Long past overdue that we caught up with Corazon. Since the last piece, at the turn of the year, City’s quadruple chances have diminished, but we all knew deep down it was a dream that no club in England has ever made reality, let alone us, a club still in transformation.
The Champions League tie with Barcelona was evidence enough to support that, although we’re getting much, much closer. Victory in the Allianz before Christmas displayed the pedigree we have in Europe now, despite being in a weaker group this year, look around the competition and you’ll still find weaker.
Nonetheless, what a great experience, to be waking up of a Tuesday morning, not be venturing in to the 9-5, but boarding a flight to Catalunya to watch City take on one of club footballs giants. The tie was dead after we lost the home leg 2-0 in all honesty; but when the flights are booked, you have to make extra room in the case for a little hope.
In the first leg, City were disciplined and for 55 minutes Martin Demichelis kept World’s Greatest Footballer Lionel Messi at bay. Restricting Barcelona to just one effort at goal, from Xavi – which Joe Hart was more than equal to, the only flaw City had, was showing Barcelona too much respect.
We showed we could get at them as Yaya’s pistons let off steam, surging goal bound, City couldn’t make it count though. I was worried for Pablo Zabaleta, coming up against Andres Iniesta. Weeks prior we faced Chelsea, Zaba was lethargic, but it can be forgiven when he’s played 36 of City’s 49 games. But Pablo kept Iniesta quiet; all he could do was check back inside and square to Xavi, check back inside and square to Xavi. Repeat to fade. Iniesta is a big game goal scorer, check the stats, there’s no doubting that. But swap him for Samir Nasri or David Silva? No chance.
The absence of James Milner (suspended) cost us the tie though. Manuel Pellegrini is straight out the blocks at sides; sticking to his own plan in most cases, but he recognised the threat of Dani Alves and Aleks Kolorov was used to neutralise him in place of Milner. And that he did, the super fit Brazilian had a fairly quiet first half until he made way for Nasri.
After the break Demichelis was caught out, a wayward Vincent Kompany pass, Barcelona did the polar opposite to what you’d expect; played the killer ball and Lionel Messi was brought down by his countryman. Messi wasn’t likely to miss from the spot and at 1-0 down a change had to be made. Kolorov made way for Nasri, and although we managed more play in the Barcelona half (a half chance fell to Silva as Zabaleta cushioned the ball out of the air for him to volley) Valdes goal wasn’t breached and City began to open up.
Alves went meandering down the right flank and found Xavi who watched his effort curl over the crossbar. With ten minutes to go Alves still had plenty in the tank; he slipped around the back of Gael Clichy and doubled Barcelona’s lead.
The witch hunt that ensued for Demichelis after was widespread to say the least. However, Demichelis clean sheet record boasts better figures than Vincent Kompany’s this year, and he’s featured in five consecutive clean sheets in the League, a City record that’s stood for 99 years.
That said, it’s hard to defend the Argentine when he plays as abysmally as he did at home to Wigan in the FA Cup. Football’s prize knock out competition remains one synonymous with both romance and revenge, a fixture that should have seen us celebrate Uwe Rosler’s return to City along with righting a Wembley wrong from May last year, was derailed when Demichelis was turned by Marc Antoine Fortune and Wigan took the lead from the spot and were on their Wembley for the fourth time in two years.
Pellegrini hadn’t fully got to grips with the FA Cup; a weakened side were held to a 1-1 draw at Ewood in the third round with Dedryck Boyata dismissed (although we won the replay comfortably enough, 5-0). Watford gave us a scare as Pellegrini again deployed something of a complacent line-up (including Micah Richards and Jack Rodwell). Save the introduction of Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta, city would’ve been in really big trouble, but rode out 4-2 winners.
Chelsea came to town, looking for a third win over us in all competitions, and set up quite similarly to their 1-0 triumph over us in the League a few weeks earlier. It was this game, a well organised City side with a defined plan coming out on top, that convinced me finally we were taking the FA Cup as seriously as we needed to for the year. City did everything they failed to do a few weeks earlier; Toure dominated Nemanja Matic, Mikel and Ramiers, Zabaleta didn’t give Eden Hazard and inch and City controlled the game, so much so, Ivanovic didn’t dare come over the half way line this time.
Put us up against a Championship side though, and it’s a completely different story. Pellegrini has to put this year’s run stopped short in the FA Cup down to experience, but with time, his knowledge of the teams outside the top-flight should only widen.
Within the space of a week City had exited the FA Cup, and lost 2-1 in the Nou Camp. Four quickly became two.
The early goal just wouldn’t come in Spain, but we made a spritely start before having to curb our enthusiasm, City suffered three yellow cards in the opening 20 minutes.
Messi had other ideas though, and he rounded off both a game and a tie that Barcelona always had control of. ve been another yardstick reached to travel to the home of a European power house and not get beaten, but Alves again was restored the lead.
Both line-ups are star studded, but it wasn’t Messi that made the difference, it was a case for the defence. Rarely did Javier Mascherano or Gerard Pique cede possession. Vincent Kompany spent large parts of the game hitting Gerrard balls in to the stand. Progression we may have made, but we’ll never win the Champions League with the personnel we have at the back, dare I say it, we won’t win it with Kompany in the side.
So, although we won’t get to Wembley in May (or to Lisbon for that matter), we’ve played under the Arch already this season; lifting the Capital One Cup at the start of March. Sunderland’s Fabio Borini gave us an early scare, thrusting past Kompany he opened the scoring from a tight angle, and it felt like Wigan all over again.
The League Cup is a competition I’ve had a soft spot for, for a long time. There’s not many trophies you can have done and dusted and still have time to get your Premiership, Champions League or relegation survival ambitions back on track. At the end of March, City trail Chelsea by two points, Sunderland are four adrift of safety, but both teams have two games in hand to close their respective gaps.
Getting there was eventful to say the least. A 9-0 aggregate win over West Ham suggested City were still hunting for goals in the New Year, and the first leg was an Alamo of chances thrown at the West Ham goal. Edin Dzeko (who appears to have become first choice, at least by default now) and Alvaro Negredo started to show promise in their partnership, linking up to set the Beast on the path to a first City hat-trick. A particular highlight was his left foot volley; Yaya Toure lofted a laser accurate ball in to Negredo’s flight path, who fired home one of the finishes of the season. Forget Shearer, forget Scholes, constantly looking over his shoulder Negerdo watched the ball drop from the air before driving it in to the bottom corner with shot gun force.
The second leg was a chance for Marcos Lopes to impress, given a start at the Boleyn Ground, he claimed an assist for the night too. The captain of the EDS remains far from fringes of the side, but whilst he continues to be deployed in wide areas by Patrick Vieira, I don’t think we’ll realise his true potential for some time.
The month of March has shaped the season, with City still fighting on four fronts, it was important to secure the first piece of silverware in Pellegrini’s tenure. City started slow at Wembley, and were punished for it, but the second half was a slightly different story. This year’s League Cup finally is most likely to be remembered for the goals, rather than the game itself. Yaya Toure levelled with a sublime effort that looped over Vito Mannone from what felt like a mile and half out, as I watched high up in the great expanse of Wembley, but was much closer to 30 yards from goal.
Samir Nasri was virtually unplayable from there on in as City came to life and Sunderland couldn’t get hold of him. He and Silva started to link up, and a sweeping move forward saw Nasri drift in to the box from wide with his effort exploding off the boot to give City the lead.
Enter stage right Jesus Navas and it was game over. Kompany, more like something resembling his best form played a ball through the channel that splintered Sunderland and Navas’ pace saw him break clear. Nerves eased, and a much more pleasant ride back North.
Teams in the past have allowed their League Cup exploits distract them somewhat; Arsenal’s title hopes fading in 2011, after coming runners up to Birmingham who were themselves relegated.
But for City, it’s unfair to make that case against them. There’s not much shame in going out of the Champions League to Barcelona (although this can’t be acceptable for every year if we are to progress further). Just the one League defeat in the New Year (to Chelsea) has seen us take 28 points from a possible 33. The other dropped points were the recent draw to Arsenal, a game that was there for the taking but City weren’t up to the job second half. On the other hand, it’s no David Moyes scale disaster either. To think in 2014 we’ve been to White Hart Lane, Old Trafford and won at Hull days after exiting Europe, with ten men, it’s not to be sniffed at.
Teams chasing the League title tend to amass more points in the second half of the campaign anyway. City have to continue doing that. The 42 points from the first half of the season resemble Champions elect form, but we could have been so much further on had we not dropped points at Cardiff, Villa, Sunderland and Stoke. But setting records along the way will do no harm either; City were the fastest side to score 100 goals in a season when Edin Dzeko slotted home against Cardiff after 35 games.
City have to continue their goal scoring form where they can. Only two years ago did we win the League on goal difference and with Liverpool managing eight more than ourselves they better City’s record of 2.68 League goals per game this term.
There will of course be tough games, tougher than expected. Stoke for example are looking an improved side under Mark Hughes, and kept us out for 69 minutes where a Yaya Toure goal was the decider.
As the last week of March came around, City had the toughest run in compared to Chelsea and Liverpool (whose biggest game remains to be against each other on April 27th).
With trips to Old Trafford, Emirates, Anfield and Goodison, City could hardly be classed as favourites. But four points from games against United and Arsenal away from home are more than most clubs would hope for when the fixtures come out in June.
Technically, City can afford one defeat, even to Liverpool, and still lift the title (assuming they draw with Chelsea) but I can’t see this being the only place we could drop points. Goodison obviously stands out, but Roberto Martinez more open football and utilisation of full backs gives us a slightly better chance than usual if Aguero is fit to return and we can catch them on the break. The three points will be equally as important to their Champions League hopes though. The visits of Southampton, Villa and West Ham are less concerning than those of Sunderland and West Brom who will hope to keep it tight. A point for them against City will virtually feel like three, for their morale alone.
If we do suffer the one, aforementioned defeat that will see City take 46 points from the second half of this season’s games.
It’s accomplishable though, because we’ve proven there are match winners that surface in adversity; Yaya Toure at Wembley, David Silva at Hull, Edin Dzeko at Old Trafford when we had no-one else to turn to….. Add in to the mix a goalkeeper that has returned to his best form, reclaiming his place as the best in the country, the finest full back around in Pablo Zabaleta and the forms of Fernandinho (who now has four in 30 almost rivalling 1:6 ratio achieved at Shakthar), Samir Nasri and David Silva it leaves you, if at least a little nervous (understatement), slightly confident at the same time.
To think what we’d have achieved with Sergio Aguero fit (who’s set to miss around 40%) of the season and Negredo still firing (The Beast hasn’t netted since his brace in the League Cup second leg back in January).
We can dismantle our Champions League exit piece by piece when the curtain comes down on the season, but the focus must shift and remain on the League title. Jose Mourhino and Brendan Rodgers can play down their chances as much as they like but it’s all talk. Someone has to fill the void left by Fergie, and sometimes saying nothing at all says so much more.
If Liverpool win every game, it’s a done deal, purely because they have to both us and Chelsea to play, but points will be dropped. The question is where?