015

SHELLING OUT AND SAVING UP

Michel Platini, remembered these days less and less as one of the most beautifully balanced midfield craftsmen ever seen gliding across a football pitch and more for his pronoucements from inside a baggy but expensive suit about FFP and related niceties, has seemingly opened another can of worms with the news that UEFA may well be considering relaxing their own carefully constructed financial fair play regulations this summer.

If this comes as music to the ears of some, it must be making those at Manchester City and Paris St Germain vibrate with indignation. In the long run, however, it is likely to be good news for well run clubs like City, who have done their best to comply with stringent UEFA legislation.

The president of UEFA has intimated that there may well be some changes afoot, with the limits that clubs have been battling to stay inside set to be remodelled and, therefore, those clubs cut a little more slack.

City, who some have said were rumoured to be close to taking UEFA to court over the huge fine handed down to them last summer, might just be regretting not doing so now, after a massive curb on transfers and Champions League squad numbers played a significant part in a disappointing season for the Blues. With defensive woes knocking a considerable hole in City's performance over the season, it is intriguing to know what (or more poignantly who) any extra cash might have been spent on instead of the likes of Bacary Sagna and Willy Caballero. Practically all City's restricted budget was blown on the ill-fated Eliaquim Mangala from FC Porto.
 
"I understand that we are in a world of false bottoms, but we say this openly. I think we’ll lighten things up."

False bottoms indeed. And plastic party noses too, somebody at the back of the hall added quietly.

FFP rules were first implemented 4 years ago, to attempt to curb certain clubs from spending what UEFA deemed to be "beyond their means", but allowed certain clubs massively in debt to carry on regardless. Those clubs under wealthy new ownership appeared to have to tread water. The moves were enthusiastically received by the drawbridge crew of Manchester United, Milan and Bayern Munich, aware that new money could mean only one thing, the one element that puts the greatest frighteners on all of the elite clubs - extra competition on a broadly flat playing field.
City have done their best to fit in and the latest financial figures showed they are in a much improved financial position. Manchester United (£145.5m), Liverpool (£113m), Arsenal (£92.5m) and Chelsea (£82.6m) have all spent more than City's £68m net since the penalties were introduced two years ago.

The monster clubs of Europe, grown fat on yearly Champions League pay outs that have allowed them to maintain a slot ahead of the challengers in their domestic leagues now find themselves in a brave new world where Zenit can afford to pay €40m for Alex Witsel and still have plenty left over for Hulk, whilst Monaco thought nothing of shelling out €45m for Porto's James Rodriguez.

Suddenly in a bit of a dither, United, Barcelona, Bayern and Real Madrid have started to do what they have always been able to do down the years: shell out big fees in a desperate bid to lock the stable doors before too many of the horses have the chance to bolt.

One or two horses have already fled across the prairies. The others didn’t make it out of the ranch before the irate farmer burnt the place to the ground. It has always been a thing of wonderment when viewing which English clubs voted for FFP in the Premier League, like turkeys voting for prolonged and lusty Christmas banquetting. Stand up and take a bow, flightless birds Everton and Aston Villa, suddenly smitten by the idea of never ever being able to compete on anything like a high European level again. European winners both, they now look utterly plucked.

For others, a summer of intrigue is opening up coquettishly on the horizon. Liverpool’s American owners FSG went on record as saying that they bought the club on the back of FFP, citing it as a 'key aspect' to their continued interest in the deal. Arsene Wenger, the author of the financial doping quote, has since taken comfortably to paying some of the Premier league's highest tarnsfer fees for the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. The dizzying changes of attitude and position could only really take place in football or politics, where morals dissolve quicker than a water borne aspirin, when exposed to fast corroding cash.

"This will be for the Uefa Executive Committee to decide. You’ll know the outcome at the end of June," said Platini today.
There will be penty of interested parties waiting to see what these outcomes are. Taking a
Moratti: "No more shelling out"
cursory glance at the Serie A table will tell any avid accountants what FFP has ended up securing for the likes of Milan duo Inter and Milan. Grown heavy on sustained big boy status, the pair now find themselves rubbing shoulders in the still waters of Serie A midtable. Milan, long in favour of anything that kept them at the top of the tree, have seen FFP explode in their faces, as Berlusconi’s patronage nears an end. Inter too, for decades propped up by the millions of the Moratti shipping family, have seen the false bottom fall out of their football world.

Both now find themselves vying for elbow room with Hellas Verona. Milan, Sacchi's Milan, the elegante double European champions, the last team to retain the trophy, slum it three points ahead of Sassuolo, counting points and pennies.

Moratti it was, who famously bleated to Platini (along with Chelsea's Roman Abramovitch) that he "didn't want to shell out" anymore. Milan too are said to be now deeply in favour of this mooted relaxing of the stringent FFP rules. They've leant one way and now they are leaning the other. They are lucky that Platini's language has softened somewhat since he announced with one eye on City's spending that "FFP regulations must be strictly adhered to". Suddenly, now that some of these clubs are being deeply inconvenienced by it, it seems to be time to loosen the ropes again. One has to admire the barely concealed self-indulgence.

Perhaps the recently announced FFP fines for this season should have been a forewarning of all this, as significantly deflated fines were handed out to Sporting Lisbon, Monaco, Kuban Krasnodar and others recently, making City's €49m fine look like the unbalanced victimisation many called it to be when it was announced.

It would seem that the very clubs that FFP seemed set to protect are now experiencing the opposite effect. Manchester United, up to their ears in their fascinating Glazernomics, which have seen the club mired in huge debt, found it necessary to break the bank vaults last summer with an stonishing outlay on Di Maria, Falcao (perhaps the most profligate transfer in football history), Herrera, Rojo, Blind and Shaw. For a king’s ransom, they look like securing 4th place.

Do not underestimate what it means to them to be back on the Champions League ladder, however, as this is where the Money has always been coralled. United will be happy to be back in the fold, even if they do have to negotiate a potentially tricky qualifying round first. What Milan and Inter wouldn’t give for that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

ELEVEN GAMES THAT FLOORED CITY





Manchester City


sit precariously in 2nd place in the Premier League table. Precarious second places don’t come by very often, but we appear to have one on our hands here, so we must make the most of it.

Manuel Pellegrini, looking bright eyed and bushy-tailed, was heard saying the immortal words-

It is no shame if City are runners-up. You cannot improve every year”.
Subtle attempts like this to boost personal ratings pre-summer camp are all very well. They allow those of us who have nodded off and not noticed the ugly string of defeats that City have decorated spring with to think all is well in the cookhouse. 

Sweaty meetings with your desert paymasters are understandably tricky hurdles to jump, especially when you've overseen something of a damp squib of a season, so it is well worth a quick blast of positivity to see if it works as well as it surely does for our slightly-too-clever politicians.


Just last season
No shame indeed in 2nd place, Manuel, for we have been in a fair few darker places than that, but let us not climb aboard the bone-shaker to Sincil Bank yet again. Not when the first class sleeper to the Nou Camp is apparently our chosen method of transport these days. No parking the penny farthing against a privet hedge outside Moss Rose anymore for us. It's load up with tapas and bratwursts and break out the Lonely Planet Moscow. 



The manager is of course right. Shame takes many shapes but second place in the Premier League is not usually one of them. Not if you support a club whose previous occupants of the fabled hotseat considered 0-6 defeats at Liverpool “entertaining” or believed five months without a home goal to be adequate pay-back for continued support. Shame exists in football in a variety of rude shades, from Alan Pardew’s wicked tongue to people who choose a minute’s silence to abuse Cesc Fabregas for no longer wearing a red and white football shirt. 2nd place is undiluted delight alongside all of this.



No, if there is shame in City’s season, it has nothing to do with 2nd place in the world’s toughest league™ but stems from eleven matches which could and should have been won but were not. The consequences of that will follow Señor Pellergini deep into the desert this summer.



Here they are, in all their chronological beauty.



▐ ► ONE: Sunday 10th August Arsenal, Community Shield – Before we had even sat down to enjoy the start of proceedings, here was one gigantic wake-up call that went unheeded. An admittedly below strength side taken to the cleaners by Arsenal. No redeeming features, no excuses, no way out. This was a horribly lax performance that would be reconstituted in similar form several times in the ensuing months (mainly in the following passages of this article). The game had any number of other tellingly repetitive elements: a haphazard Fernando midfield performance, a defence at sixes and sevens, a depleted Yaya Touré being pulled off after less than 60 minutes, a first and last view of the potentially iconic Bruno Zuculini, the first of scores of weird non-penalty decisions (for Chambers’ brutal check on Jovetic)  and one of the last sightings of Matija Nastasic in the sky blue. □ After match Manuelism: “We played better after the break…



▐ ► TWO: 31st August Stoke (h) – Stoke, yet to score at the Etihad since their 2008 arrival in the biggest and best league, managed one here in another match that revealed tasty items of what was to come: plenty of tippy tappy and heaps of possession, followed by a big yawning void; Fernando pulling his groin by putting his foot on the ball; everything Yaya touching going into the sky; a whopping hand ball by Wilson in the area ignored by a strolling, loose-faced Lee Mason and an ill-adjusted defence, featuring slow diagonal runs away from the line of the ball by Kolarov and Fernandinho, allowing Diouf to run in from somewhere north of Burslem and slot past Joe Hart. □ After match Manuelism: “We lacked creativity.



▐ ► THREE: Saturday 25th October West Ham (a) – Having inexplicably thrown away a two goal lead away to CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, City managed to match that generosity at Upton Park against serial lambs to the slaughter West Ham. 70% possession for City, away from home, a wonderful David Silva goal and absolutely no points whatsoever. More patterns developing. Chelsea already opening a clear five point gap at the top of the table with patient, powerful, unspectacular football, but football that ended up with three points at the end of the game. □ After match Manuelism: “Tiredness from the trip to Moscow was not to blame.”



▐ ► FOUR: Wednesday 29th October Newcastle (h) Carling Cup – Another whopping 70% possession (any pennies dropping yet) and a 2-0 reverse to yet another of City’s accustomed whipping boys. Give us West Ham, give us Norwich – if they’re around - give us Villa and give us Newcastle, but not this year thank you very much. Lacklustre and fragile, with Silva crocked after ten minutes, the holders of the Carling Cup departed the tournament early and in a dishevelled state. Just the three trophies to concentrate on now. □ After match Manuelism: “The team tried to run, tried to do things better but we couldn’t because we’re not in good form…” (October, this, remember)

 

▐ ► FIVE:  Wednesday 5th November CSKA (h) Champions League – 2 points from the first four Champions League group games meant continental prancing had also been reduced to a hobble at this (early) stage of proceedings. Here we were treated to more shambolic defending, a free header for Doumbia whilst Yaya counted pigeons overhead and a red card for Fernandinho and another one for Yaya Touré’s Muhammad Ali impersonation. All signs of a growing European presence were at this stage hiding behind a very small rock. □ After match Manuelism: “Qualification is not impossible.”



▐ ► SIX: Sunday 28th December Burnley (h) – Mince pies may have been eaten but there were still plenty of turkeys hobbling around at this one, as City threw away a 2-goal lead (becoming a little repetitive, isn’t it?) against an average Burnley side with plenty of energy and enthusiasm and, in Danny Ings, a player who could cause wobbly defences problems. Wobbly defence, did you say? Walk right up! More unprovoked full back rotation, both being swapped, plus an absent Vincent Kompany, crocked again, told more of the season’s narrative before it was half over. □ After match Manuelism: “We still have 57 points to play for.”



▐ ► SEVEN: Saturday 18th January Arsenal (h) – Outplayed and tactically outmanoeuvred by a compact Arsenal side playing to cancel out City instead of going toe-to-toe at tippy tappy, this result revealed two things: that City’s off colour season was no flash in the pan and that Chelsea’s relentless charge was not going to be easy to match with this kind of form. A run of five without defeat went up in smoke on Aguero’s return to duty after 8 games out. Also returning, captain Kompany, who gave away a needless penalty when bringing down Nacho Monreal. 65% possession though. □ After match Manuelism: “A lack of creativity cost us here today.”



▐ ► EIGHT: Saturday 24th January Middlesbrough (h) FA Cup – Here went the second cup possibility, with even less of a whimper than Newcastle and the distant sounds of people exploding on the streets of Manchester. 65% possession (just copy and paste from previous passages) proved absolutely useless as Boro' tore City open on the counter attack. None of this was made any easier by one of the away scorers being a Chelsea loanee (Bamford), City were bamboozled by Boro’s front runners and unable to make any impression at the other end. No Wembley trips this year then but we always had the timely….> □ After match Manuelism: “We got scared.”



▐ ► NINE: Saturday 8th February Hull (h) – City needed a 90th minute equaliser from James Milner to avoid defeat at home to Hull, who – like Burnley – had offered little more than lively resistance and bodies in handy places in handy numbers. 74% possession this time, but let’s not dwell on the uselessness of passing backwards and sideways. Lead at the top stretched to seven points after this one. □ After match Manuelism: “We needed more urgency in the final third.”



▐ ► TEN: Saturday 14th March Burnley (a) – 70% possession for this one. Story of a season underlined one last time by Burnley’s answer to Rivelino, George Boyd, smacking one home when City’s profligate forward line could not find the target. Burnley, almost certainly destined to go down, thus completed a four point haul against the Blues this season. In previous seasons possession has led to goals, cannon fodder has been fired into the blue yonder and City going in front has almost inevitably meant City winning. Not this time, buddy. □ After match Manuelism: "We shall defend our nets, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight them in the centre circle, we shall fight them on the training grounds, we shall fight them on the field and in the penalty areas, we shall fight on the flanks. We shall never surrender."**
 
Pre-match bravado
ELEVEN: Sunday 12th April Manchester United (a) A game that put the seal on the whole foul-smelling affair of 2014-15. Taken to the cleaners by the club that had, we thought, – with City’s assistance – become a laughing stock. Chasing a club record of 5 consecutive victories against the old foe, City caved in. When Van Gaal had taken over the reins from David Moyes, it had looked set fair for more japes and laughs. Only the last laugh here was on City, as United powered back from a goal down and showed the Blues what fight, determination and organisation can do against eleven supposedly better players. Another lead lost, another bragging post dismantled. City were now 4th, four points behind United. □ After match Manuelism:  “It’s not easy to think there is just one problem. There is a lack of trust in this moment”


All of the elements mentioned above have either fallen away this season in comparison to last (ability to take the lead and hold on to it) or have appeared out of nowhere (extreme defensive frailty). Pellegrini’s Manuelisms (“not too bad”, “quite good”, “not so so bad”, “a little bit lacking here”, “not quite sharp enough there”) may just be attempts to hide the blazingly obvious or the signs of an old man struggling with a new language. A team may occasionally find it difficult to improve every year, although it is not out of the question to see slight chinks of light here and there. To stagnate, which City have done this season, or go backwards, which some will also accuse them of doing, was not on the Abu Dhabi menu. When the Chilean sashays into the Middle East next month, he can expect to be welcomed with the customary politeness and largesse. Once the canapés have been scoffed and the talking starts in earnest, however, it may prove to be as comfortable for him as a sand-infested poncho.



** may not be entirely his own words.

Monday, April 13, 2015

IN THE HEART OF ROARING LIES SILENCE

“...I remain restless and dissatisfied; what I knot with my right hand, I undo with my left, what my left hand creates, my right fist shatters”   ― Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
Quick out of the blocks, alert and aggressive, sure-footed and thrusting, a tuned-in-looking City took the derby to United for a mighty impressive ten minutes before deciding enough was enough and downing tools. Thereafter the baton was handed over to their counterparts, who went on to dominate the remaining 80 with Louis van Gaal's much maligned brand of, apparently, kick and rush doing far more damage than anyone could have imagined. It was far more than that, of course, but the tactics were simple and fresh and too much for City to deal with.

Spending a game of this importance being given the runaround by the one team they could not afford to allow that pleasure was not a particularly sound move by Manuel Pellegrini, whose swiftly diminishing box of tricks showed no lustre, no shiny surprises and not a single idea on how to pull the Blues back into a game speeding frantically away from his team from the tenth minute onwards.

A mauling at the hands of your nearest and dearest is not something owners and boards usually take kindly to and the money spent on City means Sheikh Mansour, Kaldoon al-Mubarak and the boys might just be in a slightly touchy mood right now. Being shown up by Manchester United is not, after all, something that has featured regularly during his watch so far.

As for the increasingly frayed-looking Manuel Pellegrini, specualtion will now -- if it had not already done so -- go into overdrive. Will he last until the end of today? The end of the week? Before or after the West Ham match? Or the end of the season? It all seems now to be just a matter of time.

As it became painfully clear which way the dice had fallen, Sky's coverage of the game gave us several uncomfortable close-ups of City's Charred Man and the closer they got, the redder his eyes seemed to be. Pellegrini has in recent times become a rather sad image of his team: tired, pasty and slightly bewildered-looking, forlorn, drawn and confused. The blood-shot eyes suggest a man deeper into the pressure game than he likes to let on. His "the buck stops here" quotes will weigh heavily on judgement day.


"It is my responsibility and the only way we can change this is by winning games..."

EMPTY WORDS EMPTY GESTURES

Winning games is precisely what City are not doing of course. This was the 8th defeat in 14 matches since January 18th. As Bacary Sagna said after the limp showing at Palace, "there are seven cup finals left for City". Well, there had been eight before that game and now there are six. It smacks a little of the Tiny Tim announcing there are only five sleeps till Christmas. And then what, exactly?

City, needing a big performance after all the recent desperate ones - were out-played, out-thought and out-manouevred by a mobile, aggressive United side, playing simple, effective football. Passing back to their keeper rather a lot, utilizing fast, robust long balls rather frequently, it still worked famously. Van Gaal's gameplan came unstuck initially with Aguero's opener but was vindicated by half time with United turning it all around and positively celebrated thereafter.

With Aguero notching his 99th and 100th City goals and the corner count (not that City's corners have produced a single item of interest in the last six months) heavily in City's favour, the attack carried a temporary threat. If you were a United fan after ten minutes, you might have been hoping to restrict the score to below recente drubbings, but there was a pleasant surprise in store for all prepared to keep the faith. City were about to go back into hibernation.

MAKING ASHLEY YOUNG LOOK GOOD

At the back there was carnage and much of it, it has to be said, was caused by yet another pedestrian
Pass the towel
performance by Yaya Touré. Himself dominated by the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini, he was caught dawdling in midfield time after time. His inertia pressed Pablo Zabaleta into a difficult decision between doing his job at right back and helping cover the overrun Fernandinho in midfield. This in turn allowed Ashley Young a miniature field day down the wing.

On one early occasion, lightly fouled in midfield, Touré, a big man, went to ground, producing the usual high armed theatrical protest from a prone position. Referee Clattenburg refused to play ball and let the game run on. As the resultant United possession morphed quickly into a proper attack, you looked for the fast back tracking bulk of Touré, but it never appeared. Jogging back, he made no attempt to catch up with play, contenting himself with a watching brief just inside his own half.

Touré's performance by the end amounted to a dereliction of duty, an abdication of sorts, a sad footnote to what has been a magnificent innings in Manchester. Who will now want to buy a player of his age (31) on his wages is anybody's guess, but the last two months have seen him join a lengthening list of players many City supporters will want out this Summer. Touré, the man who lit the blue touch paper against the same desperate foe in 2011's FA Cup semi-final, is one of the reasons City are where they are today: double Premier League champions, FA and League Cup winners. He will live long in the annals of City folk heroes, but his wonderful contribution is being tarnished by these late days of empire.

For those, who do not want to see blackness in the blurred and subjective terms of player and team performance, there are other more scientific ways of measuring just how grim it was out there: City's 4th consecutive defeat was the first time they had managed such an inglorious run since the Alan Ball masterminded relegation season of 1995-96.

City's pass accuracy in this game was an almost entirely alien 71%, a full seven points below the next worst for this season. So often were the targets of City players' passing missed that it looked like Alan Ball had had an influence on that too.

Similarites are being drawn between this fall-off of form and how Roberto Mancini's last season in charge finished, but this time two years ago City were producing a magnificent FA Cup semi-final performance to sweep Chelsea aside and book a place at Wembley. That "downing of tools" by Mancini's team looks magnificently celebratory in comparison to Pellegrini's late term offering in 2014-15.

The papers will now have their day, dispatching players to the summer transfer whirlpool and sucking out the managers foolhardy enough to offer themselves for a job, which will now involve wholesale overhaul of squad, post-graduate level understanding of financial fair play mathematics and the handing out of plentiful positive platitudes to a network of supporters becoming a little low on tolerance of a club that has again shot itself in the foot.

UNTYING THE KNOTS

Questions must be asked: Who has the final say on buying and selling? Are they being held accountable for the state of City's squad today? How have the powers that be let a brilliant squad age en masse? What input does Pellegrini have in player acquisition? Why was the decision taken to roll over and take UEFA's FFP edict with legs in the air and tummy waiting to be scratched? What has happened to the form of the side's bulwarks, Zabaleta, Kompany and Touré? Why was Lampard kept on then not played? Why was Bony bought and not played earlier (despite a month of action in Africa)? Why has nobody in the management team come up with a cure to City's ills when rattled out of possession by aggressive high-marking opponents? How come there is such a marked difference between City in confident possession of the ball and City (half-)trying to win it back again? Why has the club gone for a severe hike in season ticket prices when they needed to keep the hardcore support onside?

A mephistophelian knot of intrigue awaits City's manager this summer. If it is to be Manuel Pellegrini, a miracle of biblical proportions must now make itself apparent. If not, the faithful await news on who, how and when. Wheover steps into the breach will have a job akin to peeling the layers off an onion. Layer upon layer needs that man's immediate and undivided attention.

The runners and riders must wait for another day. The mainstream press is already tying itself in knots with different permutations. City now prepare to chase or be chased. A home win over West Ham will reignite the run-in for a club that has two in-form teams ahead of them in the pecking order for the 2nd and 3rd places that will grant straight qualification to the Champions League. Miss that and prepare for an uncomfortable mix-up with Lazio, Sporting or some mysterious invaders from the dusty east.

Clinging to small mercies used to be an occupational hazard for fans of this great old bastion of the slapstick and the colourful, but there are precious few to cling onto after Sunday's game.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

DERBY DAY



Mike Hammond digs deep to remember his first Derby match, in March 1983
Season 1982-83 March 5th 1983, Maine Road: Manchester City 1 Manchester United 2
Att 45,400  Scorers: Reeves; Stapleton (2); HT 1-0

 
IT’S
 

Saturday March 5 1983. A 10 year old sits in the passenger seat whilst his dad drives down the Princess parkway. As I look to the left, on the concrete banking, a slogan has been spray painted. It's a lament to Bobby Sands and remains visible amongst the weeds despite the fact that he had let go of life almost 2 years before.

Manchester was a different place then, but for one boy making his way towards Moss Side it's a special day. Past the brewery, the glorious aroma of hops are distinct even to my uneducated nose. We park up and four get out of the Ford Escort. Two blue and two red. It's not been a great season, and it will get much worse, but today is derby day. My first.

Sitting in the North Stand, the ground is full - officially 45,500 are present but it feels like more. I've never seen so many people before, the noise is tremendous. In the first half City go 1-0 ahead, my hero Kevin Reeves scores and life is good. At half time I look to my left, the kippax is a sea of blue scarves and the two women on the row in front delight me with songs of how fat and round Ron Atkinson is.
The enemy advance

Forty five minutes later and City's season has been summed up in one game. We had been top of the world after 3 games, 2nd in the league after 12, and then it went wrong. I look to my left again, that same Kippax is now a sea of red. I'm crying, deep heartfelt sobs. My red cousin consoles me, "don't worry, it'll be alright", but I know it won't. I wanted the day to be a great day, a day we'd beat United and gain the family bragging rights. It didn't turn out like that, and it was to be like this for a long time.

I have been to a lot of derby matches since that first time. On each of those occasions we have been considered by all right minded people as the overwhelming underdog. We have more than fought our corner though, and have frequently bloodied Fergie's nose. I've always felt that this match meant more to us blues than it did to them. It's always meant the world to me anyway.

In so many ways, something changed in the FA Cup semi final. Wembley in April was a watershed moment for City. I shed a lot of water too, lots of us did. We were the poor relations of the family no more, we deserved our place at the head of the table. For those of you who have been on a similar journey to me, nothing tasted sweeter than the that. You have to be poor to truly appreciate the finer things in life. United have never been poor, so i don't think its ever meant as much to them.


I was thinking on my train journey home from the capital that sunny day in April, about a quote from Dear John, by Nicholas Sparks:

"The saddest people I've ever met in life are the ones who don't care deeply about anything at all. Passion and satisfaction go hand in hand, and without them, any happiness is only temporary, because there's nothing to make it last"

We've been through a lot since my first derby, and I wouldn't have it any other way.




 

You can follow Mike on Twitter right here
 



Tuesday, March 24, 2015

FOOD FOR THOUGHT


Perched at the end of the wooden bar at El Pintxo, there is scant time to think about West Bromwich Albion. 

The artichoke has arrived slightly singed and, it has to be said, a little oily. You could, if you were being picky, accuse it of lacking a little salt too. I have taken it upon myself to eat some stuff that I would not normally wave a long pole at and the first item is sadly lacking in star quality. Expecting a delicious bite size Rakitic, I am already lumbered with a lumpy slice of Fernando. As it were.

At this rate, we are no more than a few short seconds away from retracing the safe old batatas bravas trail.

Spicy mayonnaise. Who invented that? And was he sufficiently rewarded for his findings?

Whilst the omnipresent pan con tomate and the over-generous triangle of tortilla de ceba cannot be ignored, there are also squadrons of intricately arranged anchovies and chef's best attempt at paëlla using noodles instead of rice. It's all happening in El Pintxo. 



The four ample-girthed French women alongside are tucking messily into a plate of char-fried chipsticks and traumatised egg. Egg and chips! The French ladies think they are being sophisticated but it takes more than Catalan egg and chips with a French accent to sway us. If the big one doesn't wipe the egg yoke from her chin, we might need the referee in to show a few yellow cards.

Dora brings more goblets of Estrella Damm. The talk can move from the French women and their treatment of runny egg to the real reason we are here: to see Lionel Messi being shackled by the machine-like efficiency of City's mechanical grip, Martin Demichelis.

Just like the regimental rows of anchovy fillets in front of us on the bar, Martin - pony tail or no pony tail - will eat the stumpy Argentine for dinner, the bottom of the Estrella Damm glass tells us. 

I check along the bar. There is nothing called Bits of Messi, or DeMichelis Delight. I chew down on a skewer of garlic prawns instead (not served here in a Premier League style sandwich) and consider for a moment what it will be like later on to see Yaya Touré decorate the Camp Nou with a replica of that monster run he finished with a goal against West Ham in the Capital One Cup or the weaving piece of one man destruction he visited upon Aston Villa at the Etihad that time. Narrowing the eyes just enough I find you can replace a hobbling Ron Vlaar with Sergio Busquets quite easily. One-nil to the Estella Damm.

It is not clear whether Sigmund Freud, whose clear notions of knowing but not-knowing might have liberally applied to Manuel Pellegrini in his somewhat bedraggled Year Two Format, has ever visited El Pintxo and bitten into the succulent pimentos padron, but he would almost certainly have enjoyed the delicate irony of Ron Vlaar invading our thoughts on the august Rambla de Catalunya. 

The Society for Psychiatry and Neurology of Vienna, to whom he (Freud not Vlaar) addressed his firm ideas on the subject in April 1896 will have known very little of how it feels to be dumped out of the Champions League. They will not have visited the raw disappointment of Bacary Sagna or the strange feeling of longing that bumping into Uwe Rosler in a dark alley bring, but this is all still in front of us, way in front of us.

First Plaza Reial for more sustenance. You don't watch Manchester City step out at the Camp Nou needing a two-goal win sober, after all. With some differences of opinion between the merits of €9 plastic beakers of Volldamm and the €1 cans of Estrella Damm being hawked around the square by a small army of entrepreneurs, predictions of City's fate later in the evening vary from the foolhardy through level-headed Mancunian despair to the absolutely outlandish.

Nevertheless the sun is out and Catalonia's capital is sharing a little cultural depth with north west England's finest. There is even a heavily tatooed man swimming in the beer can infested fountain. Joyous times are being had. Local women in fur coats step into the square and veer off dramatically on seeing the Gran Festa Mancunia in full swing.

 

***

A week earlier popular conjecture had it that City had two critical games to realign their season towards a satisfactory climax. The response so far from Manuel Pellegrini and his men has been to lose flimsily at Turf Moor. City, back to being a mystery wrapped in a conundrum, will now attempt to do to Barcelona in their own towering ground what they failed to do in the prefab grey slab of Turf Moor.

We walk the streets towards the tottering 50s edifice where City's fate will be decided, the raw upswell of Mancunian voices rises over the hubub of excited Catalan bonhommie. We clatter our way into Lizarran. One last uncoordinated attack takes place on the town's most recklessly displayed tapas.

Swaying newcomers watch in awe as access to hundreds of tasty snacks seems barred by nothing more than a guilty conscience. "You mean you just lift that up and take it?" one hungry man exclaims. "Fuckin ell. John, look at this, fellas. It's free. Call the others."

Replete, we take to the great ramps of the stadium, twisting their way up into the heavens. I appear in my unstable state to be wandering in a phalanx of over-excited forty-somethings directly behind a man whose profile - even from the back - seems familiar. 

I have seen the front version of Uwe Rosler many hundreds of times, the image of that smiling assassin throughout a troubled nineties decade that started for City in the Premier League and ended in the cabbage patch of the third tier. His goal poaching lit up our sad existences as City slid through Middlesbrough and off out to Lincoln and Port Vale. 

Well-known for his love of the Blues, despite being the high profile ex-manager of Brentford and Wigan Athletic, he is now lumbering along in front of me. "Uwe" I shout in my slightly falsetto excitement. 

And now he here he is grinning in front of me. 

I clasp him in the growing dark like the elated son reunited with his father after losing each other at a ferociously busy car boot sale.

The German, far from being peeved by yet another inebriated trickster wanting to be his best friend, puts his arm around me and starts singing. Even the prospect of Bacary Sagna suddenly seems palatable at this euphoric moment. We take a few steps together, arm in arm, sharing a verse of The Best Team In the Land and All the World, before he is coralled away for another photo opportunity with more over-excited fifty year olds from Denton.
***
We are perched high up just like last year, but there appear to be many more than a year ago. 5,000 apparently in place of last year's 3,500. We have numbered tickets too, an upgrade on last year's free-for-all. Down below is a multinational sea of plastic flag waving diehards from all corners of Planet Football.

That match starts and immediately Kompany is caught dawdling on the edge of his own box and Neymar nicks it from him and hits the inside of the post. It is to be another of those long evenings, we quickly agree.

There are clearly two outstanding performers on the pitch. Sadly for us, City's is the goalkeeper. "BraveHart" the Catalan press will trumpet with some lack of originality the next day. Barcelona's class comes in the shape of Lionel Messi, a darting, omnipresent maverick, who wreaks constant havoc on City's defensive lines. He is quick, he is sharp, he is unstoppable in his curving swerving lines and his unorthodox slipperyness.

Rakitic celebrates his piece of skill with the omnipresent Messi
City are chasing shadows. Messi is joined in the high ranks of the gifted by Rakitic, a maestro of subtle movement, the solid rocks of Mathieu and Piqué and - when they occasionally need him - goalkeeper Ter Stegen. I even find myself admiring Neymar's gritty workrate, which leaves me feeling glum and perplexed. Only Dani Alves sunglasses-and-gold-lamé-winklepickers-cavorting on the right is living up to expectations. 

City somehow withstand everything, with help from the goal frame and Joe Hart's elasticity. With ten minutes left, we are even treated to the award of a City penalty after Aguero is upended. We are going to draw level at the Nou Camp! Sergio dusts himself down and dispatches the shot mid-high to the keeper's right (all the others have been low to the left in my hazy recollection). It is duly saved and we slump in resignation, "fight to the end" dying in our throats, just as it was being dusted down for several more choruses.
***

Wait please, all those from 1983
Half an hour later we are still in the ground, evidently far too dangerous to be let out at the same time as the tourists that make up Barcelona's bedrock support. They have managed three bursts of "Barça, Barça, Barça!" in the whole game, but 92,500 of them have made up the biggest home attendance of the season so far.

The authorities are obviously under the impression that we have travelled on direct flights from 1983 and we are kept waiting for an interminably long period. Amongst our number are several gents too old to walk without sticks and many more that have obviously seen City in Europe when the penny farthing was the way around town. They wait, leaning on sticks and shoulders to be freed from this barbarous cell. Downstairs squadrons of riot police and shivering stewards await our every step. Too tired to even laugh we pass by in silence.


Back in the warm embrace of a bar down the main drag from the stadium, deflated, defeated and demoralised, the chat and the beer is flowing again.







 "If you cannot enjoy playing against Barcelona in the Champions League and fighting for the title, you should go and see a doctor." - Dr Manuel Pellegrini




I check quickly. There is space for an appointment the following week.

City have been eclipsed by a little man on the very tip of his game. His game being the flap-free, pose-lite array of deft touches and slide rule passes, gliding movement and unmatchable guile that has left City chasing shadows. Lionel Messi, a majestic king of the simple things has carried the game to (and through) City and only found Joe Hart capable of raising an answer of any sort. Nobody else has anything to say for themselves.

Just three days later, City will batter 43 attempts towards West Brom's goal, collecting perhaps the easiest three-goal victory in the history of the Premier League. The scandal of the stolen tapas will be quickly forgotten, even if the chasing on the pitch might linger in the memory a little longer.

The morning editions of Mundo Deportivo bring some telling adjectives to our attention. Barcelona's appear, to my inaccurate grasp of Spanish to embody power, greatness and supernatural ability, whilst City's are full of "decepcionante" and ""frustrado".

The full list for those lovers of language are here: Demichelis, the mechanical grab of all our dreams, gets a desultory "lento".


West Bromwich, not even allowed to look like Barcelona with striped shirts anymore, certainly bear no other small resemblance to the Catalan giants. Deprived of a player -- the wrong player -- after two minutes, they form the the ideal antidote to Champions League depression. From Pep Guardiola's grand legacy of tiki taka to Tony Pulis and the percentages game in the blink of an eye. The footballing week had brought us rich rewards, embarrassment and ends with the cold comfort of Premier League thud and blunder to finish.

This time it is City who play the Barcelona role, racking up more efforts on goal than everyday statisticians should be expected to keep up with.

Farewell to all this
With the memories of one of Lionel Messi's greatest ever individual performances beginning to fade a little, those football bruises are healing fast. The season is almost up for the Blues. For the rest of us, Barcelona represents the last of this season's forays into foreign climes. This is sad on a number of levels.

For Pellegrini and his players, however, this second consecutive steamrolling from Barcelona may also offer a watershed of kinds. Only the arrival of the summer months will tell us who is to survive what will almost certainly be a significant cull.

About Me

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

Poets and Lyricists