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.

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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