Wednesday, September 27, 2017

MATCH NOTES - SHAKHTAR DONETSK h

Match ratings for ESPN can be found here, but below is a broader look at the ins and outs of a fascinating and absorbing game with the Ukrainian champions.


Pic courtesy of Phil Hammond.
In a match of intense ebb and flow against a well drilled Shakhtar side, City prevailed through patience and perseverance. With another clean sheet and plenty of good chances worked against a side of some skill and excellent character, City can be pleased with a night’s work, which puts them in the unusual position of being clear at the top of their group after two games. Building on this with two critical games against Napoli coming next, the chances are good that this might be one of City’s smoother passages through the group stages after 6 years of trying (and mainly failing) to look unruffled. 


Positives

City recovered from a first half where Shakthar’s positioning and energy provided plenty of puzzles for the home side to work out. Ably marshalled by the undervalued Paulo Fonseca, Shakthar were proving obstinate, clever and capable, with particular trouble coming Kyle Walker’s way through the gifted Bernard and his sidekick Ismaily. Reorganised and re-energised at half time, the breakthrough came quickly for City, with Walker pressed further forward on the right and a tighter press in the middle squeezing some of the possession out of the visitors. Although Shakhtar pressed on bravely, once a goal down the spaces started to appear and City were perhaps a little unlucky not to be further clear than the single goal by the end of 90 minutes. Sané’s profligacy, Aguero’s soft penalty miss and a number of other chances went begging, before Bernardo – left in acres of space down the right side – squared perfectly for Sterling to seal it at 2-0.   

Negatives

When the fussy referee Jorge Sousa finally gave in and awarded a penalty – that in fact should not have been given – City missed the chance to put some clear air between themselves and their opponents. It took until the 90th minute to seal the victory but supporters’ nerves could have been saved by taking one of a clutch of earlier chances.   

Manager: Guardiola chose to stick with the relatively inexperienced (on a European front at least) Fabian Delph, resisting the obvious temptation to play Danilo, and was rewarded with a mature performance by the stand-in. The changes he made at half time had the same effect as they had done against palace at the weekend, with City appearing in a new gear with Walker pressed higher and more bite to the midfield movement, squeezing Shakhtar’s dangerous middle men when they had possession.

Ederson 8 -- What a difference a confident, competent goalkeeper makes. Made two early fast passes out to Delph and Sane in the opening minutes, which were a precursor to a range of fantastic throw-outs in the second half, one of which put Sane straight through in the opposition half for the penalty decision, practically an assist had the penalty gone in. Fast out to snatch the ball from the raiding Taison and still on the ball in injury time to make an alert save and maintain the cleansheet. Only one mistake, coming for a cross that Ivan Ordets beat him to but put his header well wide.

Kyle Walker 6 -- Left with plenty to think about by the whippet-like Bernard and Ismaily on City’s right flank, he was shunted further forward at the start of the second period and it paid immediate dividends. Fantastic ball down the line for De Bruyne to centre for Sterling’s terrible miss after 69 minutes. Skinned by the tricky Bernard in one of many second half raid down his side.   

John Stones 7 -- Solid and in control despite the flurry of fast feet coming at him throughout. No hesitation in playing it straight out into touch if the agricultural approach was needed, which was only rarely the case in a cultured display of calmness and authority. Hooked clearance with outside of the boot a speciality.

Nicolas Otamendi 7 -- Likewise, played a calm part in stemming the white and orange tide of pattering feet. Got foot in on goalbound shot after 49 minutes and there to block when it was needed. Produced one great diagonal ball out to Walker on the right touchline.

Fabian Delph 8 -- Took to top level European football like a duck to water. Played left side of defensive four, which morphed to three for periods, and was faultless in his calm distribution and accurate link-up play with David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. Great block on Taison was one of a number of well timed tackles. Slalomed out of defence to great appreciation from the crowd.

Fernandinho 9 – The experienced head in a midfield blur of tricky and talented countrymen in opposition. Involved in a fascinating battle to hold midfield ground throughout, he did himself proud against his old team mates. Marked his territory to great effect with an 11th minute tackle on Fred, as the Brazilian threatened through the middle. Was on the end of a reducer from Facundo Ferreyra ten minutes later as he fought every inch to boss the all-important zone in front of City’s defence. Vital cog.  

Leroy Sane 8 -- Dozy start when he twice let the ball run out of play under his foot, the second after only 12 minutes a useful feed from Ederson, but developed quickly into one of the game’s sights to behold. A series of devastating runs down the left flank ensued, the first after 21 minutes taking him weaving past two defenders. Switched to drift in from the right but his Liverpoolesque attempt was weaker and easily held by the veteran Andriy Piatov. Speed and change of direction took him through again after 41 minutes and his shot just cleared the far post. Carried the ball too long on several occasions in the second half, particularly the chance on 86 minutes when put through down the left by Gundogan’s clever ball, he drove into the area but refused to deliver, preferring to shoot into a forest of legs. Fell very easily for the penalty.    

David Silva 8 – Two early losses of control took the ball away from him in threatening positions but after that was always ready to feed Sane down the left or cut in and swap passes with De Bruyne in more central positions. Surrounded by mini Shakhtar clones, he was still the original master at keeping possession and using it positively and intelligently. Perfect cut back to find De Bruyne for the first goal and one of the passes of the match to switch direction and loft it to Aguero at the far post for a cushioned volley that was smothered by Piatov. Torrid second half for Ordets in particular, trying to track his ghost-like movements. > Gundogan 80’

Kevin de Bruyne 7 – Two attempts at early through balls failed owing to the offside flag, but when put through by Jesus, he dragged a low shot just wide of Piatov’s right post. Started and finished the move for 1-0, quickly onto a loose pass, feeding Silva to his left and drifting to the edge of the box to be found by the Spaniard’s cut-back. Prodigious strike that followed arrowed right into the top corner on an arc that kept the ball away from the dive of the ‘keeper. Despite all this, he has played much better than this on many occasions.    

Sergio Aguero 6 -- Had four chances to overtake Eric Brook’s all-time scoring record, but, even when presented with a penalty, he did not look confident and had his weak shot palmed away by Andriy Pyatov. First shot of the night went out for a throw in, second was on target but weakly struck. Cushioned volley from Silva’s sumptuous assist also failed to go in as Piatov blocked in extremis. 4th chance sailed past the far post. Blank night. > Bernardo 83’  

Gabriel Jesus 6 -- Quiet night for the Brazilian and was taken off to be replaced by Raheem Sterling after only 53 minutes. Had put De Bruyne through for the shot he dragged wide and produced one or two nice moments before being crowded out and fading noticeably. > Sterling 53’   

Substitutes:

Raheem Sterling 7 -- Arrived early in the second period and took to the right wing. Should have scored almost straight away, skewing a tremendous chance wide with his left foot after being set up perfectly in front of goal by De Bruyne’s flat cross. Put away his second chance but even that went in off the crossbar. Direct running troubled a tired defence and perhaps did not get the penalty he deserved because the fussy Jorge Sousa had already given one he shouldn’t have for Sane’s floppy collapse.

Ilkay Gundogan NR – First touch led to a sprightly 70 yard run and set up Sane perfectly late on with a slide rule pass that his countryman squandered selfishly. No obvious after effects to the nasty-looking injury against West Brom and a pleasure to see him running confidently and without fear.

Bernardo Silva NR -- Highly energetic cameo from the wiry Portuguese, setting up Sterling for the clincher after a great run in from the right flank. Only on the pitch for 7 minutes, but spent plenty of energy closing down the keeper and defenders to help run down the clock with the ball pinned back in Shakhtar’s half.     



Friday, September 22, 2017

THE DAY ALLISON TOOK HIS LEAVE FROM THE KIPPAX

 "John Bond's cup runneth over, but Malcolm Allison's remains as dry as a bone..."
Malcolm Allison marches towards the Kippax pre-game 
So went the opening line of Colin Malam’s pithy match report for the Sunday Telegraph in January 1981.

The match of some considerable drama that had just been completed on the soaking wet Maine Road pitch, between Manchester City and Crystal Palace sides as evenly matched as this weekend's fixture appears to make them, had finished 4-0 to the home side. It was to be the beginning of a legendary FA Cup run that would take in never-to-be-forgotten matches with Norwich (an uproarious six-nil pasting), Peterborough (with 28,000 packing the 4th division club’s old London Road ground), two mammoth quarter final ties with Everton, played out in front of an aggregate crowd of well over 100,000 people, and a semi final with the then all-conquering Ipswich Town, who had been on route for a treble of trophies before being sent packing by a dogged City performance at Villa Park.

The final with Tottenham, the centenary FA Cup Final would also be drenched in sweat and drama, but – at this point in January -- that was still some four months away.

The reason for the autumnal change of management at Maine Road in 1980-81 was on this occasion sitting in the dugout not ten metres away from where ex-Norwich boos Bond and his assistants John Benson and John Sainty (the beknighted "Three Johns") were busy arranging their sheepskin coats and flasks of coffee.

The incumbent of that small plastic and steel arrangement in front of the Main Stand had in fact only just sat down, having spent those typically tense pre-match minutes striding out across the Maine Road mud towards the heaving Kippax terraces on the opposite side of the ground, to take the adulation of an expectant and thoroughly wound-up 39,000 crowd.

If ever there was a game that required the hackneyed you could cut the atmopshere with a knife, it was this one.

The 3rd round tie between City and Palace that set up the run to Wembley 1981 was not so much a game about the two clubs but a deeply intriguing look into the psyche of the two managers. What made them tick, what made their relationship so unique, how they had come to be on opposite sides on this grand occasion.

City, under the atsute management of Bond, had taken off – pilfering 20 points from a possible 26 in the league since his arrival the previous October. The side that he had inherited his opponent on this occasion had been at its lowest ebb for some time, with debilitating cup exits at Shrewsbury and Halifax still very clear in the mind from the previous two seasons.

Back down at pitch level, the Kippax was still in a tumult. It was difficult to remember an opposition manager having the gaul to walk arms aloft towards the centre circle, clapping his hands ostentatiously above his head and receiving exactly the same back from the mass of hands and faces staring back at him from the great swaying steps. It was one of the moments of the decade at Maine Road, an unforgettable sight and an unforgettable moment that sent chills down the spine.

It was later captured in the ultra intrusive Granada TV documentary CITY!, a crushingly honest look at those last barren days of a City managerial career that was utterly doomed.

The exclamation mark after the club’s name in the Granada documentary has never really gone away. It would have come as very little surprise during those 70s and 80s of self-inflicted carnage to see City appear on the results boards as Manchester City!, so serpentine and entangled had the club’s attempts at normality become.


The man in the middle of the pitch with two minutes to go to kick-off was of course Malcolm Allison, sacked by City’s genius chairman Peter Swales, the used television mogul from Altrincham, just two months earlier. The very same Allison, who had been mentor to John Bond from their days playing together at West Ham United in the 50s and still the larger than life character that City fans had grown to love and respect for the drama-laden trophy years he had brought to Maine Road between 1967 and 1970.

Allison it was, as a pupil of the magnificent Hungarian national side of the 50s with its strutting Puskas and twinkle toes Hidgekuti, had introduced to City's training regime elements that would - thirty years later - earn Arsene Wenger wide-eyed plaudits at Arsenal.

Under Allison's 1981 regime, however, a succession of terrible results had brought the famous coach's City tenure to a sad end. A chaotic three-nil home defeat to Liverpool where Allison inexplicably told his players to choose their own tactics to face the champions and a dismal midweek loss at Elland Road against an equally appalling post-glory Leeds United led chairman Peter Swales to pull the rug from under the coach's expensively clad feet.

Football is a game that seldom stands still and – as Allison saw the thousands of hands returning to their pockets on the Kippax -  he made his way back towards the Main Stand, where the teams were about to enter the fray and the various elements of the coaching staff were jostling for pseats in the tiny dugouts that predated today's sponsored aircraft seats.

As he did so, the crowd rose again, an upswell of noise from the Kippax telling Allison in no uncertain terms that his moment had now come and gone, that he would forever have a place in the hearts of the faithful but that now he was here as Leader of the Opposition.

Suddenly a chant rolled down off the great terrace behind him, creating one of the most poignant moments in what was the beginning of the twilight of Allison’s career as a respected coach."Johnny Bond, Johnny Bond, Johnny Bond," was the repeated refrain as Big Mal wedged his frame wistfully into the tiny dugout.

His face was stretched and his eyes carried a sad glaze as he made himself comfortable. He would take Palace down to the second division at the end of the season and would later lead Middlesbrough in an ill-fated spell in the North East

reporter: “Mal, Middlesbrough is not really a champagne and cigars sort of town is it?” –  Allison: “When you’re winning, any town is a champagne and cigars sort of town”).

His Palace side on this occasion, beaten thoroughly by his old love Manchester City, managed by his old pupil John Bond, must have left Allison with one of the saddest memories of his late career. The feeling that his life at the forefront of British football was coming to an end must have been horribly tangible for a man used to making things work so effortlessly.

As Malam had written in his post-match report, Bond’s cup ranneth over, whilst Allison’s remained dry as a bone. What delicious irony that would have been to Allison, the original Dartford gunslinger, of champagne and bunny girls fame. Few were the occasions that Big Mal’s cup was anything other than full to the brim.

****

The cup run, from Palace, via Norwich and Peterbough to Everton and Ipswich. Halcyon days.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

TO THE COALFACE

1993-94 Pre-season friendly: City 2-4 Feyenoord. Gary Flitcroft in action against future manager Peter Bosz
As City prepare to launch their 2017-18 assault on European football’s top prize, manager Pep Guardiola and his staff will be well aware of the pressure facing them to make serious advances towards the oft-stated designs of the club’s ambitious owners.

The money lavished on clear player upgrades this summer speaks volumes for the ambition of Guardiola, the club and the owners. Champions League success evidently ranks as highly as winning the Premier League.
Despite a sticky start in the competition, when tough draws came thick and fast, City’s steady progress since 2008 means the club is now in a good position to press on in its attempts to beat the semifinal reached in 2015-16. That match, woefully tossed away without the semblance of a proper fight against Real Madrid represents City’s only foray beyond the round of 16 so far.
City were passive-aggressive in Madrid in 2015-16
Although City are now the most consistent of England’s representatives in this competition, since Arsenal’s belated failure to qualify, they must push on to convince that they are anything other than slightly green and hopeful challengers.

The might of Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona and Juventus awaits them in the latter rounds and, to stand a chance against their like, City must put in a convincing pre-Christmas stint in the group stage.

Starting with this week’s tricky-looking tie in De Kuip to play a resurgent Feyenoord side, City have once again been pitched into a group that looks extremely even. Napoli and Shakthar Donetsk are hardly mugs when it comes to continental competition and City will need to repeat their league form to progress.

Feyenoord have started their domestic season even better than City with four straight wins that see them out in front of the pack in the Dutch Eredivisie. Having eclipsed Ajax last season, the Rotterdammers will be keen to impress on their return to the big stage. This will be their first game in the Champions League since 2002.

Programme cover from City v FC Twente, UEFA Cup 1978-79. (1-1 away, 3-2 home)


City European history against Dutch sides is short, having played FC Twente home and away in 1978 and 3-2 again in the lop-sided group format of 2008 when only a home game was played against the same side. That was the weird season City played 16 ties just to get to the quarter-final stage, where Hamburg was a step too far. Trips to the Faroe Islands and three games against Danish opposition (Copenhagen, Aalborg and Mydtjylland) made it the oddest season on record for City on the continent.
As far as the Champions League is concerned, the story is equally brief: Ajax home and away and memories of a crushing failure in Roberto Mancini’s last season of 2012-13.

Having lost unluckily in Madrid against Real (2-3), City had been extremely fortunate to draw at home to a rampant Borussia Dortmund – they would go on to contest the Wembley final with Bayern that season --and were then faced with two matches back-to-back against the Dutch champions, which would decide whether they had a chance of progressing or not.

In those two matches everything went wrong, with City well beaten in Amsterdam (1-3) after leading through Samir Nasri’s opener and pegged back to 2-2 at the Etihad, thus putting an early lid on their ambitions for another season. Those were also certainly happier times for Ajax boss Frank de Boer, enjoying the kind of stage and backing palpably lacking at the more prosaic surrounds of Crystal Palace this autumn.
Curiously, given Guardiola's start this season with a three-man back line, Mancini also opted for a similar set-up at the Ajax Arena, a shape criticised by right back Micah Richards after the game, who stated he and his team mates had not had enough time to master the new formation.
"The players just want to play. It's a hard system because we're not used to it but I think the players prefer a 4-4-2 but he's the manager and we do what he says." -  Micah Richards
The 1-3 final score in Amsterdam represented the biggest defeat City had tasted in competitive European history until last season’s dismantling at the Camp Nou (0-4). In fact the amount of goals scored both for and against in last season’s tournament will be cause for concern for Guardiola and his staff. A total of A total of 24 goals were scored and 16 conceded in City’s 10 competitive games, which included a play-off drubbing of Steaua Bucharest (5-0), another five goal haul against Monaco (5-3), a big win against Borussia Monchengladbach (4-0), a thrillingly entertaining draw at Celtic (3-3) and the afore-mentioned drubbing in Barcelona.
City’s 5-0 thrashing of Liverpool last weekend points to a season, where even more goals are on the cards, but Guardiola will be keen to staunch the flow at the other end. Another match with a big 5 in it features a link to this game. Feyenoord coach Gianni van Bronkhurst was in the Arsenal side that cantered to a 5-1 win at City in 2003.

Programme cover: pre-season friendly 2003-4 in Aarhus
While all the goals were flashing in last season's Champions League campaign, one thing remained stable: City's inability to get an away win. This now totals seven games without a win away from home in the Champions League. While away draws are fine if they are paired consistently with home wins, it is a run Guardiola will want to put an end to before it gets any more noteworthy.

With injury doubts once again circling around captain Vincent company and Nicolas Otamendi’s woeful lack of pace shown up by the roasting he got from Mohamed Salah, the Catalan’s insistence on three at the back and gung-ho attacking may be tempered on this occasion.
Away games in European competition are perhaps not the best place to throw caution to the wind and a steady, successful start to the group stage is essential to take some of the pressure off, as the season hots up. Guardiola only has to look back to the fateful season when City last played Dutch opposition to see how the club sank after a poor start. There was no coming back from the single point haul from the two Ajax games and City were eliminated at the group stage.

So the bejewelled story of Pep Guardiola and the Champions League starts another chapter. 25 years on from his glorious introduction as a young Barcelona player in the season the club finally won the tournament for the first time, it is perhaps time for the Catalan to add another personal milestone in his close relationship with the trophy. As far as City’s relationship with the Champions League goes, another tilt at the latter stages seems overdue. The long glittering road to Kiev begins this week at the coalface in Rotterdam.
CITY v. FEYENOORD PREVIOUS MEETINGS
1993-94 Pre-season friendly at Eastlands: City 2-4 Feyenoord
2003-04 Pre-season friendly in Aarhus, Denmark: City 2-1 Feyenoord



Friday, September 8, 2017

BRIDGING THE 15 POINT GAP

Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were each convinced that a good goalkeeper ---Peter Shilton, Peter Schmeichel and David Seaman at their respective title winning Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and Arsenal sides  -- could save their sides between 10 and 15 points a season.

As City prepare to face Liverpool this weekend, the long history of goalkeepers, good and bad, that has wrapped itself around these two clubs, may make this old saying even more poignant.  In City’s case, the big question is: have they finally found the man, who can do for them exactly what Messrs Schmeichel, Seaman and Shilton did before him and be a deciding factor in the Premier League title returning to the Etihad for a third time in seven years?

After all, the afore-mentioned 15 points that those managers believed a proper keeper could save them represent the exact difference between City and title winners Chelsea last season.
City’s recent problems in this position are well documented: from Joe Hart, England’s first choice and a regular at the Etihad since his breakthrough in 2007-08 to his immediate replacement Claudio Bravo, Chile’s record cap holder, things have not always gone smoothly between the sticks for the club.

This is nothing new of course. As far back as the last time City featured in the trophy-winning highlights back in the late sixties and early seventies, the goalkeeping position provided a proper headache for Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer.
Joe Corrigan, putting on weight quicker than his profession required, failed to take off successfully - both metaphorically and literally - and found himself dropped. In those nascent glory years, the gloves flew between Harry Dowd, Corrigan and Ken Mulhearn. The latter was the main keeper for the title season of 67-68, while Dowd regained his place to feature in the FA Cup final v Leicester in 1969. Corrigan was in the side the next season for the double triumph in the League Cup and Cup Winners' Cup and was also between the sticks for City's 1976 League Cup triumph over Newcastle, plus the 1981 FA Cup final defeat to Tottenham after a replay, where he was the BBC's Man of the Match(es).
A lot had happened in between, however. 
By 1973 the battle for a flabby and nervous Corrigan was to wrest the number one jersey from Ron Healey and the expensively acquired Keith MacRae, a £100,000 buy (imagine that) from Motherwell, of all places. A succession of managers around that time did not rate Corrigan and even some of his team mates had had enough of his occasional gaffes, Mike Doyle purportedly asking the management what Corrigan was doing still in the side.   
That he fought back, regained his place in the first team and – by the mid seventies – had found a slot in the England squad, was testament to his incredible willpower and attitude. That he never made it past a meagre total of 9 international caps was down to the bad luck of finding himself competing with the afore-mentioned Shilton and a certain Ray Clemence of Liverpool.

Clemence stood between the posts at Anfield nearly 500 times during the seventies, before giving way to Bruce Grabelaar, a moustachioed Zimbabwean who had fought in the jungles of central Africa before finding an unlikely place in British professional football.

Grobelaar was the archetypal “eccentric goalkeeper”, often leaving his line to perform the kind of duties today’s goalkeepers are regularly expected to do, but in an era, when the backpass could be picked up and defences did not expect the man at the back to frolic from goal and start playing the ball to feet. Grobelaar seemed to be making up the goalkeeper's art as he went along and this often led to embarrassing failure.

In one such event, in 1981, City came to Anfield fully expecting to get their annual pasting, but came away with one of those rare away wins, partly because of Grobelaar's antics in the home goal. Coming way too far for a high ball, he was stranded in no man's land when the foray resulted in a missed catch, as City's Steve Kinsey looped the ball towards goal, forcing Phil Thompson to palm it over the bar.

Kevin Bond's penalty conversion helped City towards a 3-1 win that was as rare as hens' teeth.

Corrigan, watching from a safe distance at the opposite end that day, will have had uneasy flashbacks to his own dark days.

Claudio Bravo arrived at City just over 12 months ago knowing exactly what to expect. Guardiola, an advocate of so-called sweeper keepers, had brought him to England to do what he professed Hart could not manage: come out, use his feet, pass and set attacks in motion with alert, adept balls to his midfielders. 
This was quickly shown to be a flawed exercise, with Bravo caught horribly in an early season Grobelaaresque act of hot headedness in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The game left a
All the way from Motherwell
mark on the Chilean, who became steadily more erratic and less convincing as the season progressed, to the extent that he eventually lost his place in the first team to Hart’s old understudy Willy Caballero.


This was arguably one of the major turning points in Guardiola’s first attempt at trophy winning in England. With an already shaky defence shot of confidence, a major Achilles heel had been uncovered and was duly attacked as City’s weak point by a variety of canny opponents.
To their credit, City have moved to correct the weakness.

Bravo’s much heralded arrival had initially pushed fan favourite Hart out to Torino on loan and subsequently West Ham, where he is still trying manfully to shore up his battered reputation.
That Bravo is still at the club comes about as a result of the impasse with Hart. The Chilean, meanwhile, relegated to second choice by the expensive acquisition of Ederson Morais from Benfica, has witnessed a sturdy and reliable start by his new Brazilian team mate.

The calmness and authority that was so obviously missing last season as Bravo’s confidence ebbed away like the evening tide, is now there for all to see. After opening matches with little to do at Brighton and at home to Everton, the young goalkeeper found himself in the thick of a truly crazy game at Bournemouth, which required maximum concentration and huge agility to help his side to the most hard-earned of three points.
That his concentration did not waver was one thing. That he was able – when called upon – to pull off the kind of elastic saves that seemed for the most part of last season to be beyond his predecessor, bodes well for the future.

Having proved his worth against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League for Benfica in 2016, Ederson simply has to keep doing what he did in those two closely fought quarter-final matches: racing from his goal, passing accurately and confidently to feet and launching searing counter-attacks with incredibly accurate drop kicks to the wings.
If he can do all of this at City, those 15 extra points – exactly the margin of failure last season -- might just make all the difference to City's challenge in 2017-18.

An abridged version of this article featured on the ESPNFC website here

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