Monday, February 29, 2016

GENTLEMEN


In a vivid, incredible parody of their own rickety history, laden as it is with belly-flops and custard pies, City won the League Cup in the only manner they, and indeed we, properly understand: with a liberal dose of high theatre, putting the watching masses through the wrangler. How to thrash a 40 year hoodoo into a pulp in two hours of enthralling cup football.

Of course, any City story worth its salt is going to be draped in comic book heroes and villains, unlikely men who step into the breach at the most ill-timed moments to cover themselves in glory or compost. From Beanie the Horse to Glauber Berti, from The Goat to Romark,  the years have been generously decorated with a most intriguing cast of saints, scoundrels, misfits and rapscallions.

Wilfredo Daniel Caballero Lazcano, gentleman Wilfredo, became the shiny-headed hero of this latest episode of What City Did Next, exactly a week after diving out of the way of three of Chelsea’s goals in the FA Cup. Forget not, however, in the chugging vortex of what had happened here, that his one bit of good judgment at the Bridge of Sighs was to save acrobatically from Oscar’s decent enough penalty. Cometh the man et cetera. Having already kept out Divock Origi’s untimely attempt to steal the cup from City’s ever-sweatier, ever-loosening grasp, Caballero transformed himself into the game’s central figure with a late masterclass of penalty saving. Three in total. Three in a row. Two to the left and one, elastically, amazingly, to the right.

And of course, in true stretch-the-realms-of-reality style, this could only be permitted to occur after Fernandinho had rolled City’s first effort against Mignolet’s left post, an act of only-City pathos  to render the ultimate triumph five long minutes later that little bit more draining for all who had to watch it unfold.

But then it was only the League Cup. I don't know what everyone was getting so worked up about.

Try telling anybody cavorting and thudding around in that heaving mass of humanity at the City end that this was the 4th choice pot. Adrenaline, disbelief and a raging sense of the ridiculous had most in ecstatic huddles as grown men and women threw themselves into each others’ arms. The toast of course, a blubbing Willy down on the pitch, being carted off on Wilfried Bonys’ broad shoulders even before his stuttering words could reach the tv viewers. The man who soared just as his City career was about to dive into loveless abandon.
The long walk

If the songs of war heading up the great Wembley ramparts before the game were of The Best Team in the Land and All the World, they had changed afterwards to hastily arranged ditties to greet the new hero. Manchester’s historic ability to turn the humdrum into a decent lyric was alive and kicking in London NW10. He was shite but now he’s alright.

But it was no one man show: Willy’s supporting cast was full of willing accomplices. Yaya Touré, suddenly energized in Kiev, again a monstrous thundering presence down the middle here, as he carved his way through Liverpool’s increasingly makeshift backline. A true man for all (big) occasions. The Elephant of Bondouku has contributed a Wembley semi final winner v United, the FA Cup final winner v Stoke, a crucial and wonderfully placed goal at Newcastle in the first title run in, the League Cup goal out of nothing against Sunderland and now the clinching penalty against Liverpool. Perhaps his only error all afternoon was to embark on a Nicky Weaver celebration, only to turn and see the rest of the squad had emptied itself all over the still stunned Caballero.

Then there was the slightly disheveled figure of Manuel Pellegrini himself, vindicated so wonderfully for taking the difficult decisions: to throw the dear old FA Cup to the four winds, to stay loyal to his second string keeper just seven days after he had done such an invigorating impersonation of Eike Immel under the guidance of Alan Ball. City’s first and possibly last cross-eyed keeper. 

Vindicated if vindication was needed. The Charming Man, the dignified one and now the man of his word. Stronger than the sword and certainly stronger here than the piffling matter of the 4th grade importance League Cup. Hats off to you, man of Chile, man of nerves and swerves. Hats off to you to come through this with your reputation intact, nay enhanced.

And Joe Hart, hugging the air out of the man that had just deprived him of playing in a Cup Final. The very same man, we learn, he has nurtured through the difficult moments, coached through the dark moments of self doubt and made sure it was possible to stand there and fill the goal confidently and capably with 86,000 pairs of eyes waiting and watching for your first fumble. A fumble that never came. 

David Silva's free kick sails over
Hart will have many more big days out but for the 34 year old serial reserve, this was the culmination of a dedicated career spent partly in the shadows, wholly without the jewelry of success. No wonder he was wiping away the tears.

Step forward too, Jesus Navas, who with Pablo Zabaleta had led a late onslaught towards the weak left side vacated by Alberto Moreno and by now being filled by James Milner, with Kolo Touré and Lucas filling in as best they could. Navas, the poor little Spanish kid who might never have made it out of Spain because of the debilitating bout of homesickness that had laid him low before. The winger that couldn’t find his bearings. Well here he was, standing tall for the critical second penalty after Fernandinho’s miss, firing home nervelessly, then giving the crowd an adrenaline-packed display of his spirit as he booted the ball towards where we were shouting ourselves hoarse on the third tier. The same ball that had to be retrieved. The same ball that returned to the pitch half way down the left side. The same ball that Philippe Coutinho had walked up to the spot without. The same ball he had to wait extra seconds to be reunited with, then dead-legged and unsure of himself, sent harmlessly into the waiting gloves of Willy. Come to Willy, my darling, Come to Willy.

As the fourth Liverpool penalty, struck well and to the goalkeeper’s right by Adam Lallana, still nursing a bruised neck from being heaved a foot off the floor by Touré, also found the same willing destiny as the others, it became clear that Caballero was indeed to be the headline-maker, but not in a way that many could have anticipated. We should, of course, have known much better than to doubt the powers of Manchester City to confound us all and we should have known better also than to doubt the gloved gentleman of Santa Elena and his boss, the wise old gentleman of Santiago.

Then there was the captain, who has transformed City's defence back into a viable unit, simultaneously changing Nicolas Otamendi from a whirling dervish into solid block and tackle. As you would expect from Manuel Pellegrini, the side's figurehead on the pitch is also a man of empathy and humanity. As his team mates began the rush from the halfway line to free Willy from his lonely vigil at the end of the penalties, Kompany lingered just long enough to commiserate with the losing players. A typically gentlemanly gesture in the midst of all the streamers and wailing.

So, the good guys do win after all. You can stick to your principles and still come out alive. You can live your life in the shadows and still come out into the sunlight before all is too late. Football is not as important as keeping your word, but sometimes it comes pretty close..  




Saturday, February 27, 2016

SACHIN NAKRANI ON CITY - LIVERPOOL

David White cracks his shot past Gary Ablett in 1991-92 at Maine Road
The Guardian's Sachin Nakrani, not afraid to nail his Liverpool colours to the mast in a job where there are plenty of people lining up to accuse journalists of perceived bias, answers some questions pre-League Cup Final. 

DTKS- What are your earliest memories of Liverpool v City? I bet it's of a stonking win. 

SN - I have a vague memory of a league game early on in the 1991/92 season. It stands out because, I think, it was the match in which Dean Saunders and Mark Wright made their debuts for Liverpool having arrived that summer from Derby County. Saunders was our record signing at £2.9m - yes kids, £2.9m - so him playing in a red shirt was an event. It was a midweek game and wasn't live on the telly. And I can't recollect the score. In my defence, I was 10 at the time. 

DTKS - Well, Sachin, we need few excuses to help you with the scoreline, as victories over Liverpool are as rare as hen's teeth. 2-1 to City on that occasion. Moving swiftly on, do Liverpool fans view the relationship the same as City's supporters do - ie that Liverpool have a strong, seemingly unbreakable 40 year hoodoo over the Blues (with the exception of the game you helpfully reminded us of and a paltry handful of others)?

SN - In my 27 years supporting Liverpool we have beaten City a fair bit. Largely that's because however poor we've been, City have been worse, no more so than in October 1995 when the Reds gave Alan Ball's Blues a 6-0 pasting at Anfield. What's slightly strange is that post-Mansour takeover, Liverpool have still managed to do rather well against City, especially at Anfield. So yes, there does seem to be some sort of hoodoo there, but given City's strength in depth and the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola, I'm sure they'll win in L4 sooner rather than later.

DTKS - Congrats on the highly deserved Guardian award the other night (Guardian Sport picked up the SJA website of the year, whilst Daniel Taylor was awarded the journalist of the year gong). The football and indeed sports writing of the whole team is always top notch and - almost always - without obvious bias, as it should be. At the same time, you nail your Liverpool colours quite happily to the mast, whilst some of your Guardian colleagues do not openly support a team. What's the balance in the office? We know of obvious Forest and Everton men, and a high suspicion that Jamie Jackson is a little fond of United, but what about the rest?

SN - On the editing/commissioning desk, where I mainly work, there's a real spread; couple of Liverpool supporters, an Evertonian, a Man United fan, as well as followers of Celtic, Plymouth, Barnet, Leicester, Tranmere, Hereford FC and West Ham. So the idea that we're all sitting around looking to be horrible to one club simply isn't true, as I'm sure is the case at other national newspapers. Yes, the mainstream media do focus heavily on the big clubs, but that's because they're the ones most readers are interested in. 

And yes, I am very open about who I support, but that's because I passionately feel just because somebody works as a football journalist that doesn't mean they should hide who they support, particularly if it doesn't impinge on their work, which I feel is the case with myself. And in regards to Jamie - he's not a United fan, honest!

DTKS - That'll take some time for certain people to digest. Klopmania: still in full swing or slightly stalled?

When Liverpool had a classy keeper. 1981 LC s/f
SN - Oh it's in full swing alright, with lots and lots of Reds still madly in love with the mad German. I've keen on him too but have never gone all giddy, partly because I actually want him to prove himself before I hail him as the Messiah. So far Klopp has done well - a 7/10 - and of course the pedigree is there to suggest he will be a success at Anfield. But it's a big old job and I think that's something the manager himself has realised in the four months since he arrived at the club. 

DTKS - What does he need to do to the squad in the summer when he gets his first chance to tinker?

SN - Buy a goalkeeper who can actually save shots and kick the ball properly. That's an absolute priority. A commanding centre half and a decent striker to replace Christian Benteke, who clearly has no future at Liverpool, would also be nice. 

DTKS - Where can the two sides hurt each other at the weekend?

SN - Red or Blue, shoot on target - this will undoubtedly lead to goals as both teams have terrible goalkeepers (on the basis Manuel Pellegrini sticks to his word and plays Willy Caballero). That aside, it's important Liverpool start quickly and confidently, press City back and take their chances - in other words, how they performed in the 4-1 win at the Etihad in November. It's obvious City don't like it when teams put pressure on them and this is something Liverpool have become increasingly good at under Jurgen Klopp. From City's point of view, attacking Alberto Moreno is a good idea as he has the ability to be utterly brainless at left-back. Oh and stick loads of crosses into the area, we hate that.

DTKS - Are you on duty or will you be raging in the stands with the rest of us?

SN - I'll be in the stands for what will be only my second time watching Liverpool at Wembley as a punter, with the previous occasion being last year's shocking FA Cup semi-final loss to Aston Villa. I'm rather excited, partly because I was raised near Wembley (in Kingsbury) so seeing my team play there alway feels like a really special occasion. I'll probably pop into my parents' afterwards for a brew.

DTKS - Liverpool are the record League Cup winners. What would it mean to win it again, as it is the "other trophies" that have constantly escaped the club and not this one so much? 

SN - It would mean a huge amount to win on Sunday - the club's first trophy in four years and Jurgen Klopp's first as manager. It would signal the start of a new era and give the players a real belief/confidence that they can achieve great things with the club. Losing wouldn't be a disaster given the quality of the opposition but, for the same reason, winning would be huge.

DTKS - Your prediction for the game's flow and outcome?


SN - I think Liverpool will start brightly and score first. City will definitely score themselves and then, hopefully, the Reds will go on to get a winner. It feels written that Daniel Sturridge will play a key role on Sunday, providing he's fit of course. I just hope there is no extra time as due to Sky Sports' typical meddling with the kick-off time, the match is starting much later than it normally would and there are lots of supporters from both sides who need to get back to the north. 

DTKS - Thanks for your time, Sachin. All the best ... against United in the Europa League.

You can follow Sachin on Twitter here and see regular input from him on the Guardian's excellent football pages here

Random fate-tempting City/Liverpool final image

Thursday, February 25, 2016

HITTING THE GOLDEN GATE

A magnificent night’s football in Kiev saw City match the score and performance in Seville before Christmas. These two away games in the Champions League now represent City’s best performances of a patchy, undulating season that has threatened to clank into action so many times it looks like a Hillman Hunter.

Manuel Pellegrini was entirely vindicated for resting his main players last weekend against Chelsea with a performance on this occasion of power, drive, control and efficiency. Apart from a period early in the second half when City allowed control of the game’s flow to change hands, the away side came up with all the answers.

Dynamo, who had kept match fit with a string of friendlies during the Ukrainian winter break, could have done little more to prepare themselves for an onslaught of this kind. City were just too hot to handle.

Pellegrini pulled a rabbit out of the hat starting Fernandinho wide right. It soon became apparent that this was a masterstroke on several levels. With the Brazilian’s lung power and willingness to slide inside and dig in with the others, City had a solid block of four, sometimes five that Dynamo’s middle orders could not cope with.It moved up, down and across the field as a resolute and cohesive unit that the home side found impossible to deal with.

High foraging allowed City to gain possession on numerous occasions from their hassled opponents deep in enemy territory. Manager Sergei Rebrov became so frustrated by City’s stranglehold that he was forced into a very early change, taking off swamped midfield hope Denys Garmash and replacing him with the more robust Miguel Veloso.

By this time it had become apparent that City had taken to the air. Raheem Sterling, in the midst of one of his most impressive nights of football in a City shirt, was liberated on the left thanks to Fernandinho’s solid presence on the right. With Fernando finally showing us exactly what he could do, the stomping presence of Yaya Toure further forward was also paying great dividends.

At the back the usual robust approach from Nicolas Otamendi looked suddenly more like controlled power than a juggernaut with the brakes failing. Thanks to the imperious presence of Vincent
Yaya strolls through the Dynamo defence
Kompany alongside him, the Argentinean was having an absolute ball. Even when his towering header fell outside the box to Buyalskiy, Otamendi was unlucky to see the resulting shot flip in off his shins for 1-2. 

The cornerstones to City’s total tactical success over Dynamo were thus laid. Solid through the middle, thanks to the Kompany-Otamendi axis and the brilliant shoplifting of Fernando, with Sterling and Yaya menacing in every attack. As if that was not enough, the two forward elements not yet mentioned – those that would have been the biggest concern to Dynamo beforehand – were also doing a fine job, with Silva’s pirouettes and Aguero’s surging forward runs pulling the craggy Vida and Dragovic all over the place. The long haired Vida appeared to be spluttering and cursing his way through an exasperating midfield experience. 

Aguero’s finishing brought him a single goal, which should properly have been tripled by the end. Penalty shouts went begging and Fernando was close with a header too. When Yaya bent in a magnificent third from Fernandinho’s perfect wall pass through the Dynamo defence, the curtain came down on an outstanding City display. With the second goal also a poetic cocktail of flicks and one-touch passes, right the way through to  it reaching the stretched right boot of David Silva at the far post, all had been delivered in just the manner requested.


Pellegrini, still unbent from the hail of criticism afforded him over the weekend, could allow himself a wry smile. In a season of stuttering false starts, League Cup final opponents Liverpool will be hoping that this is merely more of the same, rather than the beginnings of a typically robust sprint for the 2015-16 finishing line. With plenty of time to go and the team showing itself suddenly so capable of fluidity and composure beyond the humdrum contents of the season up to now, that little shiver of optimism you are feeling in your bones right now need not be out of place. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

OF GRASS AND GRIT

"Ees what you have?!"
Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering The Zone. The Edge. The edge of the zone, at the very least. Please close the door as you come through, because there’s a bit of a draft in here.

Champions League. Dynamo Kiev, away. Swollen glands, clammy hands, weeping eyes. Throw in some grass allergies, an urgent need for signs of life and let’s get cooking.

Indulging today’s pampered superstars can sometimes leave you with puffy cheeks and streaming eyes. Cheeks were certainly being puffed out and a few eyes may have shed a tear of frustration at the weekend when City forewent their opportunity to plough on towards a third FA Cup final in six years. Fat faces and waterworks were also on the agenda when City last bestrode Ukrainian ground, in 2010-11.

On that occasion, Mario Balotelli, the one soul over recent years at City who needed the kid gloves most frequently, developed his infamous allergy to grass.

Almost exactly 5 years ago, City had been drawn against Dynamo Kiev in the round of 16 of the 2010-11 edition of the Europa League. Hard work had been made of a group phase that involved Juventus, Lech Poznan and Red Bull Salzburg, with City well beaten in Poland but coming back with a neat new dance instead. Doing the Poznan may have annoyed and bewildered opposition fans in equal amounts, but its visual impact in the FA Cup semi final with Manchester United later that same season would be epic.  

City had struggled past the wall of pyrotechnics at Aris Thessaloniki in the first knock-out round to reach a last 32 encounter with Kiev. Roberto Mancini’s continuing indulgence of the wayward Balotelli would eventually cost the club further advancement in the tournament, as the Italian went on a one-man campaign of destruction.

In freezing conditions, with the normally suave Italian boss looking like a farmhand in his woolly
Kiev go two-up through Gusev
bobble hat, City conceded after 23 minutes when Yarmelenko’s teasing cross was knocked in by European veteran Andrei Shevchenko, lunging at the ball ahead of a hesitant dive from Joe Hart on the rock hard pitch. After his patchy spell in London at Chelsea, the old master certainly looked back to his best in the familiar surroundings of where he had grown up as a wide-eyed ball boy in Oleh Blokhin's time. 

Two minutes into the second half, Balotelli had not yet emerged from the tunnel to join his team mates, who were forced into the slightly unusual manoeuvre of playing on without him. This in itself was something of an innovation from the Italian, but what was to come next beat that into a cocked hat. Ambling down the touchline clasping his face and shaking his head, Balotelli arrived pitchside, followed by a gesticulating Roberto Mancini (nothing new there) and an entourage of sponge-wielding gofers, all staring intently at the apparently distressed player.

You could not, as the saying goes, have made it up. Mancini, spitting feathers and whirling his eyes, spluttered the near-iambic pentameter,   “He had an allergy. I don’t know what. His face was swollen. I don’t know why,” Without adding his well worn catch phrase “ees normal”, it was as close to poetry as anyone in the City camp had managed all night.

Balotelli played on, looking even more bewildered than normal. 

A late strike from Oleh Gusev, sneaking in ahead of a dithering Micah Richards, transformed the second leg prospects from sprightly to slightly lame.


DYNAMO KIEV 2 CITY 0
Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg
10th March 2011   Attendance 16,900


CITY 1 DYNAMO KIEV 0
Europa League Round of 16 2nd Leg
17th March 2011  Attendance 27,816


"I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head. There are different ways to help a guy like Mario. I don't speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist...” – Roberto Mancini

Kolarov brings City back into the tie at Eastlands
Having helped put a hole in the ship in the first leg, Balotelli sunk the whole shebang without trace in the return. Fans arriving early might have had a slight inkling that all was not well when he failed to get into a succession of bibs during the warm-up. On top of his problems in the first leg, the penny was beginning to drop that Mancini had recruited an authentic free-thinker.


City had just beaten Reading in the FA Cup quarter final to secure a first semi final (against United) since 1981 and entered the second leg with confidence rising and a tide of good form in the league that would eventually carry them to 3rd place and a first ever Champions League qualification. 

With a six pm kick off restricting the number of fans who could get to the ground on time, City hit the ground running and were a goal up through Aleksandar Kolarov's well placed left footer, when disaster and Mario Balotelli struck again. The Italian had already scooped a shot over the bar from 3 yards out when the mists of frustration descended and he planted a boot into Goran Popov's chest. Referee Cüneyt Çakir, in charge at the Emirates for last night's Arsenal-Barcelona game, had little choice but to remove Balotelli from the fray, puncturing City's optimistic prancing with one dramatic flourish of his little red card. 

Ciao, Mario
With a man less, City were unable to bring further discomfort to the Dynamo backline, even with Tevez, Dzeko and Adam Johnson by now in tandem. A long trail through Europe that had started in Romania in August had come once more to an unsatisfactory conclusion. It would not quite be the last City saw of the Europa League, but it would be remembered for the high antics of one of City's most oddball players in recent generations.






Monday, February 22, 2016

AND THEN THERE WERE THREE

“And City are the first team ever to still be in four competitions going into February”

This was yet another of those moments on Twitter where you sit there thinking, “that can’t be right”. It had been blurted out excitedly after the FA Cup demolition of Aston Villa in the 4th round. The purveyor of the news probably meant well. I thought, but…

Although that four-pronged pursuit has now had its FA Cup prong well and truly removed, thanks to Manuel Pellegrini's sudden interest in the club's youth policy, it still sounded a little far-fetched, so I thought I’d take a little look. 

The research is not exhaustive, but it takes in all the major trophy winners of the modern era in probably their most successful seasons: Leeds United under Don Revie in 1973-74, Bob Paisley’s all conquering Liverpool team of 1977, Ipswich Town under Bobby Robson in 1980-81, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United treble winners of 1999,  the Arsenal Invincibles side of 2003-04.

The yardsticks are obvious. What we are looking for is not the most successful, otherwise that great but under-rewarded Ipswich side would not make the cut. These are all sides that were famously fighting on multiple fronts in the seasons quoted. The comparison, then, is with this season’s Manchester City, still very much involved in the title race almost despite themselves, awaiting Liverpool in the League Cup final and through to the Round of 16 of the Champions League against Dynamo Kiev. 

City's departure from the 5th round of the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge meant they were in all four competitions until 21st February. Can any side beat that?

Let’s take the contenders in chronological order. It will soon become obvious that it is the League Cup – a trophy that City have historically paid quite a bit of close attention to - that has often been the stumbling block:

1.    LEEDS UNITED, SEASON 1973-74


This was a season where Leeds raced away with the league. They were already 7 points clear of Liverpool by December 15th and would hold more or less the same lead right through to the end of the season. Some stuttering results towards the end meant the final margin over Liverpool closed to 5 points. Leeds would advance to the 5th round of the FA Cup, before losing surprisingly to 2nd division Bristol City in an Elland Road replay. They had been to the previous two finals in fact, losing to Sunderland in 1973 and beating Arsenal in a dull affair in 1972.

Leeds would go all the way in the European Cup the following season, losing to Bayern controversially in a Parc des Princes final liberally decorated with airborne seats, but on this occasion -operating in the UEFA Cup - they struggled past Hibernian on penalties, then went out to Vitoria de Setubal 3-2 on aggregate in the 3rd round, on 12th December 1973. 

With the FA Cup run not finishing until 19th February, their domestic three pronged attack depends on Leeds’ performance in the League Cup and here they also came unstuck.

The Yorkshire side had already been knocked out 2-0 by Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town as early as the 2nd round, on 8th October to be precise, meaning, by the time they reached February, they were fighting on only two fronts. 

2.    LIVERPOOL, SEASON 1976-77

Crucial Anfield fixture between Liverpool and City helps Paisley's side towards the title
Bob Paisley had taken over from Bill Shankly and was busy doing an even better job at Anfield by the mid-70s. 76-77 was famously the season, which found Liverpool chasing the fabled Treble of League, FA Cup and European Cup and, by late April, they were indeed on the point of scooping the lot. Much talk surrounded the possibility that tiredness and the heavy concentration of crucial games would do for them, but they kept ticking them off one by one. With City fighting them all the way in the league, the title went to Anfield by a slender one point margin. With that matter settled, Liverpool found themselves facing two finals in five days with the FA Cup final at Wembley against Manchester United on the Saturday and the European Cup final in Rome against German champions Borussia Monchengladbach the following midweek.

Paisley’s men lost to a robust United side at Wembley, the winner coming from a scuffed shot from Jimmy Greenhoff that glanced off Lou Macari’s chest seconds after Jimmy Case had equalized Stuart Pearson’s opener. With dreams of the Treble shattered. Liverpool went on to win in Rome, lifting the European Cup for the first time. To add to their incredible haul, they had also beaten Southampton 1-0 in the Charity Shield opener at Wembley the previous August, but once again it was the League Cup that let them down. As early as September, West Brom had turfed Paisley’s side out of the competition, meaning that, by February, they were fighting on just three fronts, like Leeds had before them. 

3.    IPSWICH TOWN, SEASON 1980-81

Players wait to kick off for the second half of extra time in the 1981 FA Cup semi final, after Power's goal for City
Ipswich Town are undoubtedly the poor cousins in present company as they ended up winning the least of the lot, despite coming into the pointy end of the season in contention on several fronts.

With tiredness and injuries getting the better of a smallish squad, Ipswich entered April fighting Aston Villa neck and neck for the title, about to face City in the semi-final of the FA Cup and up against IFC Köln in the semi finals of the UEFA Cup. They eventually trailed in 2nd to Villa and lost to City in a tense Villa Park semi final, but beat Cologne and went on to score freely in the two-legged final v AZ67 of Alkmaar to take the UEFA Cup, the club’s only continental triumph.

Despite the disappointments, then, Ipswich were still firing on three fronts going into April. Once again the League Cup let them down that season, however, being eliminated in the 4th round by Birmingham City as early as 28th October. 

4.    EVERTON, SEASON 1984-85

Howard Kendall with Trevor Steven and Kevin Ratcliffe
Having turned Everton’s dismal fortunes around in the early 80s, Howard Kendall set about doing quite a lot more than that in 84-85. Winning the Charity Shield against Liverpool in August, they set off on a league campaign that would end with the club fully 13 points clear of nearest challengers Liverpool and Tottenham come May. In that same month Everton were due to play Manchester United in the FA Cup final and Rapid Wien in Rotterdam for the Cup Winners’ Cup.

The final at Wembley was lost to a solitary Norman Whiteside goal but Rotterdam 1985 will for ever be remembered as a graceful triumph in European competition for Kendall’s pacy side. Again the League Cup becomes the focus and, despite being beaten finalists the year before, Everton exited this time in November at Grimsby Town, of all places.
Therefore, despite a great burst through to two finals and a runaway title win, the League Cup again scuppered chances.

5.    MANCHESTER UNITED, SEASON 1998-99

Tarnat and Matthäus in Barcelona
Alex Ferguson’s treble winners swept all before them this season and clearly, as winners of three trophies, were fighting a three-pronged attack right through to May, where they ended up league champions a point ahead of Arsenal, winners of the FA Cup in a 2-0 victory over a stage-struck Newcastle United and claimed the European Cup in that climactic finish v Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

United had participated in the Charity Shield that August too, but had been beaten convincingly (0-3) by Arsenal. Again the League Cup proved the stumbling block, with a 5th round exit to Tottenham dropping them out of contention before the end of the year. 

6.    ARSENAL, SEASON 2003-04

Arsenal pay an early season visit to Manchester.
The famous Invincibles side went through the entire league campaign unbeaten and went as far as the FA Cup semi final before bowing out to Manchester United and Ryan Giggs’s unfeasibly hairy chest. The title eventually came to Highbury with a comfortable 11 point gap over second placed Chelsea meaning it was sealed with a week or two to spare.

In Europe too things were firing on all cylinders as they made it past Celta Vigo to feature in an all-English quarter final with Chelsea. With the first leg drawn at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal went out with a home defeat to their rivals but had made it through to April on that front.

Despite the mighty showing of that side, once again the League Cup was the black sheep, with a semi final defeat in that competition to Middlesbrough on 3rd February, meaning they made it to February fighting on all four fronts, but not past 3rd of the month. Technically a success in the parametres we are using, but by three days only and not matching City's own exit on 21st February. 

There was one other team I wanted to look at: Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Not the Forest side that terrorized all-comers in winning the Division One title straight out of the 2nd division, a feat never achieved since, but the season after, when they lifted the first of their two consecutive European Cups:

7.    NOTTINGHAM FOREST, SEASON 1978-79

Forest start with the League Cup in 1979
That European Cup final final in Munich, won against a stubborn but lifeless Malmo side, was the second trophy of a wonderful season for Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s men. In the spring they had carried off the League Cup, beating Southampton 3-2 in a thrilling Wembley final, thus burying the League Cup bogey that seems to have effected all the other challengers to the 4-in-February target.

Although they fell short in the league, finishing 2nd to Liverpool, they were only 5 points behind and were still in contention going into February and beyond. This means that Forest’s FA Cup run of 1978-79 becomes all-important and, indeed, they did not leave that competition until a home defeat by Arsenal in the 4th round at the end of February. Having also carried off the Charity Shield 5-0 v. Ipswich that August, Forest were still fighting on all four fronts coming into February and indeed almost to the end of the month. 

Summary:
Leeds United 1973-74 League title
Liverpool 1976-77 League title, European Cup and FA Cup runners-up
Ipswich Town 1980-81 UEFA Cup winners, runners-up in the League
Everton 1984-85 League title, European Cup Winners Cup and FA Cup runners-up
Manchester United 1998-99 Double winners, Champions League
Arsenal 2003-04 Premier League winners
Nottingham Forest 1978-79 League Cup and European Cup winners, League runners-up

Thus, Manuel Pellegrini’s last season in charge can still end the most memorable of his three in Manchester, but the walls are beginning to close in. His City side have done remarkably well to overcome so many injuries to key personnel and make it this far in tact. Without really convincing, they are still in with a shout on three fronts. If that figure remains the same over the next ten days or so, there might be room for celebration yet.

The summary points out one very significant difference that City in their present clothing may well fall short on, however. All these great sides not only attacked on multiple fronts deep into the seasons in question, but, crucially, also won at least one trophy, several won two and, in United's case, three. It is all very well measuring progress in this way - and to some extent - it reveals some staying power, but the next few weeks will decide whether this City side can join these multiple trophy winners in annals of fame or leave a failed legacy in the sweaty hands of their outgoing manager.  

Saturday, February 13, 2016

THE DAY IT RAINED GOALS

 
Brian Horton: unheralded advocate of all-out attack
“This was a throwback to how the game used to be played,” chirruped John Motson on Match of the Day that night, as Maine Road stood and clapped to a man. For those lucky enough to have been in the ground earlier that day (Maine Road’s changing face under Frannie Lee’s chairmanship had meant the capacity had been severely reduced owing to the rebuilding of the Kippax), it would be a game that would live long in the memory.

It was 1994-95 and City and Spurs had just put on a show of footballing skills that had carried everyone beyond the murky wet Manchester day that was busy enveloping everything outside the old stadium.  

For 90 fascinating minutes Spurs, intent on attack under the slightly misguided and open hand of Osvaldo Ardiles, had stood toe-to-toe with a City side set up in cavalier formation by Brian Horton. Both managers would be gone from their jobs by the end of the season, but on this soaking wet October afternoon, they revealed their passion for entertaining, sweeping, fantasy football.

In many ways it was a microcosm of the world the two clubs had always inhabited and still inhabit today: fresh clean attacking football, the power of the aesthetically pleasing and the will to win 4-3 every time instead of 1-0. 

It is a philosophy that has served both clubs well but also hampered their ambitions down the years, making them cup specialists in Spurs’ case and often a meandering laughing stock in City’s case, but it nevertheless starkly represents the approach the two clubs have brought to the game for many decades.

Spurs under Osvaldo Ardiles were as committed to attack as City under Brian Horton and this particular match proved to be a monument to the respective managers’ attacking principles. Sensibly or not, the little Argentinean had set his side up to gain maximum exposure for a strike force of Teddy Sherringham, Jurgen Klinsmann Ilie Dumitrescu and Jason Dozzell. With Barmby, Popescu and Hazard, the side was heavily tilted towards creativity. Likewise, City managed to field a lop-sided looking team including Paul Walsh, Niall Quinn, Peter Beagrie and Nicky Summerbee. The stage was set for a difficult afternoon for the few defenders left. 

In unrelenting rain, the ebb and flow of the first half produced four goals and a welter of other untaken chances.

City struck first as a right wing cross was half cut out by a young, raw and awkward-looking  Sol Campbell after 15 minutes, but, as the defender lost his bearings, that will-o-the-whisp goal poacher Walsh nipped in and tucked the ball away low to ‘keeper Ian Walker’s left hand side.

Spurs were busy weaving intricate patterns through midfield and one of the more incisive of these allowed Klinsmann, all flying arms and legs,  to slip past the City defence, where he was unceremoniously upended by Andy Dibble (see pic below). Dibble had been sent off the week before for a similar kamikaze manoeuvre on QPR’s Les Ferdinand at Loftus Road. The goalkeeper, always prone to rushes of blood to the head – none more so than the infamous occasion when he had blithely held the ball out with one hand at the City Ground, Nottingham, in order to launch a counter attack, but had not looked behind him, where the lurking Gary Crosby nodded it out of his palm and scored impishly. That was a Dibble mistake that had almost caused Howard Kendall to combust on the touchline.



On this occasion his rash keeping resulted only in a yellow card and Dumitrescu, the wonderfully balanced Romanian forward, slotted the low penalty away easily for 1-1 as the North Stand continued to rage at the German’s trademark balletic dive over Dibble’s legs.

Before the break City had tied the game up, however, and went in three-one up thanks to the unheralded wing-play of Summerbee – still trying to shake off the stigma of twenty-five thousand people comparing him to his father- and, in particular, Beagrie.

First Summerbee’s searching right wing cross was headed goalwards by Paul Walsh, only for Walker to parry his effort out to Niall Quinn. The lanky Irishman nodded home from a prone position, risking injury from Kevin Scott’s wildly flailing boot. Then Beagrie skipped effortlessly past two defenders on the left in a piece of dynamic skill that he often revealed during that season of goals and intricate wingplay, motored over the half-way line and passed inside to Quinn, who moved the ball on in one movement to the incoming Walsh. The momentum of his shot carried the ball into the net after Walker’s half save.

With the crowd – and John Motson – buzzing, the half time whistle came as a rude intrusion on a superb spell of open football. Tottenham had contributed royally to the Ballet in the Rain but had been royally punished for their openness and willingness to commit so many to attack.

The two sides resumed this pleasing ebb and flow immediately after the break, as if both managers had expressed delight in what they had been watching. No closing the game down, no moving a hulking presence into central midfield. As you were. Back on the attack. After 46 minutes Dumitrescu rolled in a second Spurs goal from Klinsmann’s clever back heel and the game was back on a knife-edge once again. City charged back into attack and, with Walsh weaving in and out on the left and Beagrie tormenting the Tottenham rearguard, the Blues managed to plunder two more goals. Beagrie’s run and cross was headed home by Walsh and then Walsh himself set up Flitcroft for the fifth.

More chances came and went but by this time the crowd was simply lapping up the one touch football and basking in a performance that would warm the wet souls in their Kippax packamacs on the way home (there was no roof at this stage). Although Brian Horton’s side would never quite reach these heights again, a swashbuckling 4-3 win at QPR in the League Cup followed the Spurs win with peter Beagrie again lighting up a game with his astonishing mix of speed and skill.

Andy Dibble prepares himself for action
These days of footloose attack couldn’t last, however. Within a month, Horton’s honeymoon was beginning to end as City were larruped 5-0 at Old Trafford and by the time the clubs met again at White Hart Lane in the spring, all memories of this sumptuous encounter had been forgotten.

With City on a pitiful run of two wins from 18 and the Sheringham-Klinsmann-Anderton-Dumitrescu-Popescu-Barmby dream crumbling, a 2-1 Spurs win left City in relegation trouble and Spurs in midfield. A 4-1 thrashing by Everton in the FA Cup semi final would put the lid on the Londoners season while City struggled clear of the drop thanks to miraculous wins over Liverpool and at Ewood Park against champions-elect Blackburn Rovers.

Horton and Ardiles would be consigned to the manager’s bin, a brief stay in the limelight typified by the Ballet in the Rain on the day the attacking never stopped.

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