Sunday, September 27, 2015

POISONOUS EMISSIONS

After a brief respite at Sunderland in midweek, when City walked through the first thirty-five minutes then hit the off button and went to bed, Pellegrini's side turned back towards what they have done best in a history of wildly fluctuating fortunes, fabricating a sizeable silk purse into a sow's arse in a display at Spurs that smelled first of roses, then of a heavily steaming midden. 

The entire history of Manchester City football club was laid bare for all to see in another 90 minutes of breathtakingly controlled-then-brittle football.

A first half of total dominance at White Hart Lane was rounded off by a linesman offering the home side an equaliser that had seen a critical part of the build up stray a clear yard offside. The linesman, with his flag half up then down again was in front of the action, bang in line and close to play. It was a clear case of the unthinkable joining the unfeasible and making the improbable happen. Jokes about the poor man's eyesight would just not be enough at this juncture. Needless to say, I hope he hasn't seen it all on his tv.

With City reeling from the shock, they were caught cold at the start of the second half and proceeded to disintegrate in alarming fashion.

A team that is not ruthless enough, managed by a man who is too charming (read gentle) was left being given the run around by a suddenly exuberant Tottenham side who quite possibly could not believe their good luck. On these occasions, when the sun emerges and Spurs players realise their luck is very much in, all those flaky, lightweight midfielders that Tottenham specialise in, suddenly turn into a freeform version of Eder-Falcao-Zico. True to form Eriksen shone and the normally peripheral Lamela, always on the look out for a chance to back flip the ball when a solid five yard pass will do, turned into match winner extraordinaire.

Previously, against Juventus, chances had come and gone to bolster City's one-goal lead, but eventually the wily Italians plugged away and got two sucker punch goals to take the three points. It had all been, in fact, slightly unlucky and talk afterwards was of City's European jinx, their European mental block and their European inexperience. This in fact had been their European Soundtrack, starting with boos, filling up with cheers and ending with stunned silence.

A clear one-off considering the blistering form the team was in.

Against West Ham, City started like a man sleepwalking towards the top of the stairs, again received two sucker punches and wobbled, fizzy-headed into a 2nd half comeback where five goals could have been scored on another occasion, perhaps even more. Adrian, the West Ham keeper who had sieved six in the Capital One Cup semi-final on the same ground, suddenly acquired steel-rimmed gloves. It had been such a wildly one-sided second half, with every single one of Jesus Navas' 312 crosses either cannoning back off James Tomkins' gigantic shins or ballooning away off somebody or other. Not one fell kindly to lurking City players on the edge of the box. The Law of Averages was being liberally trashed. Such a strange game could sadly not be called a one-off, as we had already added that moniker to the Juventus match.

A similar scenario wrote itself in bold capital letters in London, as City totally dominated possession and chances in a one-sided first half, before the linesman took his opportunity for nationwide exposure bringing unlikely parity to the game at half time. If that one idiotic moment sank City for the second half, then the winning mentality we had all presumed played a part in the four trophies won since 2010, might not have been quite so decisive after all.
Spurs away was evidently not a one-off either, sadly.

Looking at the one game won in this 4 game slump, against an execrable Sunderland side so down on their luck
Where have all the goalscorers gone?
they might have been tempted to take to the pitch wearing prison pyjamas and conical hats, City took their initial chances and were four up after little over a half an hour. Look again, however, and you will notice something critical.

Before the first goal, a penalty put away by Aguero, the same player had already missed three chances to score in nine minutes. After the barrage, Aguero again missed, this time, from a yard out after rounding the goalkeeper. The kind of effort that even one of the Flying Ameobi brothers might gobble up. The same sort of chance that Navas had made a royal fist of at Crystal palace, when he suffered anterior lobe misfunction when faced with the task of swatting the ball into an unguarded net from five yards.

A match that should have been 5-0 at half time was thus 4-0 and, by the end, after a somnambulant 2nd period, 4-1. An absolute away rout to some, but, look a little closer and it bears many of the characteristics of the other three "unique, one-off defeats".

The argument is thus that the game on Wearside revealed the same tendencies as the other three in this increasingly distressing mini run of grande collapso. Although it looks on paper like a crunching away win, it was profligate in the extreme, as were in particular the West Ham second half and the Tottenham first half. Juventus too will probably admit to have looked optimistically at a draw after the first 57 minutes at the Etihad, yet won it in the end.

Put basically, City have had a sudden slew of important injuries, have shuffled the centre backs too often and have seen games change unluckily at critical moments, but - if the strikers had been on top of their jobs - none of these other factors would have mattered.

All eyes turn to Sergio Aguero. Never in his time at City has he looked or played like this. The odd game where his touch was not 100%, yes. A match when a defender has played him just right, certainly, but never have we seen four straight games where he has continually misfired like a novice. Shinners, too many touches, slips, slides and running into brick walls, the entire average striker's repertoire has been on full public show. It may be sacrilege to even consider criticising one of City's Crown Jewels, but Aguero has gone suddenly and fatally off the boil.

last 2 games: CITY- 49 attempts on goal, 3 converted.

Shorn of David Silva's threaded passes, Aguero looks short on ideas for the first time, short on goals for the first time and short on confidence now that a discernible pattern has started to develop. Whether he was rushed back too quickly from injury is unclear. Scott Dann's assault at Selhurst Park in the end did not remove him from more than the Juventus match and even then he appeared when it was clear that Wilfried Bony would have needed a fork lift truck to aid him to get through on goal.Bony, it has been noted, is no Edin Dzeko when it comes to hiding average performances with a crucial goal or two. Just average all round from Wilfried so far.

Here again a strange pattern develops. Injuries have dogged City for seasons, seemingly more significantly than most of their title rivals. Of these, of late, how many appear to be happening just before the game begins? Silva limped out of West Ham seconds before the start, Kompany - already not 100% fit - tweaked something in the warm-up at Spurs. Are City putting too much pressure on the big game players to be present for the big games? And if so, why, with such a broad and talented squad at the manager's disposal?

Injuries, lack of form, loss of form, bizarre refereeing decisions, fired up opponents, bad luck. Sounds like a normal enough season to most people, but perhaps not to be expected in a tiny four game snippet of the season.

Only one possibility remains and this will only return to the agenda of the mainstream press now that City have hit a losing streak and will chime loud enough if City fail in Germany this midweek. Manuel Pellegrini, the gentle, cajoling presence on City's touchline. The man who shakes hands with the manager who called him a c**t a year ago, who shakes hands with the linesman, who has just torpedoed his team's chances and who says at the end of the day "if we don't play well I don't expect us to win". We all like a good guy, but the truth is in football it's the nasty win at all costs types that often win in the end.

Whether he or Scott Dann or James Tonkins are the main reasons for City's malaise, the chatter will turn into something else if Monchengladbach explodes in City's faces in similar fashion.

Monday, September 21, 2015

REVENGE OF THE REDHEADS


Mark Lillis plays with damaged nose + cheek
In 1986 the streets of Rusholme looked a little like a scene from a low-budget cop series. Sirens howled, busses chugged to a stop in front of packs of meandering kids. Feral eight year olds with snot encrusted faces asked you if you had a car to mind. The smell of curry drifted everywhere. (That was the good bit). Slate grey skies dribbled their corrosive rain all over you and glass-eyed dogs barked a cacaphonous welcome in the distance, ready to tear you to bits if you lingered too long while having a leak against the chapped red brick walls of the alleyways that criss-crossed the area. Sooty little back yards separated poverty from squalor, poverty from squalor. Terraced houses with off-colour net curtains hid a thousand little secrets of Rusholme.

In 2015 things are tidy, modern, clean and sharp. There are few who harbour thoughts of the bricked-up tobacconists on Lloyd Street or the faintly threatening doorways of Claremont Road. City are long gone from there. Glass and steel meet the smarting eye of the modern match goer. Car dealerships and swing bridges, apartment complexes aimed at you the aspiring young city dweller and gusty tow paths meet the eye. The gales still blow chip paper onto your trousers, but the odour on the air has changed. All you can smell now is well varnished ambition.

Dank, heavy, drizzly, misty Manchester. 1985-86, a season back amongst the big boys for City. There is the red hair of Jim Melrose, standing out in the gloom like a beleesha beacon. He juts his ginger bonce in the way of a deflection off the West Ham defence to equalize at 2-2. A lucky deflection! How City would have liked one of those last weekend, when every single loose ball ricocheted out of the Londoners' defence and found an area of space and peace that wouldn't have been out of place by the duck pond at Tatton Park.

There will be no deflection and no 2-2 for City on this occasion.

Back in September 85 a topsy turvy, rain drenched game at Maine Road does finish two apiece, however. This is the 9th game of what will be a dreary season of rehab, City's first back after relegation. West Ham, upwardly mobile and jetting towards their best finish ever, have McAvennie and Cottee, style and pace. They have Scottish defenders called Orr and Stewart plus a midfield of Ward and Devonshire, lungs and artistry.

I turn for the exits, mounting the old Kippax steps, darkened and malodorous, and head down from the back of the old stand and into the relentless drizzle outside. The view is familiar, across the school yard and beyond into those mysterious alleyways, the death runs of away fans daft enough to escape the police corden and make their own way out of the darkening precincts of Moss Side.

**

Modern day West Ham seem less flexible, with the prowling protagonist Slaven Bilic sporting the face of a thousand Balkan conflicts. He lopes around the technical area, flicking his arms with the air of a man wearing a tie as a punishment.  

Soon, Mangala is airborn like a falling tree but Adrian has brought his business gloves. It is quickly clear he has forgotten his clock, however, as the keeper slows everything to a dawdle. The reason for this has happened at the other end: Moses, a left footer, a three times discarded Chelsea misfit, uses his right foot to leave Hart grasping grubby air with his fingers. City are flat on the floor after only 6 minutes.

It is City's first league goal conceded. Midweek there were two other first goals conceded, but that was v. Juventus, that was Champions League. Three in two games. It feels like the floodgates are opening suddenly.

Was this early sledge hammer anything to do with the back four? Sagna-Otamendi-Mangala-Kolarov. You wouldn't have got away with that eight months ago, when Zabaleta-Kompany-Demichelis-Clichy was the chosen barrier. Otamendi, a giant Argentinean with lop sided hair, seems to settle well, as he quickly shuts out Jenkinson, who will later have more cramp than a double marathon runner.

Goalkeeper Adrian turns up his fists to deny the lively Navas, whose smouldering unblinking eyes suggest a man on some kind of mission, as yet ill-defined. Adrian, meanwhile, is beginning to enjoy himself much more than his visit here in December 2013, when six Capital One Cup goals flew past his ears. He has since tightened up his game somewhat, as have the Hammers.

The time wasting continues. We are 25 minutes in. Bilic nods as his strategy -- one he has used before -- is put into practical action. City are way too slow to destabilise this West Ham anyway, playing it across, playing it wide, playing it back.

2-0 at Arsenal, 3-0 at Liverpool. Surely not again?

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” Hunter S. Thompson, with a word about refere Mr Madley.               

Sakho is flattened by Mangala, a brilliant block, as Aleksander Kolarov falls asleep again. His good start to the season, apparently thanks to the darting progress of Raheem Sterling in front of him, has been suddenly lost in the wind, perhaps as a result of Sterling's own problems. The ex-Liverpool man is ineffectual here, a shadow of the electric-heeled start to the season.

306 passes is double West Ham's total after 45 grinding minutes, but this has been of little use. West Ham have claimed a second and City just one, a De Bruyne shot as precise as that of Moses early on. De Bruyne and Melrose, twin red haired scorers, separated by 30 years and a broad expanse of skills. Only 22,000 of us watched Melrose's feat that September day and wondered why we had bothered. There are an incredible 30,000 more in the Etihad now, a stark reminder of where football has taken us all.

CITY 1 WEST HAM 2 HT -- 10 shots to 3, 66% possession
It is the first goal conceded away from home in the league by West Ham, but not everyone is satisfied
Half time wisdom comes from Blind Man Buff correspondent Duncan Castles on Twitter: "Not entirely sure De Bruyne caught that shot as well as he wanted to, but his team badly needed the goal." -

As Alex Shaw of ESPN retorts, "I think he wanted to smash it in the net, which is what he did...".

City start the second period like the 5:15 express bound to Santiago. We are treated to Twenty Minutes With Yaya Toure, who shaves the post twice and carries all before him almost like the old days. On days like this, sepia images of him bulleting through the middle ranks with a full set of Aston Villa players hanging off his surging shoulders spring to mind. What a player he could be before he had the cake and ate it.

85-86 Melrose gets his head on the end of a deflection. 2-2
The question is asked, "How many centre back partnerships can one team have before it becomes embarrassing" as the hole left by Mangala appears to have been filled by Martin Demichelis. His lack of hair does not hinder him and City are immediately more composed, thrashing into West Ham like there's no tomorrow. Bony is also on for the meak Sterling, but Navas, brave, blind or confused, continues down the right, with an absolute torrent of crosses straight into Reid's shins, which must look like the twin pillars of Corynth to the dashing Spaniard.

He will end the match with the bewildering stats of 2 successful crosses out of 18 attempted. It's not all about statistics of course, you could also see for yourself what he was up to.

City are in the Classic 442. Sadly City dont do classic 442, but it's there for perusal and visual enjoyment anyway, proud as punch, with Bony's muscles accompanying Aguero's oddly out of shape performance in a fox trot around ten visiting defenders.

Hammers captain Noble eventually tires of his own team's time wasting tactics and pulls the once more prone Jenkinson to his feet. How must the lumpy full back be feeling to have this visited upon him, infront of a live audience? The shame, the shame. Mr Trouser Suit, the pig-headed referee, has not a single gram of wit to tell the visitors to halt their time wasting. Noble of name and noble of nature is doing it for him, as City's captain - Yaya? - doesn't seem to be mentioning it in passing either. The rest of us are left to go bog-eyed with frustration, as the match turns into an exercise in growing old extremely fast.

City lose/Chelsea win; losing at home to West Ham is much more than that though. Losing at home to West Ham is like dropping an anvil on your foot and having to walk home in the driving rain. Its like being splashed by the last taxi on the streets when you still have 8 miles to go. Its like losing your front door key, climbing a tree to get in the upstairs window and slipping from your foothold. You end up swaying by your parka hood from the branches of a sycamore. And you stay there swinging until Carl Jenkinson's imaginery injuries have healed, one by tedious one.

Slaven Bilic in tie-less days of yore
Good luck to the new look, fit for purpose Hammers. They have often been supine opponents in the past and have defended doggedly here. City will not play another half like the one just finished without hitting the target, we all tell ourselves. Beaten by Juventus in a match that could have been won, beaten by West Ham in a match that should have been won. Good for the game but not for the nerves. And, as if that was not bad enough, the Blues follow that little lot up with an away game in the League Cup at Sunderland. That promises to be one for the collectors.

 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

TABLA MORAL WEEKS 2 - 4

Thanks to Down the Kippax Steps, Argentinean football magazine Sólo Fútbol's Tabla Moral - used in the 80s to reright football's wrongs - is enjoying a re-run in the 2015-16 Premier League. In it, we hope to highlight blatant wrongs, crass errors and large slices of injustice and rewrite the Premier League table along moral lines:

The opening weeks of the season have produced several lumpen performances from fancied sides but, despite some of the more precious managers' protestations, still little in the way of controversy.

Barring an odd refereeing performance on the opening day from new man Simon Hooper, who invented some of his very own Rules for Association Football to mark the occasion of his Premier League debut and Norwich City's return to top flight action, there have been few serious errors of judgement.

The last game of Matchday 2, however, did produce a sizeable problem. With Liverpool struggling to break down newcomers Bournemouth, playing their first ever Premier League away game in the daunting environment of a packed Anfield, Christian Benteke scored what seemed to be the winning goal.
The offside rule has been tweaked to supposedly clear up the grey area of when a player is interfering with play only for Bournemouth to find themselves the victim of a situation this was meant to avoid when Benteke scored Liverpool's winner.
- BBC sport website
Referee Craig Pawson ignored the fact that the new offside rules are now in use and waved away complaints that Philipe Coutinho, loitering with intent in front of the unsighted goalkeeper Artur Boruc, had even waved his leg at the ball as it sped past. As Alan Shearer tweated afterwards "It's the Kop End, so not offside!!". Pawson was later seen picking up his new copy of The Rules Updated from Anfield's back office.

Sadly for Liverpool enthusiasts the goal must be chalked off and, despite Benteke later hitting the woodwork, the reworked score at Anfield reads: Liverpool 0 Bournemouth 0. A day later in the Express, the Premier League was forced to agree that Pawson had made a bad call. Read the article here.
The only other contentious elements occurred in Manchester City's dismantling of Chelsea, where José Mourinho told the press that the result was fake. Citing Ramires' offside goal, the Portuguese was both right and wrong. The result was fake. Most onlookers were pretty sure it should have been several more than 3-0. However, he was also right to state that the Chelsea goal should have stood, as the wiry Brazilian was fractionally onside as the ball was played through, which means the corrected score at the Etihad reads: Manchester City 3 Chelsea 1.
Ramires begins his joyful celebration at the Etihad
Since then only Micah Richards' incredible open goal miss and Stoke's two red cards against West Brom have raised as much as an eyebrow, but neither instance had match or score-changing powers. Thus, the table after four games reads very much like this, with Norwich and Bournemouth the major early recipientes of Tabla Moral justice:
1. Manchester City             4    +9     12
2. Leicester City                 4    +3      8
3. Swansea City                  4    +3     8
4. Crystal Palace                 4    +1     7
5. Manchester United         4     +1     7
6. Arsenal                           4      -       7
7. West Ham                       4      3      6
8. Everton                           4      1      5
9. Southampton                   4      -      5
10 Bournemouth                 4      -       5
11 Norwich City                 4     -1      5
12 Liverpool                       4     -2      5
13 Aston Villa                    4      -1     4
14 Chelsea                          4      -2     4
15 West Brom                     4     -3     4
16 Tottenham                      4     -1     3
17 Watford                          4     -2     3
18 Stoke City                      4     -2     2
19 Newcastle United           4     -3     2
20 Sunderland                     4      -4    2

Other Tedious Stuff

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