Sunday, March 15, 2015

THIS JARRING MAN

The juggernaut has ground to an almost complete stop. Voluminous palls of black smoke emit from its back end, whilst a rhythmic clicking sound comes from under the bonnet. Is it the sound of time passing or a proper man-sized problem under there somewhere? Its driver stands alongside, charred silver hair, eyes glazed, a helplessly wan smile playing across his grey features.

Manchester City under Manuel Pellegrini have run out of oil.

On Saturday, City - possessing one of the strongest squads in English football history - lost with a whimper to Burnley. Beforehand, I had written for ESPN that two season-defining games confronted the Blues. City did not play like the game at Turf Moor held the keys to the successful denouement of this stop-start 2014-15 campaign. They played like a team that had already given up hope. A team with its mind elswhere.

Worst of all, they played like a team trying to get rid of its manager.

Anyone from Barcelona watching at the weekend, must have left the ground puzzled. Was this the side that would attempt to wrest control of their last 16 tie in the Champions League from the tight grip of the imperious, near flawless FC Barcelona? How could all these great individual players, with their world-renowned skills and temperament, produce such a sodden, lumpen whole? And what, if anything, was the management team doing about it before Wednesday?

When, in the final minute of a scuttling, erratic performance, Pablo Zabaleta was brought down by a rash tackle, a degree of face might have been saved. The referee, possibly blinded by the 90 minutes of incompetence City had put on for the public up to then, waved play on and Burnley escaped to claim the win they so richly deserved.

On the touchline, the cameras homed in on Pellegrini, an increasingly embattled figure in his blue puffer jacket. The Chilean, briefly raised his arms at the prospect of a last minute levelller from the spot, held them there, opened his mouth as if to begin a sentence and froze. In this twenty-second cameo, he revealed himself briefly to the wider public. A man left with no passion, no voice and no energy to carry the fight forward. Even the elderly Arsene Wenger - you would have expected - would have exploded at this last desperate chance going begging. Mourinho would have been well inside the pitch's boundries f-ing and blinding in his own inimitable way. Pellegrini just stood there, like a man who has forgotten where he put his wallet and now cannot buy the bus ticket home.

Early success brings it own well-documented problems, as we have seen many times in the past. What last season looked like a man rising above the sweaty clamour of the tetchy and bitchy Premier League managers' rat run, a calmness, a control, a peacefulness that said I am quietly confident in what I am doing, this season smacks of diffidence, hesitation, worst of all, cluelessness, powerlessness. The Charming Man of yore stays rooted to the touchline like a ghost tethered to a pole.

A ghost, moreover, with no influence on the horror show unwinding before him. A spectre, a whisp, an aphemeral light, flickering before going out altogether, a light mist, a gentle trance, a far off sound that fades and floats on the wind.

Proceedings at the Etihad are beginning to take on worryingly similar dimensions to the end-phase of City's last great man in a suit, Roberto Mancini, who arrived a gladiatorial maestro and left with his reputation singed and folded. Taking City from nearly men to FA Cup gloryboys and then Premier League winners and Champions League participants, he ended his days - lest we forget - with his side refusing to play properly for him on the worldwide stage of an FA Cup final.

Those there that day saw the obvious final act of treachery, the final act of a play that had turned from light, breezy success story to Roman tragedy. A team, as well endowed as the current one, playing out a showpiece final against little Wigan Athletic much like yesterday's megastars trundled about thoughtlessly at Turf Moor.

With exactly the same result. A needless and lightly pathetic defeat when it was least wanted, least needed.

What are we reduced to? Vincent Kompany, that giant stone bulwark, once again dibbling a weak header to the first attacker, who, in this case, made decent connection and walloped it straight back to where it had come from. Zabaleta, that iron willed metronome, reduced to jittery hesitancy. Yaya Touré, the man who can carry an entire game before him, pick it up and mould it to his liking, a disinterested passenger in midfield. And worst of all, David Silva, the heart beat, the artist, the sculptor, reduced to misplaced little passes into areas of the field utterly devoid of dark blue shirts. The whole display stank of end of empire and only the Gods now know what is in store for us when we step timidly out on to the Rambla de Catalunya in three days time.

Pellegrini is heading down the same dark tunnel on this showing. Ineffective, unable to change the flow of things and stubborn to the point of spiting himself, those two games to shape the season have now become one. In Barcelona. The Nou Camp. Where only a two goal win or a high scoring one goal win will suffice. City have surprised us on countless occasions through the club's ridiculously unbalanced history, but that, my friends, would surely top the lot.

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