Sunday, 25 September 2011

Everton reaction: Balotelli, Tim Howard's goalkicks, and a trio of supersubs

For four seasons Everton have come to Manchester and taken everything.  The last time City beat them at home was courtesy of a brace from none other than Georgios Samaras, in a team that still had Nicky Weaver in goal and Stephen Jordan at left-back.  This is one reason why yesterday's result was so satisfying.  The other, contrary to the frayed nerves at the stadium yesterday, was the manner of the win.

I heard many fans at the ground yesterday saying it was City's worst performance of the season, which, as a sentiment, is worrying in itself, but it is the first time a team has set up solely to stifle City's attacking play this season - as Moyes said "I wasn't going to come here for the enjoyment of Man City."  When a team has ten men behind the ball, the football is naturally going to be played patiently and in front of the wall of defenders for the large part of the game.  

Last season, many teams came to City and adopted the same tactic - sitting behind the ball and frustrating City - and for the most part, they had some success.  So it was refreshing to see City come out on top.  The perceived one-dimensional 'Carlos Tevez reliance' that was a factor last season has gone, and whilst teams can sit on David Silva for most of the game, the fruit of our riches means that Aguero, Nasri, Dzeko or Balotelli may still cause problems.  

EMBRACE: Balotelli celebrates his goal with Mancini and coach David Platt

The decision by Mancini to put his faith in the mercurial Balotelli to be the match changer will hopefully be another grounding for the young Italian.  He was obviously delighted with his goal and produced a mature and steady performance (little tantrums excepted) that fully justified him being preferred to Tevez - who is yet to find the confidence that marked his displays last season.  Mario's ability has never been in question - he has all the tools needed to be one of the best strikers in the league - and if, it is a big if, he can consistently approach games with the right attitude, then there is no reason why he shouldn't be able to force his way into the team.  With Tevez eventually staying this summer, the renaissance of Dzeko, and the arrival of Aguero, Balotelli, for all his confidence, must have wondered how much he would feature this season, so hopefully Mancini's faith in him as match-winner should re-focus him once again.  

One of the most contentious post-match issues seems to be that of Moyes's approach to the game.  I, for one, fully expected Everton to come and defend - as many teams will this season - and Moyes does have precious few resources with which to mount a serious attacking challenge to City in a game such as this: even their previous victories, as impressive as they were, were notably dogged displays - their only two shots of the game sealed last season's victory.  Yet there are degrees to such an approach.  In previous seasons, there always seemed to be the ambition to win the game - which wasn't apparent here.  It is of little consequence to me - and I recognise teams' efforts to shut out City as a sign of respect - but the lively showing of Apostolos Vellios, when he came on, was enough to think 'would it really have dented such a defensive showing to have at least one outlet upfront?'  

However, the contrast between Tim Howard's slothful, meditative art of goalkicking before the goal and his frantic, scurrying transformation afterwards was pathetically brilliant.  It is one thing to defend from the outset, which of course is just part of football, but to waste time from the first minute is something else.  

David Silva's pass for Milner's goal was unbelievable - just when I thought the central option was closed up, or, in an inexplicable wavering of faith, I thought he might just be about to lose the ball, Milner was through for the second.  He truly is a magician.  Stubbornly followed around the pitch by Jack Rodwell, his performance was an exercise in patience and he still managed to assert his influence on the game.  

On a final note, it must be quite satisfying as a manager to bring on three substitutes - two of whom score and the other completes a clearance off the goal-line.      

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Wigan reaction: In praise of David Silva

It is indicative of how City have evolved as a team when the hat trick hero has plenty of serious competition for the man of the match award.  Whereas last season the criticism often levelled at City was that we were over reliant on one man (Carlos Tevez), the displays this season have been a marvel of cohesion and collective brilliance.  Despite scoring three coolly taken goals and coming close on a couple of other occasions, it was still possible to look past Sergio Aguero and surrender oneself to the majesty of David Silva.

I find it very difficult not to get carried away with my admiration for the wee Spaniard but, despite the improbability of him being able to improve on last season, he seems to have come back stronger, more confident, and almost irrepressible.  Seeing him leap through the small crowd of Wigan players to set up the third goal or his balletic twist and turn on the ball in the first half that saw him skip away from three or four defenders, it didn't seem like stopping him could possibly be an option yesterday.  Judging by the penalty he won, he even seems to have fewer scruples about putting his body on the line for the team.

It has been a familiar refrain over many years that the team had never replaced the Ali Benarbia figure - someone capable of dictating the pace of a match whilst creating the magic necessary to win the game.  In the ever-improving David Silva, that search is over.  His performance yesterday was sensational - setting up two goals and playing a part in the other, he moved with the assurance of someone who has found his home in the English game.  For a City fan, it was a joy to watch.

The Barcelona parallels are being played up or down depending on the hysteria of who you are speaking to, but with the prospect of having Silva, Nasri and Aguero all playing off one another, the spectacles to come promise to be very mouthwatering indeed.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Out of office

After a fairly unproductive couple of months, I am going to declare an 'out of office' until early September.  Criminally I am on other shores and still will be when the season begins against Swansea - but will be taking up my seat from then on in and picking up the blog from there.  If you would like to catch some of my writing still, then I have a general moan about the lack of domestic friendlies in the upcoming issue of Topical City.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Time for the end of Carlos's captaincy?

It is often the case as a football fan that you have to dislocate the man from the player or at least aspects of the man from the player who crosses that white line.  This is easy to do as long as the attitude on the pitch is what is expected.  Martin Petrov, for example, lost almost all my sympathies when he brought his name-waggling whining celebration into games.  Carlos Tevez, on the other hand, is perfect.  Disregarding the occasionally grumpy characteristics, he gives his all for the team and you cannot ask for much more from a player.  Off the pitch, however much is true of what we read, is a circus of uncertainty.

In today's Independent there is a report that three of City's senior players have approached Mancini about stripping Tevez of the captaincy.  Ian Herbert describes these developments as,
"the first evidence that the interminable uncertainty over the Argentine's future is damaging his popularity."
The key word here for us City fans is 'interminable'.  If Tevez does stay for next season, as many reports suggest, it doesn't necessarily mean that the speculation over his future will end.  There are factors, in another season at City, that Tevez would consider a compromise.  The most persistent grumble is about his family - for whatever reason, he doesn't feel Manchester and family life can be brought together, which is obviously a problem for him and his happiness in a country where, by his own admission, he has struggled to settle.  These personal problems are unlikely to be solved in a new contract and I don't think we'll hear the end of them if he were to pledge himself to the club.

All of which is fine, to an extent - it is hard to find too much sympathy with such a well compensated problem.  The issue is that this figure of uncertainty is the club captain.  Giving Tevez the captaincy in the first place was considered a goodwill gesture to keep him at the club, but he should know that greater vocal commitment to the club is needed in such a role.

I would love Tevez to stay and there are signs that this is a distinct possibility but there is no reason why he cannot stay on without the captaincy.  He has had a season where he has performed outstandingly, but his off the field comments, his transfer request and all that accompanied it, has left his position as the leader of the team looking quite flimsy - and it would hardly be surprising if more committed members of the squad are disgruntled by his continuing in the role.

Vincent Kompany would be the obvious choice as his replacement - a great leader on the pitch, respected by his team mates, and an eloquent and vocal ambassador of the club and its ambitions.

Obviously it is not as easy as all that - the last thing the management will want to do is upset Tevez at such a delicate juncture but, at the same time, if it is dealt with correctly then it could serve to show that Tevez is not the boss at the club, that the management will not bow to his every request, and this can only be good for the dynamics of the club.  A very important player does not necessarily make ideal captaincy material.  The club should be in the position of power and continuing the perceived mollycoddling of our prize asset should not be necessary where the club now finds itself in the English game.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Theatre of Base Comedy 10/11 Awards

Player of the Season
Indisputably Vincent Kompany.  A tower of strength, poise and vision, Kompany is the side's true captain and most consistently excellent performer.

Goal of the Season
Tevez's bullet free-kick won the official award and, as a Tevez free-kick hater, it was amazing to see after all the soft chipped efforts that came before it, but David Silva's balance and close control whilst slaloming through Blackpool's defence wins it for me.  Reminiscent of Kinkladze's goal against Southampton at Maine Road, this was pure class.  Although De Jong's goal against West Ham was a close contender...

Top Buy
Yaya Toure was fantastic when it mattered - running in his own indomitable style through teams (quite often with players desperately hanging off the side of him, trying to get close) - and if his enthusiasm would've been there for all the games, he would have won this award easily.  However, David Silva gets it for adding magic to the side - magic that was so sorely missed last season after the demise of Stephen Ireland - more composure in front of goal and he would be the complete attacking midfielder.

Flop of the Season
On the other hand there is Jerome Boateng.  He arrived with great promise after an eye-catching World Cup and an excellent cross in the friendly against Valencia - but a series of injuries and timid displays have contributed to an inauspicious first season in England.  There is potential there but he does look like a player who hasn't got the confidence to do anything.

Performance of the Season
Part of City's success this season came from a willingness to mix style and doggedness when it was appropriate.  When Chelsea came to Eastlands towards the end of September, they had spent the opening month and a half of the season tonking teams to the tune of 4, 5, 6 or 7 goals - they were a side full of confidence and the 'heaviest in the league'.  City dug in and when Carlos Tevez took on the Chelsea defence on his own, City proved strong enough to hold on to that lead.  The first really impressive show of City's style was the away victory at Fulham.  One João Alves de Assis Silva was preferred in the wide left role and City's more natural shape produced some breathtaking football - perhaps capped by the 24 pass move that set up the second goal for Yaya Toure.  As a first real show of City's attacking potential, the Fulham performance gets my vote.  

Moment of the Season
It has got to be between the FA Cup semi-final and the final itself.  The semi-final victory had been coming and that release of tension when Yaya bulldozered his way through the United defence was unbelievable, but to see City lift silverware for the first time in my lifetime was an unforgettable moment - the players celebrating, grown men weeping in the stands, Wembley Poznans... It really was something special. 

Season review: Winning Mentality

The last months of a season are always going to be those that are remembered, whether they define a side's success or not - strong early season form will often be eclipsed by a woeful end, for example, as Sunderland may testify this season - but with City, the blistering run from the semi-final to the end of the season was not only a welcome surprise but also marked the arrival of the team as a force to be reckoned with.  

Trained for years in the complexities of Cityitis, we had to juggle the hope that was being offered with all the 'typical city' feelings.  Sure, we'll beat United in the semis, but wouldn't it just be typical City to then lose to Stoke - especially Stoke.  Tottenham are on a woeful run, but they always do well at Eastlands and it would be typical of City to be the ones to end their misfortune.  Can we be trusted with it all in our hands on the last day away to Bolton? The workings of the paranoid mind, but even amongst the fans that is beginning to change.  I feel it is our duty to feel like that almost - it has been ingrained over the last couple of decades - but there is less reason for those feelings.  Could the fabled winning mentality be making its way into the terraces too?

The 'winning mentality' has become one of football's clichés.  After the Champions' League final, Barcelona legend Hristo Stoichkov was reported to have said the difference between Barca and United was the Catalan's winning mentality.  Which, although I am sure he didn't mean to make it sound that way, somewhat detracts from the fact that Barcelona are by far the superior team.  Pitting some of the best midfielders of my lifetime against an ageing philanderer and Michael Carrick was never going to be much of a contest.  A crack team of psychologists and brainwashers may be able to convince my Sunday league side that they can beat anybody, but it is more likely to end in fights and breakdowns than a dizzying ascent into the football league.  

Part of it then must be a realisation of the worth of your team.  City's squad, player for player, is up there with the best in the league - if this is used in the right way, without complacency, with the correct desire, with the 'winning mentality', then there is no reason not to feel invincible.  Team ethic and discipline are important here, especially as it is something sceptics maintained wouldn't be possible at City and under Mancini, but the final months of the season showed a team coming together and playing for each other at the right time.  

Of course the unquestionable success Mancini has brought this season should strengthen his position amongst the more rebellious members of the squad, of which there will always be some, and if City can take this unity into next season, without too great an upheaval in the transfer market, then the side are in a very strong position to continue to grow next season.  

Sunday, 17 April 2011

"This is a big moment for us" - Semi-final reflections

I think I'm going to leave today's sport pages out for at least the next couple of months.  Coming downstairs to see Yaya's gleeful face refreshing the memories of yesterday is the perfect kick start to the day.  I'm sure there are self-help books that advise something along the lines of 'find something that makes you very happy and leave it on full view, so that you get a positive start to the day.'  Done.

Weeks ago, when the tie was announced, a United 'friend' at work looked at me warily for a few minutes and then said 'I have a bad feeling about this.  It's coming.  It's about time you beat us,' and whilst there is a hint of a veiled jibe in there, he meant it and we both knew it to be true.  The 0-0 was drab but City should have taken more; City were the better team at the Swamp but something unbelievable happened.  If, as Mancini was suggesting, this is to be the turning point in City's history, then not a small part of it will be evidence that we can beat the best teams on the important stages.  One of the only criticisms that can be levelled against City this season is that when we have come up against the established sides we haven't always looked like we believe we can beat them.  If this can change, then it is those established sides that we will be attacking next season.

Ferguson played on this before the game - the hint that City players wouldn't be able to cope with the big occasion as well as United would - and for the first half-an-hour or so this looked like it was to be the case.  A bit of a blunder between Barry and Lescott on the edge of the box allowed United to pick their way through the City defence and Joe Hart made an excellent save - only to see a more presentable chance squandered seconds later.  But from then in, City pushed up and in the final stages of the first half looked the more likely to score.  Barry rippled the side netting, Balotelli smacked one at goal from as far out as possible, Lescott awkwardly volleyed over, and Kompany produced a smart curling shot around the post.  This little spell helped to settle the nerves.

City came flying out after the interval (apart from the obligatory 'make the opponents wait on the pitch' tactic) and the pressing of Gareth Barry, David Silva and Yaya Toure forced the goal out of nothing.  Barry chased the lost cause and then a complete shambles of mistakes pushed the ball to Yaya who, in his calm storm of power and poise, bounded past Vidic and stroked the ball home.

The fear of forty minutes of nerves and panic never came to fruition - with City still pressing before Scholes decided to spike Zabaleta in the hip - with Nani's deflected free kick the closest United could suggest to a comeback.

Yaya was magnificent; it seemed he has been saving all of his energy for this game and looked like he could hardly move by the end.  Whilst his work rate has been questioned at times this season, you can see these high pedigree players come into their own in the big matches.

Zabaleta and De Jong were typically busy on their returns to the side - and that added bite was something that was missing earlier in the week.  Balotelli kept his cool (apart from one little piece of 'mischief' at the end!) and held up the ball well enough for no one to mention the absence of Tevez.  From a man who doesn't celebrate, it was heartening to see him get so involved in the post match jubilation.

It was celebrated like the cup final itself but, if Mancini is right, then something else was being celebrated here.  A big party to mark the moves to 'change the history of the club'.  However, as Mancini and the City fans are equally aware, there is still another game to win if we want to banish the 'typical City' moniker from this cup run.