Monday, September 26, 2016

CELTIC FRINGE


Manchester City and Celtic have never met in a competitive match before. The 2016-17 Champions League Group C therefore puts City into an all-but unprecedented situation, playing a competitive fixture against Scottish opposition. However, despite its lowly status, the Texaco Cup of 1971 saw City's first and hitherto only proper fixtures against a Scottish side.

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While there have been many high-profile matches between sides from either side of the border (Leeds v Celtic, Liverpool v Aberdeen, Manchester United v Celtic, Nottingham Forest v Celtic, Rangers v Leeds all spring to mind. Even Dunfermline and West Brom and Aberdeen and Ipswich and Leeds and Kilmarnock have squared up to each other over the years), City have steadfastly avoided being paired with Scottish teams.

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AIRDRIE!

Two games against Airdieonians in 1971 delivered a 2-2 draw at Maine Road and a 1-2 defeat at Broomfield Park sending City packing from a tournament that did not last long, despite its interesting format. Just over 15,000 watched the first leg end in stalemate, with City's goals from Ian Mellor and a Mike Doyle penalty cancelled out by Goodwin and Busby for the away side, who had played with understandable - yet on City's part underestimated - spirit.

Ian Mellor nets for City in the 2-2 draw with Airdrie at Maine Road
A large Broomfield crowd of 13,700 saw Airdrie prevail in the second leg by a 2-1 scoreline. These two fixtures - played some 45 years ago - remain the only competitive matches between City and sides north of the border to date.

Even non-competitive games with Celtic can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The first was a 1-1 draw in 1953 pre-season, a game which saw City field a very strong side - Trautmann, Branagan, Little, Revie, Ewing, Paul, Hayes, Hart, Broadis, Clarke and Cunliffe.

In 1970 Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer took a strong side to Parkhead to play Jock Stein's remarkable side (picture at the top shows a gathering of football minds). The match had been switched to Hampden Park, as the photos and programme stills show. Still feted as the first British winners of the European Cup, after the Lisbon Lions beat Internazionale in the Estadio Nacional of Lisbon, Celtic held City to a 0-0 draw.

Reporters were issued with crampons and a roll of rope.
Francis Lee takes on Jimmy Johnstone
John Hughes gives skipper Tony Book plenty to think about
Programme cover and inside shots courtesy of Graham Ward 


TOLKA!

It would be over 20 years before the two sides met again, in a pre-season friendly at Tolka Park in Dublin.  With the customary strong southern Irish backing for Celtic, City's supporters were treated to a difficult afternoon's viewing as Celtic ran out 3-1 winners. It formed part of player-manager Peter Reid's preparation for the all-new Premier League, which would kick off that August for the very first time with a Monday night live-tv fixture against QPR.

Fitzroy Simpson and Paul McStay tussle at Tolka Park, Dublin in 1992
The 70s witnessed two City pre-season appearances in warm-up tournaments for the coming action in Division One. In 1976, City were part of the Tennent's sponsored Caledonian Cup, drawing with Southampton, before losing a marathon penalty shoot out to go into a 3rd/4th place play-off with Partick Thistle, a game won easily 4-1.

SKOL!

Three years later City returned north as invitees in the Skol Cup, taking place at Tynecastle, home of Hearts. City lost 1-3 to Coventry City, resplendent in their new brown Admiral away kit, then drew 1-1 with Hibernian, before ending their presence in Scotland with an identical score against the hosts.

In modern times, City faced Celtic in pre-season in two consecutive summers, 2008 and 2009, one taking place in Manchester, the other in Glasgow.

As far as Manchester's competitive record against Glasgow is concerned, City will attempt to uphold a near-perfect record established by neighbours United, their only defeat in eight competitive fixtures with either Rangers or Celtic came in the 2006-07 Champions League tie at Parkhead, won 1-0 by Celtic.

1979-80 City v Coventry at Tynecastle Park


Celtic also showed little interest in holding on to manager (and ex-hoops legend) Billy McNeill as their boss in 1983. With City freshly relegated and looking for a new messiah to lead them back to the promised land, McNeill was persuaded to come south and duly took City back two seasons later, before jumping ship in ignominious circumstances to join Aston Villa.  As both Villa and City went down that season (1986-7), many City fans later enjoyed recalling how McNeill had managed to steer two clubs to relegation in the same season.

Here are all the other City matches against Scottish opposition:

In 1953-4 City played Hearts at Maine Road to inaugurate the floodlights, winning 6-3.


1972-73
Partick Thistle
Sweden
5-0
1973-4
Aberdeen
away
1-0

St. Johnstone
away
1-0
1981-2
Rangers
away
0-2 see image below
1984-5
Hibernian
away
0-0

Partick
away
4-1
1995-6
Hearts
away
1-5
1997-8
Livingstone
away
4-0

Stirling Albion
away
0-0

Kilmarnock
away
4-0

Falkirk
away
1-1
2014-15
Dundee
away
0-2

Hearts
away
2-1


Monday, September 12, 2016

LESSONS IN LOVE

It has taken Pep Guardiola exactly six games to banish the doubts of even the most narrow-minded members of England’s football fraternity: it is now quite clear that Manchester City are playing a different brand of football to the rest of the Premier League.
I'm watching other football teams play and it's like switching from F1 to trap racing. -MikeNumber5 on Twitter

Before Saturday’s smooth dismantling of neighbours Manchester United, certain voices in the press began to express doubts about Guardiola’s ability to overcome the likes of Jose Mourinho in the tough world of mind games and blocking tactics. There was a palpable sense of anticipation for that first defeat to allow the “told-you-so” brigade out of their boxes to start carping and whooping.

What the world saw at the weekend was a team sweeping its supposedly dangerous opponent away on its own pitch with a brand of passing and moving that currently makes the rest of the contenders look like they are playing with cement bags strapped to their backs.

It is not just the scintillating passing, the movement on and off the ball, but the way that each player makes himself available to his team mate to receive the ball. There was hardly a single moment in the first 40 minutes at Old Trafford, where a City player found himself blocked in and without a safe pass to play.

Options presented themselves in every space, however hemmed in the City players seemed to be. 

That this has been achieved so quickly with predominantly members of Manuel Pellegrini’s squad is eye catching to say the least. Those eager voices waiting gleefully for Guardiola’s first fall will have to wait a little longer and -- one suspects -- it could be quite a wait.

Jose Mourinho in contrast looked like a man chewing on a wasp as his team was given a complete run around in that first half. That they recovered was partly down to Claudio Bravo’s ultimate risk taking and the knowledge that United had to press the spaces in front of the goalkeeper to have any joy.

Having weathered an aerial storm that lacked all subtlety but might have been effective in the circumstances, Guardiola calmly changed things around and retook the tactical high ground. Fernando’s introduction to deep midfield closed the gaps that United’s bolstered midfield had begun to find and allowed Fernandinho to charge forward and spread panic. Ander Herrera's introduction had given United a foothold in the middle but influence was soon back in City's hands.

United were out of options, resorting to Wayne Rooney walloping high balls towards the towering figures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. The same player took on his now familiar mantle of "judge, jury and whistle blower" as he continually harangued Clattenburg for any morsels that could feed his side. United were gradually being starved.

Kevin De Bruyne has been showing this quality since his move from Wolfsburg a year ago, but Guardiola’s tactics, leaving the Belgian and David Silva as free running “half-number eights” is benefiting him richly. Silva too has regained his status as midfield catalyst after a tricky last season under Pellegrini. Linking with Nolito and Sterling/Sane, plus the advancing Fernandinho/Kolarov/Otamendi/Stones, the two master passers weaved their tight triangles of magic time and again.

The Chilean’s third and final season at City, highlighted by ponderous football and weak spirit among the players, feels like the middle of the night to Guardiola’s mid day sunshine. Players all over the park are rejuvenated, running, supporting and passing as if they are different people.

Nowhere is the contrast greater than with Aleksandar Kolrarov. The left back had gained a deserved
reputation for falling asleep on the job and for having the positional sense and speed of reaction of one of Manchester United’s official tractors. He is now an integral part of a team playing wonderfully fluid football, confidently stroking the ball around the back four, up the left side or in midfield, depending where the Catalan’s flexible tactics take him. Happy to play it long when the occasion requires, his punt forward led directly to City’s opener.

With confidence high in the outfield, Guardiola and his staff have little space to get to work on new goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who enjoyed a torrid introduction to English football at Old Trafford. The coach’s liking for a sweeper keeper who can play out centrally to feet in midfield is well reported, but kamikaze football across the back four will eventually be punished by side’s reacting more quickly than Manchester United were able to.

Bravo must adapt quickly and learn the important lesson that he will be closed down rapidly by teams hoping they have found the possibility of an Achilles heel in City’s impressive early season armoury.
With Champions League and League Cup matches to be added to the busy fixture list, there are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead. City in this mood, however, have the look of a special team. Seldom has a coach had such a dramatic impact on English football and seldom can so many City fans agree that this is already shaping to be a season that promises high rewards if the start can be maintained.

The next test comes against continental opposition, in Borussia Monchengladbach, but it is already patently clear that the players are learning fast and that the man they are learning from really does know precisely what he is doing. City in this form really look like they will be the team to beat this season.

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