Thursday, February 15, 2018


This article first appeared here on the pages of ESPNFC in abridged form. 

Swiss efficiency – from the herd of punctual trams to the hordes of office workers packing into Migros food hall at 11.45 for lunch – was everywhere to be seen in Basel.
The gleaming headquarters of Novartis, steel, glass and millions of tiny rivets  speak louder and more eloquently than the dark gothic shrines around the Münsterplatz these days. Bayer are here too, housed in giant metallic cubes that house busy humans in varied states of functional exhilaration.
Fountains pump jets of water at vigorously timed intervals, while foggy looking blokes with Manchester accents f and blind about having paid "50 quid for a couple of Baileys and Amaretto".
The waiter waits in the Zum Braunen Mutz. He waits non-plussed as you rummage for enough money to cover the modest round you have stutteringly ordered from him. He avoids eye contact as you wipe away a tear. 
That nationally stereotypical lust for efficiency and productivity will have won Manchester City some new fans in this frozen corner of the country, after a ruthless display of the by-now well worn passing routines ripped the will to live out of Raphael Wicky’s slumbering team.

Basel, returning from a long winter break, will have been less enthusiastic at resuming work than the city’s workforce appears to be after their early lunches. Off the pace and out manoeuvred by a City side as slick as they were hungry, the home side’s hopes had been demolished completely inside 20 minutes of the first half.

City’s dominance will have confirmed fears held in Madrid and Munich and in Paris and Barcelona, that here is a team that could well move through to the final in Kiev this May, if they keep up this coruscating pace and precision. We have become accustomed to seeing City’s delicious brand of pass and move flatten domestic opposition, but now the reality is beginning to dawn on the continent that in this theatre too they are barely to be held. For Maurizio Sarri, boss of Napoli, the penny dropped some time ago. "I'm not watching Juventus and Tottenham," he spluttered, "I want to see Manchester City."
Herr Wicky, a young coach with strident hair, has some sticky problems as he tries to get serial league winners Basel out of the 2nd place they currently occupy behind Young Boys. As Celtic can testify, 2nd place domestically is the same as 7th or 16th - if ever there were so many participants in the Swiss Raifeisen Super League -  but marrying being domestic giants with continental pygmies does not come easy. A sticky Wicky, one might say. Despite this, the local pygmies had devoured Benfica 5-0 and beaten the once much-vaunted Manchester United in the group stages, so due note had been taken. 

Wicky and his staff had made all the right noises beforehand of wanting to be energetic in their tracking of City’s main men and diligent in harrying space, but to carry this out, you first have to get close to your opponent. Guardiola's somewhat laconic performance at the pre-match press conference had involved only a simple parry to the tabloid press's interest in Leroy Sane's miraculous powers of recovery. "He's young" he smiled as the great and the good of her majesty's press looked for an angle.  
He is young, as are many of his colleagues, and this was to prove telling as City shot out of the blocks with three quick goals in 23 minutes. 
With Ilkay Gundogan lively if over-elaborate and Fernandinho shovelling up all the midfield loose balls, City quickly had a platform to feed the tireless running of Sergio Aguero, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling. 
"He's young..."

It has of course been a recurring theme throughout this blistering season of goal-strewn football. Having taken a season to ingest the Premier League sights and smells, Pep Guardiola has put his thoughts into deeds and what a sonnet it is he is constructing in the name of Manchester City.

Sweet music flows from the beast where creaking noises used to emanate. Even the back four, erratically efficient in Basel , seems able to make mistakes and get away with them. Maybe Basel’s drowsiness had something to do with this, as Vincent Kompany prodded short passes to nobody in particular and Ederson played his game of Russian roulette, slicing his passes hither and thither through the narrowest of margins.

So underused is the Brazilian goalkeeper, that you begin to get the idea that he is taking greater risks with his passing each game, just to liven affairs up for himself and his defensive colleagues. Certainly, a more alert side than Basel might have pounced on one or two of the loosely defended balls on this occasion. Early on in fact came several tasty pickings for Basel, as Otamendi swung a boot and inadvertently made a comfortable pass in completely the other direction and Ederson dawdled out disinterestedly to a dangerous-looking one-on-one.  

However, to labour these points is to very much miss the point.

City are in such perfect harmony going forward that a special kind of telepathy appears at times to be at work. With the successful return of David Silva, Fabian Delph and Leroy Sane – surprisingly rapidly in the latter’s case, but absolutely nothing to do with the good lab-coat wearing folk at Novartis – City’s personnel changes but the effectiveness of the whole remains utterly unaffected.

So imbued in these players is the system of pass and move, the ball zipping along that invisible thread as if being pulled by some puppet master above the main stand, that individual elements hardly seem to matter. They do, of course, with Kevin de Bruyne’s presence near Fernandinho the pivot for everything good that happens in City’s engine room. This is not to belittle the contributions of others, the ceaseless breaking of Kyle Walker, Sterling and Bernardo down the flanks, the prodding and jostling of Nicolas Otamendi in central defence and the agility (one sudden superb save required in an hour and a half of perfecting his passing angles) of Ederson, but certain players will be indispensable when the big games inevitably come round for this side.

Guardiola’s job now is to shepherd those precious legs and lungs through the rest of a less punishing February. With vital cup encounters v Wigan and Arsenal coming up, City could end the month with the first of a possible – whisper it – four trophies on the boardroom shelf and the likelihood of the other three joining it hugely enhanced.

A club once revered for its ability to shoot itself solemnly in the foot without due aid from others, is slowly growing into the most reliable of teams to support. Those battered fans, who exited  the St Jakob Park in Basel this midweek to return to the warm embrace of the Zum Braunen Mutz, have survived traumas in the past that many clubs’ fans have not had the dubious pleasure of experiencing. We've seen things etc etc. Well, there were sights to be seen in Basel, make no mistake, from the fast flowing Rhein to the fast running Raheem Sterling, everything was a blur of shining, liquid forward movement. As the Münsterplatz bells rang out, it was difficult to deny this was another metaphor in a dimly lit town full of the things. As the moon rose high in the frozen night sky, you could only imagine it falling from its majestic height  and being trapped instantly on the instep of Bernardo Silva. We had been serenaded again and the art and endeavour of Guardiola's maestros had lit up this land of scientific certainty.
No certainties in football, that's for sure, but in this season, decorated so beautifully with the art and craft of talented men, there was perhaps only ever one sure thing:  maybe it is only really City that can stop City now. 
City not putting all their still life pears in one basket.

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