Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark...

As my resolve withered under the driving blizzard, and as the arctic-like air seeped through my bones, I must admit I wondered. What had possessed me to come all this way, to the southern reaches of Scandinavia, to sit in minus degree temperatures for 90 minutes?

Then the answers came flooding: to see my beloved Manchester City take on FC Copenhagen in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup, in fact not just take on, but finish the tie at the Parken Stadium. In other words, to show our opponents how it was done with a mesmerising display of attacking prowess. Fat chance. Instead, what ensued was a rather nervy performance from the Blues. Of course, being a City fan all these years, should I really have expected anything different? Not really.

The game itself
After taking the lead on the half hour mark with an unlikely strike from City centre back Nedum Onuoha (a freak goal that dribbled into the Copenhagen near post after Jesper Christiansen’s dire handling), things looked to be going well and we managed to keep things relatively tight until the half time whistle. An over-excitable fan (pictured above and nicknamed 'Spiderman' by the City faithful) was providing us with light entertainment, warming our bones as he dangled from the Danish rigging apparently unaware of the sheer drop facing him should the net rip!

Ten minutes into the second half though and things were getting colder. Copenhagen were back in the game with a free header from a corner. The Danish resurgence was, however, short lived and five minutes later we were back in front with a sublime finish from Steven Ireland, set up by a hopeful SWP cross.

Now, I know I shouldn’t, but at this point my joints were warming and I was thinking job done. And anyone who knows City knows that, at all costs, you should avoid that line of thinking. The next thing I know, its late in the game. Copenhagen have gradually pushed forward, City have allowed themselves to retreat further and further back. Copenhagen break down the right and we are all out of position, Bridge is nowhere to be seen. Onuoha stays with their winger to the line but fails to prevent the cross. The ball comes over and meets the head of a Copenhagen shirt. It’s a free header. The ball’s in the back of the net. I look at my watch and it’s the 91st minute. Shite, I think. Pure, unbridled shite. And then I remember, this is what it means to be a City fan.

Europe and the regimes of Eriksson and Hughes
Now let’s put things into perspective. To be honest, before Thaksin Shinawatra bought the club I never thought I’d see the day when City graced the European stage. Although we got into the UEFA Cup through the back door (through the fair play league), a place in Europe is certainly not to be scoffed at. Besides, if we’d have shown more grit last year and mirrored the quality of our play in the second half of the season with what we produced in the first, we’d have probably qualified for Europe on merit of our league position. Let’s face it, we were a European looking side anyway. It was the heady days of Sven Goran-Eriksson’s regime and the majority of us were drunk on the promise of Eriksson’s Ethanol-tinged attacking approach. Under Eriksson, we would saunter into the UEFA Cup and surprise teams with our creative play. We would be the black sheep of the competition, the spike in our opponents drinks. Who knows, we might even win the thing, but any progression past the last 32 would be a major bonus.

Today things are a little different. In some ways we are still Eriksson’s team. The attacking ethos he introduced to the club can be seen best in the play of Ireland and to a lesser extent with Elano. Although Hughes is known to be defensive minded, under his reign it seems that – in our attacking play at least - we have become Eriksson’s dream of a pure attacking force. The additions of SWP and Robinho, along with the coming of age of Daniel Sturridge have made our attack dangerously unregulated to our own detriment.

So after much ado, the overall point here is that although we should be happy that we are in Europe, my expectations have increased to the point where I believe we should be getting at least to the quarter finals of this competition. You can imagine what damage this 2-2 draw did to this line of thinking.

Blunt swords
Those watching from the comfort of their own living rooms will no doubt say that 2-2 was a good result against a team that as recent as 2006 defeated Manchester United 1-0 in the group stages of the Champions League. The reality was that it was a poor result. City spurned a wealth of attacking chances, summed up with SWP and Robinho both going through on goal only for Christiansen to save on both occasions.

Now, I acknowledge that players go through bad patches. Confidence can evaporate, touch can be lost, one’s mind can go to the dogs. But we are talking about top class attacking talent here. For Robinho, there can be are no excuses and for all that he is worth he should be putting away these kinds of chances. For whatever reason, in Copenhagen he had the look of a player that was shot of confidence. Maybe he was homesick, maybe he was just plain fucking freezing. In today’s game though, and with all the money he gets paid, these excuses are unacceptable.

There are some things to say in Robinho’s defence. I disagree with the view of Lee Dixon when he says that Robinho more or less resembled a passenger in the game. He was tracking back and he was providing the first line of defence on his side of the pitch, giving a little bit of protection to the full back and thus putting in a shift for the team. Going forward though we all know that he is capable of so much more.

Although he is a City legend in my eyes, SWP must also be singled out for criticism. His best game for us was his first one back in a sky blue shirt, away at Sunderland in August 2008 where we won 3-0 and he scored two goals (incidentally our last away win of the season). Since then, SWP’s goal output has not been up to standard and lately he has been giving the ball away far too much for my liking. His work ethic cannot be questioned and he will always put in a shift for the team. But SWP is an attacking animal and he must be applied as such. Anything less will be a massive waste of good English talent. Shaunie, I love you. Please, please up your game to the high levels that we all know you are capable of attaining!

The two real disappointments
For seasons, the centre of defence has been the most reassuring part of our team. Distin and Dunne, then Dunne and Richards have both been excellent pairings. Our defensive performance in Copenhagen was a microcosm of our defensive record this season: a complete shambles.

Micah Richards is a shadow of his former self. Hughes has moved him out from the centre to right back, where unfortunately the errors have followed. Richards is no longer the marauding force of old. The former England right back no longer attacks the ball with the power, determination and certainty that he once did. Along with the disappointing Richard Dunne, he was at fault for both of Copenhagen’s goals. Handing the opposition free headers in the penalty area is simply asking for it, and defensively we got what we deserved.

Having had my bones chilled through, and coming away from the Parken Stadium feeling gutted with the way we’d capitulated, I was troubled by one further irritant. Only two players from the City squad – Stephen Ireland and Nedum Onuoha – made a real bee line and came over to the 1,900 City fans with their hands held high to salute us for our support. The rest trudged down the tunnel, caught in the grip of a massive sulk. Players may forget that fans cannot simply wash away the rotten taste of unappreciation with a few pints of Carlsberg. It seems that if we are going to make any further progress in this competition, then we surely need to grow up first.

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