Monday, April 15, 2013

AN ERA BEDECKED IN SKY BLUE

Two FA Cup semi finals were played out at the same venue over the weekend. They could not have been more different if one had featured a team of decorated bull elephants larruping a ball the size of David Luiz's swollen backside from one penalty box to the other

Millwall-Wigan had rain, a team out of its depth playing another that appeared to be jockeying for the title of Poorest Side to Grace an FA Cup Semi Final in Living Memory, swathes of unwanted seats and a nasty mist of fists at the end when the inevitable denouement wrapped itself around the side placed 18th in the NPower Championship.


The other went quite a long way to redeeming the good name of football. Played out to a backdrop of packed stands in bright sunshine, it featured two well-calibrated team going hell for leather for each other's throats for 94 pulsating minutes. If you were left breathless watching it, you were not alone. Fans of City and Chelsea dragged themselves to the exits at the end having been drained of most of the adrenaline needed to lift Olympic standard weights. The draining of essential body fluids during the previous hour and half had left some looking like they had just jogged across the Sahara with a lifesize Rafa Benitez stuffed into their rucksacks.

Manchester City, with their own Olympic weights lifted off those forever rounded shoulders, have reached their second FA Cup final in three years. Nothing for half a lifetime, then two almost back to back. Just like that. We are traversing strange and wonderful times to be a blue, that cannot be denied, and for the many thousands, who have waited a lifetime to see these bright brushstrokes light up their days, it takes some believing. The only advice must be to pinch yourselves to make sure you're still with us, sit back and enjoy the moment.

So Manchester City became the ninth team to reach ten or more FA Cup finals. Sergio Aguero scored in a sky blue shirt for the first time with his head and Gareth Barry ended the match outpacing the Chelsea midfield. If this wasn't proof enough that we live in a skewed universe, nothing was.
   
And this to say nothing of the man in Manchester City's goal. Costel Pantilimon's name alone conjures an image of an Eastern European circus trapeze artist. Seeing him out on the pitch, as tall as a skyscraper and as thin as a poker, dressed from head to toe in green (now there's a thing for a
goalkeeper), the mind could have been forgiven for drifting into reveries of what sort of goalkeepers giant courgettes might make.

As City's FA Cup goalkeeper, Pantilimon leads an odd life. Ostensibly ignored, nodded at by the dinner ladies as he picks up his lightly broiled sea bass at Carrington's walk in canteen and handed his meagre postbag as they wheel in Aguero's using a fork-lift truck, the stringy second choice keeper would be forgiven for yelling a few choice Romanian expletives at the seeming lack of attention.

Today, the jolly green giant can take his public bow, however, after a performance in the second half at Wembley that kept City in pole position in a game that had already been won and was a Romanian whisker away from needing to be won a second time.

City had delivered 60 minutes of ferocious possession football, played with pace and venom, cutting repeatedly through Chelsea's tired ranks. The Blues last match may have been the sapping ordeal of a successful Manchester derby, but that had been last Monday. Chelsea were still wiping the Moscow snow from their eyes late on Thursday evening. Six of those present in Russia were on the pitch from the start here, hoping their legs would hold out, pushing tired muscles forward against the natural urge to sit down and recuperate properly. City were too fast, too slick and, as it turned out, a little too rapid even for their own good. The only thing missing appeared to be the compass normally swinging from Yaya's neck to deliver the final slide rule killer pass.

Too often we came so far but not further. When the ball did hit the back of the Chelsea net, it came about after yet another coruscating run from the giant haystack Yaya Touré, an immovable object that spent the afternoon ransacking Chelsea's middle orders. This time the Beast of Bondoukou slashed his way through from the right, passed to Aguero, who moved it on to Nasri, enjoying the spaces left by Silva's absence. By this time the ball was moving with such speed, Nasri's attempted and hurried return pass to Aguero struck the hitherto faceless but soon to be hapless Azpilicueta and fell nicely for the Frenchman to stab home. His grin could have sliced a water melon.   


The half finished with an astonishing five man break from City, with Milner homing in on Chelsea's beleagured three defenders. There were fully four City men to pass to in the box: Aguero, Tevez, Nasri and the storming trooper Kompany. Milner chose an odd hybrid of overhit cross and wayward shot and all was lost.

As a happy Mancini confirmed afterwards "I think we played very well in the first half and had everything under control." This was it in a nutshell. What the Italian might lack in subtlety of phrase, he makes up for with nouse and foresight. What he might also have said was this: the game should have been up when Aguero got his head on Gareth Barry's looping cross to make it 2-0 in the 47th minute. The Argentine had never before nutted one in. Incredible. The build up, blurringly fast once again, had come about after the increasingly hapless Azpilicueta's throw-in had gone astray in
City faithful remember absent friends
dangerous territory. It was the Basque's limp jump with Aguero that had allowed a free header too. City were now so much on top thanks to this psychologically well placed blow, that you would have put more money on John Terry coming up with the Romanian for pease pudding than any royal blue fightback taking place


But football is a strange beast, a quixotic maiden, who likes to flutter its eyelashes and flash its ankles before planting a boot between your legs. Here it took one last wanton look at the City faithful, then hurried, rucked skirts in hands straight for the opposition benches where it hooked up with the Man in the Mask, Fernando Torres.

It has long been said that Benitez teams start slowly and there was evidence of this again here as Chelsea immediately took to the flanks and started to give City a real thumping. Those tired Russian legs suddenly pumped again. City, having played the minutes after the second goal a bit like the Harlem Globetrotters Exhibition Tour, were now being asked to regroup, refocus and redouble their energy. This is a tricky act when the mind has started to cool things down and it was clear the Blues were having problems getting up for the unexpected surge in Chelsea's game.


So we were left hanging on by Ba's immediate strike, City's first goal conceded in the tournament so far this season, an incredible feat, despite the weak efforts of Watford, Stoke, Leeds and Barnsley in previous rounds. Chelsea's sudden momentum was now difficult to stop. Where Yaya had bulldozered, now Mata and Hazard danced, the former denied by the string-bean torso of Pantilimon, when he looked set to score. .   

Brazil-Argentina: art + savagery
As the finger nails disappeared, we were left with two more major talking points before the lights went out. First Kompany attempted a shirt swap with Torres before the end of the match, for which referee Foy, missing more and more as the game progressed, waved play on. benitez was beside himself, a neat feat for a big man, and dark blue arms were aloft but to no avail. Then serial fouler Luiz ended up having his backside pricked like a sausage going in the oven as Aguero's celeste y blanco mist descended on seeing a canary yellow buttock. This was Brazil-.Argentina in full pomp. The beauty, the savagery, the unfeasibly frizzy hair. Luiz would later bleat to the press that Aguero should clean up his act, a magnificent honey-coated irony given the Brazilian's entire game is based on the surreptitious nudge and the unseen poke.  

It was left to Mancini to phrase it in his own way. "I need glasses. I didn't see it," he said smiling. What Mancini will have seen with this victory is a possible second FA Cup win in three years to add to the Premier League won last May.

If that, along with the delirious backing of the City faithful, does not keep the popular Italian in a job for next season, nothing will.

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