Friday, October 27, 2017

HARDAKER'S FOLLY A PAIN FOR GUARDIOLA

Mike Doyle holds the trophy with manager Tony Book in 1976

The original version of this article was published on the pages of ESPN. This is a lengthened version. 


The League Cup, a much maligned tournament, which was the brainchild of Sir Stanley Rous, was not implemented until Alan Hardaker became Football League Secretary in the early 60s. 

It has endured a sticky history, unpopular with the big clubs to start with and increasingly criticised by top managers in recent years, as a waste of time and energy. 

It was inaugurated at a time when attendances were dwindling, the hope being that a new cup competition would boost flagging interest. Ironic now, then, that it is the competition that fails to fire many people's imagination. 50,000+ at the Etihad to see City v Wolves had a different idea, however. 

The immense struggle that Wolves put up at the Etihad in City’s midweek League Cup tie will have taught Pep Guardiola some additional lessons of worth as he prepares to take his so-far all-conquering City side to the Hawthorns this weekend.
The championship side, ably guided by the talented Portuguese coach Nuno Espirito Santo, took City right to the wire, forcing extra time and penalties before succumbing.

Despite Guardiola’s apparent dislike for the tournament, he will have been forced to take note of several aspects that may well serve him well for the rest of the season. In that respect, if the messages are taken heed of, the League Cup will have done the widely travelled Catalan a favour or two after all.

Despite City’s coruscating start to the season, where the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Napoli have had the life strangled out of them, there will come a time when the ball does not roll so smoothly towards the opposition goal. For these occasions, patience will be key and a cool collective head will be required to finish the job properly when it appears that the desired result is avoiding them.

Against Wolves, even as the tie moved deep into extra time, City were still plugging away at a well organised visiting defence. When the pressure did not pay off, the penalty shoot-out was handled with aplomb, a series of crisp, well-placed shots by Kevin de Bruyne, Yaya Toure, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero finishing off plucky adversaries.
Guardiola will have been reminded that his defence -- while never his number one priority -- needs careful management. While his first choice pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones have grown into a solid and surprisingly reliable defensive duo, those waiting in the wings are made of less stern stuff. Tosin Adarabioyo can be relatively happy with his performance against Wolves, but Eliaquim Mangala somehow managed to look even worse than City fans remembered him. With Vincent Kompany’s absence lengthening by the week, it is clear an injury crisis at the back would have serious repercussions for City’s hitherto steamrolling progress to the top of the Premier League.

The presence on the left side of defence of 20-year old Ukrainian prodigy Oleksandr Zinchenko did give hope for the future, however, as the youngster revealed a classy touch and useful awareness of where his team mates were, even though he appeared to be running on empty well before the end of the 90 minutes.
The Catalan will also have been delighted to discover that his second string goalkeeper has transformed back into the player that he made it a priority to fetch from Barcelona just over a year ago.

Claudio Bravo’s resurrection has been nothing short of miraculous. His confidence restored, the Chilean was able to smother several dangerous Wolves counter-attacks that threatened to derail City’s progress altogether. His handling and positioning were exemplary and he exuded the kind of self-confidence that was completely lacking last season. This was followed up by a double penalty save in the shoot-out, which was responsible for putting City through to a quarterfinal tie with Leicester City.
Guardiola will do well to note that City fans have a close affection for and relationship with the League Cup. Not everything that shines in this modern football world, so utterly dominated by the twin Gods of money and prestige, is necessarily worth our undivided attention.

This is – when all is said and done -- a club that triumphed in this very same tournament as long ago as 1970 against West Brom and then again in 1976 against Newcastle, having in between time lost the final in 1974, ironically against this week’s opponent Wolves, for who their own goalkeeper, Gary Pierce, played the game of his life.
Those three Wembley finals in six years planted a deep love of the League Cup among City fans, which recent triumphs over Sunderland and Liverpool at the rebuilt Wembley have only fortified. Those exciting triumphs in 2014 and 2016 were received with as much glee as any other of the club’s modern triumphs.

Navas, Toure and Nasri after the 2014 win
The muddy marvels of 1970, Dennis Tueart's unlikely acrobatics in 1976 and the sight of a top heavy side put out for the Wolves final of 1974 that Guardiola himself would have been proud of (Bell, Marsh, Lee, Law and Summerbee all played, leaving threadbare midfield cover) are all moments in the club's history to be cherished as much as any other. 

A 50,000 crowd for a home game with lower league opposition tells us that many have not forgotten this. Whether the drain on energy and resources pleases the Catalan or not, whether the Mitre ball flies exactly how he wishes it to fly, City’s supporters are fully committed to progress in the League Cup. For many, the barren years that spanned the period 1976-2010 have done nothing but whet the appetite. It will be a while yet before occasions like these are taken for granted.
As Guardiola prepares his squad for challenges of a nine-game December slog, six of which will be away from the Etihad, he will do well to remember the backlash from last season’s exit at Old Trafford. With a second string side up against United’s first choice eleven, City came up short, much to the dismay of the faithful. The climax of the Wolves game saw City almost back at full strength after a slew of substitutions failed to have the desired effect.

Let us hope that Wolves’ intrepid performance will ensure Guardiola doesn’t undervalue the League Cup in its later stages this season, as City aim to win the trophy for the 5th time.  


Colin Bell takes a breather in heavy conditions in 1970's final v West Brom. 

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