Tuesday, March 22, 2016

ENGINEERING YOUR OWN DOWNFALL

Music, maestro, please.
In the swirling vortex of cussing and name-calling, Mama was crying salty tears. There was no calming her. Her shoulders were shuddering. She was pouting like a small child, her red eyes protruding. Her cheeks glistened. "It's over," she screamed. "It's over. I'm not paying sixty quid for Paris St Germain after that."


*** 
  
Football has a funny effect on people. The fall-out from a Manchester derby willfully thrown to the wind will be clear to us all soon enough. With the title long gone and ever-more injuries making Champions League progress look less and less likely, City's 2015-16 season is running rapidly out of oxygen.

The footnote is already being written to a season of missed opportunities. Rumoured walk-outs over ticket pricing, anger and dismay at Manuel Pellegrini's limping finish to a three year stint in Manchester, incredulity at team selection and performance, there has been something for each and every one of us to get our teeth into.

A season that has witnessed a 4th League Cup win and the club's first ever breakthrough to the last eight of the Champions League a failure? Only City.

Indeed it is fair to use the "F" word in a variety of contexts: The medical staff have failed to keep the players free from the most dramatic list of injuries seen at the club since the Battle of the Bulge. The manager has failed to build on the promise of a swashbuckling start to his career in Manchester. The big-name players have failed to live up to their swollen reputations. The upper management has failed to keep the squad-strengthening going in the right direction at anything approaching regular pace.

The central theme for this 2015-16 season as it continues to crumble before our eyes will be writ large come May: across the board failure to live up to expectations.

***

Let us start with the manager, Manuel Pellegrini. The Engineer is now busy presiding over a dismantling process. The Charming Man has turned into a sour apologist, unwilling to answer anything bar trivialities in press conference. Exchanges both threadbare and facile. "That is football" and "You can't win all the time" witticisms so shallow a herring would run aground. Is that all we get? How such a squad can end up in a three-way fight with West Ham and the worst Manchester United side in a generation to avoid taking part in the next edition of the Europa League deserves a touch more depth.

Cast your mind back to the Chilean's inaugural season in the Premier League, a season that contained so much attacking football, so many goals, so many examples of cocksure exuberance, carefree exploitation of others' frailties, that it fair took the breath away. Aperitifs were in full swing. Shapely helpers were arriving with trays of carefully arranged duck eggs and improbably sculpted meringues. The party looked set to rip. We were startled, then delighted with our new experience. There was an urge to put on wide hats and shake one's hips about. The music in our ears might have come from Havana or New Orleans. Today it looks like a freak blip, served up by a man wearing a false beard.

Perhaps the first signs of management decision-making going awry came in that first season with an
unnecessary injury to Alvaro Negredo, a striker who had been scoring for fun, injured in the second leg of the League Cup semi final against West Ham at Upton Park, a match he did not need to be palying in. City had romped the first leg 6-0. Negredo - an astonishing, rampaging presence in the City attack up to the turn of the year - was never the same again and ended up being hastily bandaged and shipped out to Valencia.

Maybe then the question should have been asked how such a rampant figurehead could be leaving the club in such a shadowy, dishevelled state.

This is mirrored now at the other end of the team by the immediate overuse of Vincent Kompany and the over-reliance on certain other players. Straight out of the latest of a long line of muscle pulls, the captain was thrown into a punishing run of games that resulted in yet another mishap. If he was needed that badly, what is to be said of the processes within the club that left us with such a panicky scenario in central defence. Nicolas Otamendi and, to a greater extent, Eliaquim Mangala - the most expensive lumberjack partnership in Premier League history - looked ill-equipped for the job. Martin Demichelis, it has long been apparent, has been kept on a year beyond his waning powers could cope with. It did not take a catastrophic performance in the derby that recalled so vividly the restoration comedy acts Michael Frontzeck, Ken McNaught, Paul Beesley and TonyVaughan to inform us of that.

For a player who had once been reliable to be subjected to this ridicule at the end of his stint at City was down wholly to the manager's insistence on playing him when he was patently no longer up to it.

Jason Denayer is, of course, nowhere to be seen, having been propelled out on loan to the dusty eastern edges of the continent. Along with other promising kids, his time appears never to be quite upon us. When the youngsters did finally get a look-in, it was in extremis and en bloc at Chelsea in the Cup, resulting in a soul-destroying and confidence-draining drubbing before a live global audience on television. Tosin Adarabioyo, a central defender who had already coped comfortably with Marcus Rashford in youth team matches, showed up well enough amid the rubble of  Stamford Bridge but was overlooked for the elder statesman in the derby, when all that was needed was a fresh pair of legs that could keep pace with the inexperienced United youngsters. In the end Rashford needed to do little more than run straight at Demichelis at speed to create the necessary havoc.

The situation that has brought us Mangala and Otamendi comes from the purchasing department, otherwise known as Txiki Begiristain. The Basque's record in signing the right player at the right time for City is some way east of patchy. Pellegrini's input in this area is unknown. Presumably he has a sizeable say in what happens but it is not entirely his remit. The paralysing FFP sanctions levied by UEFA also took their toll on the middle part of Pellegrini's reign, blocking any proper squad building to follow on from his initial triumphs in 2013-14. That was made clear when Bruno Zuculini zoomed in and wandered back out again.

Meanwhile, the squad has also been allowed to age and deteriorate. All the major players bar Sergio Aguero have been kept on despite gradually fading powers. Yaya Toure, an absolute monster in this club's glory years, is now reduced to one powerful performance in six, if that. Whatever one might think about his choice of agent, or his apparently endless yearning for public acclaim, the man has been an untouchable giant in the club's surge into the sunshine and should not be finishing his time out of position in a side going gently through the motions.

David Silva is another one turning heads. The little Spaniard has not had a match all season to compare with the quicksilver that every single follower of the club would recognise. For over six years he has been the well-greased fulcrum for everything creative in that City engine room. Against Manchester United he capped a performance that was bereft of meaningful contribution. The simplest sideways ball patted into touch. The through balls he would thread ten times a game utterly absent. In their place arm-waving, shoulder-shrugging and looks of bitter frustration.

The mind drifts back to those sun-drenched days when a blind reverse volleyed pass over 50 yards at Old Trafford set Edin Dzeko through to seal a 6-1 drubbing of the old enemy, a match that heralded Alex Ferguson's worst nightmare: it would happen in his lifetime after all and in fact was happening right in front of his slowly revolving eyes.

One struggles to imagine this season's David Silva constructing such a thing of wonder.

Sergio Aguero too cannot be clear of criticism. The little striker looks too good for this present City side but in truth his finishing has been out of sync for most of the season. His touch and his eye for the angle have often deserted him, although the goals have not dried up completely. His efforts carried the side against United yet he could not finish when it was needed.

But that is by no means the full story. You can place blame on the manager, the purchasing department and the side's stellar performers, but the support cast has hardly covered itself in glory either. Pep Guardiola's easy option contract suddenly looks to be written in Mesopotamian pictographs. He's going to need his reading glasses to solve this one.

***

With a beady eye firmly fixed on Champions League progress, the domestic cape of dominance is being unpicked thread by thread. Increased tv income means the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Southampton and Stoke can all field sides with Champions League experience and continental guile. Grounds up and down the country have marveled at the skills of Payet, Arnautovich, Mahrez, Kanté and Mané. The elite's hills of money no longer cast such a heavy shadow. The skills of the manager and his staff to mould a squad that can bring home the trophies ahead of energetic and well staffed challengers has now come under the spotlight. Klopp, Wenger and Van Gaal have all looked distinctly ordinary alongside the apparent B-listers Koeman, Bilic, the Tinkerman, Pochettino and dear old Mark Hughes.

Reputations are suddenly and clearly on the line. Pellegrini himself, with underdog credentials from Villareal and Malaga and a season of unbridled chaos at the Bernabeu, seems to have moved from peak engineering to vacuous pottering. As the masses wait for some pep, it seems the Chilean may have plateaued some time ago. The worse this season has become, the stronger those beliefs have grown. Even the triumphs were tighter than they should have been. The League Cup strung out to penalties, Champions League qualification on the bell.

What of that Champions League progress? Twice denied by Barcelona at the first knock out stage, City have gone one step further this time, thanks to a sudden and unexpected windfall of luck in the group stages: a last minute resurrection against Sevilla, two late charges against Borussia Monchengladbach and an unlikely set of results in the final round of games (Juventus suddenly deciding it was time to lose in Seville) left City unlikely group winners and thus able to avoid the customary big hitters. Instead City drew Dynamo Kiev, a team in full hibernation, and- after a great first leg in the Ukraine- ambled through with a soporific 0-0 draw at the Etihad. Not a thing of beauty but at least a first-ever quarter final. Still the doubts remain. It was possibly the kindest draw the club could have wished for against a team with its eyes still gummed up from two months of inactivity. The second leg revealed Kiev not only to be short of energy, but also inspiration, as they settled without much fuss for the draw which eliminated them.

City will now meet Paris St Germain, an apparently like-minded Champions League hopeful, gliding gently though their fifth consecutive French tittle-winning season with a 25-point cushion, clinching Ligue 1 with a strolling 9-0 away win at Troyes. City will enter the fray without the newly crocked Joe Hart, the nervous Demichelis, the injured Kompany and Sterling, but with the newly patched up De Bruyne.

The old script would have something ridiculous waiting around the corner. When the chips were down, we usually chipped in. With a bunch of half-injured, confidence-lite specimens, continental glory crooks its wicked finger. But the highest echelons of European football don't work like Division Three play-off finals. Against Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Lucas Moura and Edinson Cavani, Peter Swales era chicanery is unlikely to do the trick.

Maybe things aren't so bad after all.
Maybe we should just sit back and enjoy the ride, as we always used to, see where it takes us and open up a beer or three. But City's emergence into the sunlight has demanded that we take them seriously. The project arrived with drum rolls not penny whistles. Stuck in limbo between the dark wet tunnels filled with the manic laughter of the past and the brightly painted straight lines of the new era, it is sometimes difficult to know where to turn. Is it ok to complain? Can we realistically berate David Silva for poor performances after all he's done? Wouldn't it be better to keep quiet and let things unravel in their own inevitable way? Should we be happy that among all the trophies gathered in the last five years, we can still recognise the unmistakable smell of bushfire and singed meat?

Somethings may never change and of course that in itself will be comfort to some, who see the soul and character of the club moving into a world of corporate excess. As long as the aura of Bernad Halford, of Big Mal, of Romark the hypnotist, who helped Halifax Town put the Blues out of the FA Cup in 1979 in a West Yorkshire quagmire, of transfer deals involving crates of Electrolux fridge freezers and of hugging the corner flag when goals were needed to avoid relegation are still with us, we will know we're in the right place.

With ticket prices going through the roof (with the added bonus of abject timing and poor public relations) and a playing staff dislocated from the real world, the moments of slapstick have become few and far between at City. The fans that used to file in to witness another episode of slap and tickle, who majored in self-deprecation, have been asked to straighten up, cough up and look to a serious future of global glad-handing. Going to the match has never been so exorbitant. Paris has never seemed so far away.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

YET ANOTHER BIG FINISH REQUIRED

Football often reflects life these days, in that absolutely nothing can happen quickly enough to satisfy our immediate need for up-to-date news. With this in mind, the report in Tuesdays Mirror that excitedly revealed which managers were on the shortlist to succeed Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, might be seen as just a touch premature.http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/manchester-city-already-looking-pep-7515034

The Spaniard, after all, hasn’t even touched down in Manchester yet and will not do so for another couple of months.

"And we can confirm Leicester have lost"
This ludicrous getting-ahead-of-ourselves masks the fact that the English football season is now reaching its most critical phase and City, whether the Mirror likes it or not, still capably managed by the phlegmatic Manuel Pellegrini, are clinging to the hope that a season of mounting drama can still deliver more of the same between now and mid May. If it does deliver such a finish, we may well be yet to see the greatest drama of 2015-16.

While certain areas of the press busy themselves speculating on who will be City’s manager in 2019, the rest of us can quietly contemplate the club’s chances of resurrecting a proper title challenge in March and April of 2016.

The signs were there last weekend, in demolishing a passive and admittedly quite feeble Aston Villa that all is not yet lost. http://www.espnfc.com/barclays-premier-league/match/422376/manchester-city-aston-villa/report

The ten point gap to leaders Leicester will take some closing, but there are some encouraging signs as City prepare to visit another of the Premier League’s endangered species this weekend in Norwich City.


Firstly, the news that, by the time the latest international break is complete, Pellegrini will have Samir Nasri, Fabian Delph and, better news still, Kevin de Bruyne back in the fold and ready for tentative inclusion in first team matters for the last eight games of the season. De Bruyne's eight goals and eight assists so far mean his inclusion in the run-in will be particularly welcome.

You can read the rest of this article on ESPNFC's pages 

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