Sunday, 19 April 2009

Back from the brink, but the dream still ends

It ebbed and it flowed. It waxed and it waned. It teetered and it tottered. But on Thursday evening, in the heavy, adrenaline-soaked atmosphere of a packed City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester City’s dreams of UEFA cup glory finally came to an end.

How different it could have been.

A true European experience
One must go back to the first leg in Hamburg to understand how close City came to success. Travelling to the northern German city took the experience of watching the Blues in Europe to the next level. As a supporter, you really felt that you were witnessing a proper game of European football, where the stakes were high and where things clearly mattered to player and fan alike.

Prior to the game, City fans were out in numbers across Hamburg, with one of the focal points being a large square close to the Reeperbahn, a central nightlife and red light hub. With the sun shining, the City flags draping from every pub wall, the beer flowing, and the fans chanting, the atmosphere could not have been better.

Well, it got better. Upon arrival at Hamburg’s 50,000 Nordbank arena, I knew that we were in the quarter finals of the UEFA cup. It’s an impressive facility, the rows of seats reaching up endlessly to the roof, giving the Stadium a cavernous feel that is ideal for intimidating away teams.

Frailty and stupidity at the Nordbank
Over the course of the two matches that comprised the quarter final tie, Hamburg were the better side. After Stephen Ireland’s excellent 1st minute finish, it was all City could do to stop the waves of Hamburg attacks that crashed against Shay Given and his defensive shield. Indeed ultra critics would say that Ireland’s goal, whilst exquisite in nature, came too soon. It seemed to galvanise Hamburg’s attack into a frenzy and it was not long – minutes in fact – before City’s defence was breached and the German side was level.

City continued to be defensively frail throughout the game and were unable to deal with the likes of Ivica Olic and the Croatian’s replacement, Jose Paolo Guerrero. Midway through the second half, Micah Richards stupidly raised his hands to block a Hamburg shot. Now, I have no problem with players putting their bodies on the line for the sake of the team, but there has to be a bit of nous shown whenever this is attempted. This was sadly lacking from Richards when, whilst inside his own penalty area, the right back clearly raised both hands to block the incoming shot. The referee had no choice but to point to the spot and Hamburg converted the penalty.

It was always going to be an uphill struggle from thereon in but with 10 minutes left, Guerrero scored to make it 3-1 and things suddenly became worryingly realistic. Letting in the third left me coming away from the Nordbank arena hoping rather than believing we could turn things around at Eastlands. In the end, that third goal was to prove fatal for our chances of progressing to the semis.

Despair…and then hope in Manchester
The hope that I had carried back with me on the long drive back from Hamburg (yes, we drove and it was a complete grueller) soon disappeared into the night air when, in the opening exchanges of the second leg at Eastlands, Jose Paolo Guerrero again penetrated the City defence to make it 4-1 to Hamburg on aggregate.

I couldn’t believe it. At the very least I expected an energetic opening from City, but it did not materialise and now it seemed as if Hamburg had put the tie beyond our reach. But in a strange reversal of scenarios from the first leg, this time it appeared as if Hamburg had scored too early. City were suddenly energised into the cohesive attacking force that we all know they can be. Five minutes after Guerrero’s strike, Elano made things believable again by converting a penalty that he himself had made when his long range effort was handled by a Hamburg defender in the penalty area. On the brink of half time, Elano came to within inches of making it 2-1 to City on the night when his free-kick cannoned off the Hamburg crossbar.

The sheer drama of the second half
City picked up where they had left off, continuing to drive forward with purpose and quality. Their efforts were soon rewarded by City’s young Ecuadorian striker, Felipe Caicedo, when he shot past the Hamburg keeper in the 50th minute. I have rarely heard the City crowd roar as loudly as they did when the back of the net rippled. Finally, Eastlands was fulfilling its potential, stepping into the massive void that has been there ever since the club left Maine Road.

A window of victory suddenly emerged. As a City fan you knew, you sensed, that out of nothing, out of the dark, dank second half performance at the Nordbank arena, somehow, a City win was now on the cards. The fans were unbelievable. In their post-match press conferences, Mark Hughes and Martin Jol both talked of the home fans’ influence on the game. Standing in the chaos of the South Stand, on the edge of the Hamburg supporters’ block, amongst the police officers, the stewards, the paramedics, the City crowd as the 12th man was there for all to see.

The nearly men of Eastlands
In the cauldron of Eastlands we began to press home our advantage. Elano, having his best game of the season, crashed another free-kick against the Hamburg woodwork. With the Hamburg keeper at sea, Caicedo ballooned a shot over from five yards out. Minutes later, Robinho had his close range volley fantastically saved as Hamburg’s UEFA cup fortunes creaked and shook under the combined pressure of City’s attacking play and the intensity of the home crowd. Suddenly, we had a City team that was a threat from dead ball situations. Aside from Elano’s spectacular free kicks, Micah Richards led the line in terms of making the team actually attack corners for once. Then after the hour mark, Caicedo had a goal ruled offside, which was not surprising given the amount of times he had misjudged his runs throughout the game.

The sending off of Richard Dunne on 75 minutes was a turning point. In truth, the City captain had been given a wide birth by the officials. A more unforgiving referee would’ve had him off earlier given the amount of fouls that he had already committed. Whilst devoid of malice, the sending off offence was nevertheless as clumsy as it was stupid. The challenge was ill timed and as City captain, Dunne should have shown better judgement in committing himself to the challenge in terms of the overall context of the game. With 11 men on the field, I felt we were capable of scoring more than one goal, but with a man down even forcing the tie into extra time would be difficult.

Inevitably, Dunne’s departure created more openings for the Hamburg attack and Shay Given was called upon to produce some fine saves. City’s last best chance came with a lovely move down the right, which ended up with a Micah Richards volley over the bar and into the latter rows of the North Stand.

The referee blew his whistle. After being 4-1 down to a side that was joint top of the Bundesliga, we had dragged ourselves back from the brink of defeat to near victory. We had tried everything, but we were ultimately denied that all-important third goal that would have changed the face of the tie and likely led to a semi final birth against Werder Bremen. We were almost there. Nearly there and yet now not. There was no glory to be had. Instead, we were out the UEFA cup.

Stumbling towards Istanbul
City’s progress in Europe this season has been magnificent as it has been shocking. With the UEFA cup final being held in Istanbul, the chant that fans have sung all season: “Istanbul, Istanbul we are coming, Istanbul, Istanbul I prey, Istanbul, Istanbul we are coming, we are coming at the end of May” has been both comedic and – at times – unusually real. Who really thought that we would be able to make it to final? I didn’t until Caicedo’s scored to make it 2-1 against Hamburg. Realising that we had one of the best sides in the competition on the ropes, suddenly, Istanbul was becoming a reality. The same was probably true of a few more City fans.

But the road to the quarter finals has also been shambolic. It’s well documented. As a City fan you simply cannot forget the Danish debacles of Midtjylland and Aalborg. In the former tie, we had to rely upon an own goal just to take things to extra time, where we proceeded to wait it out for the lottery of penalties. In the latter tie, we threw away a 2-0 lead in the last five minutes of the second leg before winning, once again, through the lottery of penalties. We could have been the absolute laughing stock of Europe, but somehow – in strange but true City fashion – we managed to pull it round to a point where, unbelievably, after almost going out of the competition to a team of Danish minnows, we were on the cusp of a semi final place.

City’s stumble towards Istanbul has been unforgettable, for all the wrong and all the right reasons. Above all it is proof for the Arab owners of the massive support that lies behind the club. Chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak was present at the Hamburg game and must now know of the potential of the club if (and it’s a big f*cking if) things are once and for all sorted out on the pitch. A solid City team balancing resolute defence with attacking flair, driven on by the hordes of City fans that turned out on Thursday night, would be a formula hard to match.

The other positive of Thursday was the effect the game appears to have had on the future of Mark Hughes. The BBC Manchester post-match phone-in was positive in that you had a lot of fans backing Hughes and calling for him to be given more time than the nine months that he has already had. By all accounts, the owners are still behind him and that has to be good news. Stability is the key ingredient that has been missing from City’s diet for years. I for one will not be judging Hughes until the end of next season, but given the reality of football, his time may well come before then. There’s a sense that the Welshman’s fate will be sealed by what he does (or does not do) during the coming summer transfer window.

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