Sunday, 25 April 2010

A dour encounter gives rise to more twists and turns

On paper, yesterday’s trip to the Emirates was a potentially explosive showdown, with ourselves continuing to push for fourth and Arsenal looking to regain some face (and keep their own title aspirations mathematically alive) in the aftermath of their complete and utter capitulation at the hands of Wigan. In the end, both teams delivered a dour encounter, a day that, for me at least, was made slightly worthwhile due to the smattering of celebrities I saw attending the game.

Sven, Paul and Jeremy
After a few pints in the volatile Drayton Arms pub, opposite one of the corners of the ground, we made our way to our seats. Approaching the stadium, we soon found that we were walking behind none other than former City manager Sven Goran-Eriksson. The Swede, no doubt here to check on the form of City captain Kolo Toure, was mobbed by a small throng of City fans – myself included. Whilst Sven is far from being a legend at the Club (let’s face it he wasn’t given much chance to be a legend), its clear that he is still loved by some fans at Club, mostly likely because of the style of football we played under him and the exciting players he brought to the club.

Once inside, we saw who I consider to be a true legend of the club – Paul Lake. A player who could have given City and England so much more, a player whose career was cut short by injury. Lake was more than happy to pose for photographs with fans around him – for me this only reaffirms his legend status, given the amount of fans who must ask him to do this whenever he is in the public eye.

And then for good measure, coming out of the ground we saw former Rugby Union England international Jeremy Guscott. Not bad for a day visit to the capital!

The Emirates
Arsenal should be proud of their stadium, surely one of the finest in the world. I felt rather privileged to be sitting on padded seats – not bad a £33 a hit – although the reality was that, as usual, the away support never sat down and so never took full advantage of this luxury.

Although obviously on a bigger scale the Emirates reminds me very much of Eastlands in terms of how the highest seats of each stand slope up and down. Similarities with COMS do not end there. Both stadiums are not quite there in terms of atmosphere, although yesterday the flatness of the home support was probably down to the team’s performance and the fact that, whatever the result, they knew that they were out of the title race. The major difference between the two stadiums seemed to be what food they sell - will we ever see Salmon Bagels for £4.50 a go at Eastlands?

The game
On the pitch, it was another average performance from City where we never really got at our opponents. On the other side of the coin, they never really got at us. This was perhaps an example of when Mancini’s ‘safety first’ tactics served us well. Against United, one blip caused us to lose the game. Against Arsenal, there were no such blips and thus we came through at the Emirates unscathed. Everybody did their defensive jobs as Mancini opted to go with a defensive midfield in the form of Vieira, Barry and De Jong. Pablo Zabaleta, Wayne Bridge and (when he came on for the injured Bridge) Micah Richards did enough to deal with the likes of Walcott and Nasri. The worrying selection of Robin Van Persie never really presented the City backline with any serious problems.

Unfortunately we didn’t create very much at all at the other end. Adam Johnson faintly threatened on a couple of occasions but - as an Arsenal fan observed to me (in more colourful terms) coming away from the game - Bellamy and Tevez were ineffectual. And we all know what happens when our two lynchpins cannot affect the game: we either draw or lose.

This time we drew, and it was a much more valuable point for us than it was for the Gunners. That said, once again with the attacking talent at our disposal, I felt we should have been making more of a game of it against an Arsenal team with no Fabregas, Dennilson or Gallas. The arrival of Adebayor to the thunderous boos of the home support (incidentally the loudest they were during the entire game) upped our tempo a notch, but still we never really got close to causing Arsenal serious damage.

To add to our lacklustre performance, Shay Given dislocated his shoulder whilst saving a shot from Diaby and will now miss the rest of the season. He was replaced by Gunnar Nielsen, a player whom I knew absolutely nothing of but am now slightly more informed about – apparently he’s the first Faroe Islander to play in the Premier League. Stuart Taylor, the regular goalkeeping No.2 was out with knee surgery.

We must now ask ourselves, are we seriously ready for Champions League football?
When all is said and done, the last two results against United and Arsenal tell me that we are not yet ready to take fourth place. The frustrating thing is that I don’t think we turned up in either encounter, and let’s face it, we should be turning up and making a fight of it at this stage of the season.

We have thrown away a good momentum far too easily. The destruction of Burnley and Birmingham set us up nicely for the run in, but we never really gave ourselves the chance to win against the likes of United and Arsenal, and in so doing I feel we have dropped vital points and – most importantly have lost the momentum.

I have never wanted United to win as much as I did yesterday, and they did, so we must take the defeat of Spurs at Old Trafford as a positive, even if we failed to take full advantage of it. But still the narrative of the League issues us with more twists and turns. Today, after their 1-0 victory over Birmingham City, Aston Villa have somehow found a way back into the mix and now have as good a chance as Spurs and ourselves on making 4th position.

If we were to lose against Villa this coming Saturday, mathematically we would still be in the hunt for fourth, but speaking realistically, in our heads we will surely feel as if we have blown it. Anything less than victory will now not suffice as we enter a three game mini season that will have a major impact on the club’s trajectory over the next couple of years.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Watching City from afar

It has been a strange couple of weeks. I have watched the last couple of City games from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, from where I now write. I was due back in Manchester for last weekend's derby showdown, but a certain volcano in Iceland soon put paid to that. Whether or not the footballing events of last weekend have put paid to our aspirations on fourth place is another matter entirely.

5-1 at Arthur's
I watched the slow dismantling of Birmingham City from Arthur's Bar in the touristy Puerto Del Carmen. The trip here was a planned excursion to a bar that styles itself as the Lanzarote branch of City's overseas support. Arthur's shows that support through the numerous City strips that cover the ceiling of the bar, whilst the walls are lined with various City memorabilia signed by anyone from Paul Dickov to Ricky Hatton.

Indeed the backdrop to this game proved to be as entertaining as the victory itself. Arthur's Bar - a jovial and very British drinking establishment, can no doubt tell a few stories. Perhaps the most lasting memory I will take from here was the airing of the old song: "City! Manchester City! We are the boys who are playing to win!" very loudly through the Bar's speakers everytime the Blues put one in the back of the net.

As you can imagine, the record got played over and over against Birmingham. Following the demolition of Burnley, we once again showed what we can do when our attack clicks. Going into the game I expected McLeish's men to produce stiff resistance, but Cameron Jerome's strike aside, they generated little in the way of attacking threats until they were smothered by the usual suspects: Tevez and Adebayor, and a slightly unusual one in the form of Nedum Onohua, whose surging run cut through the Birmingham defence to produce and excellent solo strike. Onohua's goal reminded me very much of the way his captain, Kolo Toure, makes forays forward from time to time.

0-1 at Erik's
After the frustration of delays and airport closures due to volcanic ash spreading throughout most of Europe, I wasn't able to make it back to Manchester for what was a bigger than usual Manchester derby. I contented myself with watching the game in a quieter bar in another part of the island, but basked in warm sunlight for good measure. It looked like an equally glorious day in Manchester, a great day for putting the title hopes of our rivals to the sword. The reality of course was a very average derby, a complete and utter damp squib that neither side deserved to win.

The game ended on an all too familiar note, the recurring, unpalatable taste of defeat to United, once again in the dying embers of the game, once again as we thought we had done enough. It pains and irks me like a bone in the throat. Frankly it has been a horrific season for City fans in terms of derby football.

Last Saturday was a day where we suffered rather than benefited at the hands of Mancini's tactics. We gave United too much respect and allowed them too much time on the ball. For me this was the overarching reason for our loss.

I can certainly see the potential fruits of Mancini's thinking. The Italian certainly likes to keep it tight and there are great benefits to be drawn from this. But for me, this is cagey football, suicide against team like United and certainly not what this City team should be about. Call it want you what, but our negativity / defensive-mindedness / cautiousness was our undoing because it sent the wrong messages to the opposition. We dropped back far too early on and we saw little of Tevez's usual efforts to harass and pressurise the opposition backline. At times, it felt like we were almost inviting them to attack, a reckless strategy to pursue against team vying for the title, let alone a team that we want so badly to defeat.
Of course, if we'd have nicked a 1-0 win I would have been singing Mancini's praises. And we certainly did forge openings that could have produced that outcome. Tevez's freekick in the first half, and Barry's breaking run into the box in the second come to mind.
I also don't want to heap the blame solely onto the shoulders of the manager. For 90 odd minutes the team managed to achieve probably the most important element of Mancini's game plan - keep United out. But once again we fell down at the final hurdle because of a glaring individual error, once again a red shirt was unmarked in the box in the final minutes, and once again we capitulated - only this time not Owen, nor Rooney, but to Paul Scholes.
We certainly should not have lost the game, but we certainly did not deserve to win it either. United edged it on performance and and certainly had the better chances, but given our recent experiences with our rivals we should not have been switching off as the game came to a close. It was an encounter that had draw written all over it, and we should have seen that eventuality out.
The tables turn once again
Just as last week ourselves and Chelsea were in the box seats for our respective League battles, this week United and Tottenham have both made inroads. Looking at our own battle, and the small gap that is developing between 5th and 6th position, it is now looking more likely that the race for fourth will be between ourselves and Redknapp's men.

It remains an impossible one to call, but how cruel will it be if defeats like last Saturday's mean the difference between Champions and Europa League football?

Monday, 5 April 2010

Claret on the sword

It has taken us roughly seven months, but last Saturday at Turf Moor we finally gave someone a good tonking. I’d love to say that this result has been coming, but I don’t think it has. We haven’t been playing particularly well of late and haven’t looked like giving anyone a hammering. But I’m certainly not complaining. Plucked right out of the blue, our 6-1 demolition of Burnley could not have come at a better time.

Just like watching Brazil
On the occasions when the team have been playing well down the years, City fans have been known to sing this line from the terraces. Whilst rubbing City’s dominance into the faces of opposing fans, the undertone of the line also served to self-mock. In reality of course, City would be nowhere near the level of the Brazilian national team. I have to say though, that this was not so yesterday, the day when everything went right for us in an attacking sense, the day when every offensive clog clicked. It actually was like watching Brazil.

Gravity begins to pull on Laws’ Burnley
A large part of that was down to the complete and utter shambles that was Burnley. I have never seen a top flight team collapse so early in a game that meant so much. I must admit, I thought Burnley would be well up for the battle, primed with a David vs. Goliath attitude. But they simply melted away from the very first minute. You have to wonder what was said in the dressing room immediately before the game. You have to wonder what the manager has been telling his players all week. One look at Laws’ face ten minutes into the match, 3-0 down and staring down the barrel of more oncoming City attacks, and you knew it personified the meaning of perplexed. It was the look of a manager, the look of a team that do not seriously think they can stay up. Anything is still possible of course, but if you are that low in the League at this point in the season and losing by those kinds of margins, it is difficult to look beyond any other scenario than one of relegation.

Demolition men
This should take nothing away from City’s performance. The Clarets were awful but they still had to be beat. Everywhere you looked there were openings, and City exploited each one in full. Bellamy and Johnson were running riot from wide positions. Tevez looked as dangerous as ever. Even Emmanuel Adebayor got in on the act, and hopefully his two goal salvo will now get his season back on track. Patrick Vieira is coming in for quite a bit of stick from the terraces at present. Some of this is justified, as he does seem off the pace at times and more often than not this leads to us conceding possession. But the Frenchman still retains class that has been understated during his time at Eastlands. He is the most creative defensive midfielder I have seen, a unique gift in today’s game. This was evident at Turf Moor when he sent through Adebayor for his second, and it has been evident in previous games since his arrival. In fact, he has sent Adebayor through on goal on a number of occasions with different kinds of passes. It just makes you realise what a force he must’ve been in his heyday. At any rate, he played well against Burnley and more than deserved his bullet header of a goal from Johnson’s corner.

This was an excellent result in more ways than one. Building on the 3-0 defeat of Wigan, not only will it have boosted team confidence, it will have boosted Mancini’s chances of staying in the job. There is still a long way to go of course and I suspect the favourites to land fourth place will change game by game, but you cannot deny what an excellent week of results it has been for City. Spurs came a cropper at Sunderland, Liverpool could only manage a draw at Birmingham (and on a completely unrelated result, United were despatched by Chelsea!). The margin of our victory over Burnley also brought us closer to Spurs’ goal difference.

Mancini’s equation
It was also a good result for fans’ confidence in Mancini. There seems to be two schools of thought developing about how the team play. Those that want to go back to the more free flowing attack of Mark Hughes’ tenure, and those who prefer the more cautious approach of Mancini, sometimes employing three defensive midfielders. Although Burnley were bad, this result proves that sometimes in football, you can have it all. Indeed, Sven-Goran Eriksson, watching from the stands, and Kevin Keegan, watching from the ESPN studio would have no doubt both been in complete rapture. This was the kind of side they dreamed of building, the kind of the performance longed to deliver, a statement from their school of footballing philosophy – that you really can play high octane, unfettered attacking football whilst keeping the door shut at the other end. If nothing else, the result proves that there is a middle way out there that leads between the na├»ve attacking spirit of Hughes’ side and the smothering, defensive-mindedness of Mancini’s. The devil in the detail for Mancini is finding the right balance, the right solution for the equation. If he can merge his own philosophy with a kind similar to that we saw under Hughes, then he will keep his job, because that solution will secure us fourth.

It is interesting that Mancini seems to identify Emanuel Adebayor as being integral to that balance. So much so that the Italian directly linked our chances of finishing fourth with the level of Adebayor’s performances. He has a point. Whilst formidable, Carlos Tevez cannot do it all on his own and he has been carrying the can for far too long with little help. Think of how much better we would be with the talent of Adebayor firing on all cylinders?

We should now briefly bask in the light of this fantastic performance, and take comfort in the fact that we are back in the box seat for Champions League football. Of course we should take nothing for granted. We’re City fans for Christ sakes. In the court of footballing opinion, we will never be found guilty of taking things for granted. But the fact remains: its April, we are 32 games in and we are in fourth position. As a City fan, when was the last time you could say that?