|Come on in, the door's open|
Could it be that we are beginning to see a Phase Three Manchester City emerging?
Since the takeover by Sheikh Mansour in September 2008, City have been moving along like something strapped firmly to the side of a medium sized rocket. The impatient climb and the thirsty lust for silverware have already reaped their rich harvest, with an FA Cup, a League Cup, a Community Shield and two Premier League titles in the brief and exhilarating seven years that have ensued.
A couple of Community Shield duds and a failed FA Cup final with Wigan can also be added to the list, as City fans have been deposited in aland of milk and honey that has necer tasted so sweet.
Clearly, given the investment, there is more to come. Just as clearly, more, much more, is expected too and City’s dreadful cave-in against Liverpool will have started a number of sizeable alarm bells ringing in the marble corridors Chez Mansour.
Manuel Pellegrini, it would seem, has been unlucky enough to have his hand on the tiller just as the good ship Manchester City sailed into a new and perhaps époque-defining era.
If Phase One of Mansour’s City was the beginning, the construction, the grand projet, the breakthrough to the edge of the Champions League and the excited baptism, trophy-wise, of the noisy infant, Roberto Mancini can think himself fortunate that it coincided with his stay on watch.
"Mancini, the man who got City up and running. The man who made us all believe. The man who delivered at a club where non-deliverance had become religion."
With expectations only moderate to good, owing to the 40 years of chaos and ridicule that City had produced before, Mancini’s efforts were always likely to be seen in a positive light. That they conjured a magical FA Cup victory over Stoke (that included an even more defining moment in knocking United out at the semi-final stage) and the most sensational league title win in English club history, cemented the Italian’s place in City folklore forever. The recriminations from a coach more than happy to show huge displeasure with his playing staff in public have faded to leave the mythology firmly in place: Mancini, the man who got City up and running. The man who made us all believe. The man who delivered at a club where non-deliverance had become religion. Mancini, the man who sent us all a love letter when he left, for God's sake, just in case anyone was in any doubt.
This tumultuous first phase was represented, then, by massive outlay, huge turnover in playing staff to begin the empire building and the biblical tornado of actually winning things. As a result City have affected a great many changes, among them an enlarged Etihad Stadium, the sumptuous football campus, a burgeoning youth academy and the regeneration of large swathes of east central Manchester. Nothing more incredible, though, than a complete and successful overhaul of fans' traditional hangdog mentality.
Pellegrini’s arrival coincided roughly with a new, second phase, in which expectations now ran very high, as did confidence, spending and rhetoric. City were not just joining the elite, but they were rocking it enthusiastically from side to side. They were not just rubbing shoulders with the likes of United, they were rubbing their noses in the dust. Mancini had produced the shock and awe of the 6-1. It was for Pellegrini to remove the shock element from beating United and make it commonplace.
|Saturday felt like most of the 70s and 80s felt against Liverpool: absolutely rank.|
The Chilean’s era was signed and sealed with a 5 trophies in 5 years mantra. This really defined Phase Two at Mansour’s City: a self-assured, up-front acknowledgment that City were now big players with the squad to prove it. European participation had become a yearly staple, rather than an odd and irregular quirk. Winning trophies and being there at the culmination of all big tournaments was now more than a distinct possibility, more than a distant desire, it was a prerequisite if you wanted to keep your job.
And Pellegrini has delivered. To a point. This, his third, season will be absolutely critical. He will either maintain the target or fall below it for the first time. He won himself time and breathing space with the Premier League title and League Cup double in his first season (2013-14), which was just as well, as last season nose-dived. Either circumstances helped save him (the managers City were interested in weren’t available) or he had amassed just enough brownie points to maintain a reasonable grip on the rough edges at the top of the cliff.
"It is the one area where continual belly flops remind us of a cold and bleak past inhabited by balloon-induced defeats at Sheffield United and eight goal Sven-farewells at Middlesbrough."
Now things have changed again. We are entering what might logically be termed Phase Three, the End Phase. With the Liverpool performance still fresh in the mind and the team selection of the Chilean widely blamed for the unusually heavy home defeat (worst ever Etihad collapse and only the second time a visiting side has hit four), one line of thought has it that the Champions League has now taken priority over everything else. And why not? For Sheikh Mansour, there are probably a finite number of four goal thrutchings over Norwich and Aston Villa before it all becomes a little… you know, run of the mill.
What now looks exotic, enticing and perhaps even mildly realistic is a good tilt at the Champions League. It is after all the one place City still tread like Bambi rather than the self-assured beast we are now used to in England. It is the one area where continual belly flops remind us of a cold and bleak past inhabited by balloon-induced defeats at Sheffield United and eight goal Sven-farewells at Middlesbrough. We could of course travel further back to Cock-up County, but there is no need. City were still doing stand-up ten short years ago.
Phase Three, then, is underway and it is characterized by risk. Huge fees were again used to bolster the squad and make it fit for purpose. Fit for purpose in Phase Three looks increasingly like fit to win the Champions League. Why else would Sheikh Mansour once again produce the big bucks for Raheem Sterling , Kevin de Bruyne and Nicolas Otamendi? Why else would Manuel Pellegrini rest important players for a game against Liverpool?
Since when did City have the arrogance or desperation to put out a below strength side against Liverpool, the one team above all in the history of English football to rejoice in pushing City’s heads continually underwater? The countless four and five-goal drubbings in the 70s and 80s; the 4-0 and 6-0 defeats within four days under Alan Ball in 1995; relegation at their hands under the hapless Ball the same year, when Liverpool – actively trying not to win – couldn’t help themselves and beat City almost by mistake to send them down. The Liverpool against whom City have a masterful 26% win rate over the history of the fixture, the absolute worst of all their opponents.
This then smacked of an intensifying pressure on Pellegrini to land top spot in Champions League group D. Having started badly, yet again, with home defeat to Juventus, City have turned things around dramatically in a tricky group. For the first time the club is beginning to carry itself with a degree of upright confidence in this parade of monarchs. Finishing above Juventus, who City meet this Wednesday to fight for first place, will ensure no more Barcelonas at the last 16 stage. It might mean PSV Eindhoven instead of Bayern Munich. It could mean Phase Three is being realized and bedded in with some success.
What it evidently means for Mr Pellegrini is the unenviable pressure to bring in trophies this season whilst also making proper progress on the continent. On Saturday, City fans paid the price for this as the manager took his eye off the ball just long enough to receive a massive bloody nose. Liverpool shredded City’s half-hearted plan. With no Kompany and Otamendi at the back, the manager produced a rickety central defensive pair that played like Abbot and Costello. In apparently also resting City’s player of the season so far, Fernandinho, he exacerbated the problem of playing facing a team set up by Jurgen Klopp (perhaps wise to expect speed, ferocious pressing and an unremittingly energetic approach?), leaving City's midfield utterly overwhelmed and the flimsy Demichelis-Mangala Show open to all sorts of possibilities from Liverpool's mobile attack.
Was this the first sign of a serious transfer of eggs into the European basket? It would seem so. Phase Three is marked then by risk-taking, either calculated or gung-ho, that City’s squad can compete on both major fronts. In a way, the manager is right. This squad can do that and probably will, but what it cannot do is survive against a feisty and well-drilled title rival (because Liverpool on this form will surely join those vying for top spot) with three pillars of the side missing and its creative force also out injured. Klopp, jovial and relaxed before the match, will have scarcely been able to believe what his eyes were telling him. He was quickly joined by 54,000 others in this respect.
The pressure of Phase Three at City now means, for this oversight to be forgiven by the masses, City must prevail in Turin, at the home of last year’s Serie A winners and Champions League runners-up. Then at least a flawed plan would have been seen to be partially effective. There has never been pressure quite like this at City and Manuel Pellegrini has only succeeded in ramping it up an extra notch or two with his feeble team selection at the weekend.