It’s staggering to think what we actually do with ourselves when summer roles around and there’s no football. In a World Cup year, City’s league triumph has quickly been forgotten. Whereas two years ago Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry joined Roy Hodgson’s squad along with Joe Hart and James Milner, it’s just the latter two who travel to Brazil along with nine others from Manuel Pellegrini’s Champions who’ve already touched down in Brazil with their respective nations.
Their participation in the planet’s biggest sporting contest follows, for the City contingent at least, a season that won’t be forgotten. Having topped the table for just 15 days throughout the campaign, it was the last day that mattered as our second Championship in three years was secured following the home win over West Ham, our 17th in the 19 fixtures at the Etihad.
Reasonable doubt was cast over Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment as a late, Indian summer rolled in around September. A loss on the August Bank Holiday in the Welsh capital was followed by an abject draw at Stoke. One of Pellegrini’s newest additions; Jesus Navas, looked lost in Cardiff – newly promoted and delivering a cauldron of an atmosphere, but the Spaniard was then omitted at the Britannia, a ground where we’ve always struggled to penetrate a very robust team.
The first in a string of mistakes from Joe Hart came shortly after at Villa Park and with City struggling on the road, Arsenal starting the strongest they had for years, Liverpool becoming a serious threat with Chelsea back under the directorship of Jose Mourhino the only solace came in United’s deterioration under newly appointed Davey Moyes.
Pellegrini himself recounts the difficulty he had with winning the fans over, with the Etihad still reverberating with the name of Roberto Mancini following his appointment, the Italian who had secured City’s first silverware in over 30 years. “I understand how they supported Roberto Mancini before” he conceded during his post season interview that can be viewed on the club’s site, before going on to show a hint of a smile in that charming way the fans have come to associate with him. “But during the whole year I felt supported,” he continues “the fans sing Sheik Mansour went to Spain…..Beautiful song.”
Slightly inaccurate though, as Chairman Khaldoon Mubarak points out in his own one to one “Sheik Mansour drives a Range Rover. Perhaps the fans could change the song” Perhaps, after all change is in the DNA of a City fan. You only have to take to twitter to see a ‘ten years ago today it was Macclesfield in the Cup” type tweet. The transfer mill saw us linked with……as opposed to signing Fernandinho, Jovetic and Negredo.
Ferna was City’s first piece of business last year, sealing a move from Ukrainian giants Shaktar Donestk, which saw him forgo a £4m signing fee. Like his lookalike from Game of Thrones; Daenerys Targaryan’s commander Greyworm, the Brazilian has shown reat fight, tenacity and loyalty in his first year in Manchester, but not without its challenges.
His partnership with Yaya Toure flourished after an inconsistent start, very much in line with City’s opening to the season, but his outstanding performances have earned him a place of Scolaris’s Seleção. As the Ferna and his colleagues settled, along with co-signee Alvaro Negrado finding the back of the net, what followed was a glut of goals and City began to mount their title challenge.
Bayern at home aside, a particular low point for the Chairman in his interview, City were showing signs of progression. As December approached City had amassed 12 points in the group stage with an outside chance of progressing as group winners if they could win by two or more in the Allianz. Preceding the trip to Bavaria were emphatic wins of Norwich and Tottenham, 6-0 and 7-0 respectively and in preparation for the Arsenal’s visit the following weekend a less than full strength side was deployed. Micah Richards hobbled off within 15 minutes and Pablo Zalabeta was neglected of the rest he so desperately needed (and has craved ever since). A midfield of Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia were left spinning by Bastian Schweinsteger, Phillipe Lahm and co, but managed to overturn a 2-0 deficit with James Milner securing a famous win.
It bred confidence that City weren’t relying on solely on Sergio Aguero. Kun missed around 40% of the season – or Yaya Toure in his absence, despite ridiculous dead ball efforts flying in, his performances were well below par, certainly in the physical sense.
Joe Hart’s sabbatical on the side lines quickly ended before the Christmas programme too. Costel Pantillimon had deputised adequately ever since Hart rushed off his line and clashed with Matija Nastasic at Chelsea to gift Fernando Torres with the winner. As January loomed, rumours gathered pace around the signing of Asmir Begovic (with Hart being loaned the other way to ensure he was ready for Brazil). To reflect on this now, had it happened it would have been insane. To fuel the fire Pellegrini’s interest in Wilfredo Caballero, his keeper at Malaga appeared to reignite also. What transpired was the re-emergence of Joe Hart as the talisman keeper we’ve grown accustomed to. Match winning saves such as those at Goodison Park (where City have won just once in the last 16 visits) without doubt contributed to our triumph in May.
In truth it was a Christmas programme that brought lots of festive cheer. New signings Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Fernandinho and Martin Demichelis had bedded in (following injuries to Vincent Kompany and Nastasic). The period saw City overcome Crystal Palace, now under the stewardship of Tony Pulis and also Liverpool, seeing us briefly top the table.
Following wins over Wigan, Newcastle and Leicester (which brought us brief glimpses of Stevan Jovetic) in the Capital One Cup, City set up a semi-final with West Ham in the New Year. The team’s resolution wasn’t to score less goals that’s for sure, overcoming the Hammers 9-0 on aggregate and setting up a late March final against bogey team Sunderland.
Back to the league, back to Europe, and to the FA Cup then. A 1-0 win over Chelsea in the Cup avenged a defeat by the same margin in the League a few weeks before, and the strains of competing on four fronts were beginning to surface. Failure to add Fernando (who appears to be a summer target) and Kurt Zouma in the winter window could’ve cost us the season, but in the end, well you know…..
The League defeat to Chelsea should provide another learning experience for Manuel Pellegrini after underestimating teams such as Villa, Cardiff, Sunderland – and although it’s more than amicable to not compromise your tactics in spite of the opposition (as he refused to at home to Chelsea) the presence of Nemanja Matic, David Luiz and Eden Hazard were less than a fraction potent in the Cup (as they were in the League) due to a change in approach.
March was perhaps the defining month of the season, despite Liverpool adding to their unbeaten run which eventually stemmed 14 games. A Martin Demichelis foul on Lionel Messi was the catalyst in City’s European demise, after holding Barcelona for virtually an hour. Messi scored the resulting penalty and Dani Alves later doubled the lead. Samir Nasri offered a post-match analysis more damning or accurate than any former pro in the ITV or Sky studios; a more experienced team would’ve kept it to one. But getting out of the group is progression nonetheless. Anything from last 16 next year, right to semi-finalists isn’t out of our reach.
Sandwiched between the two Barca games was the visit of Wigan, a repeat of last year’s FA Cup final, this time at the Etihad. After getting it right second time round against Chelsea, old habits got the better of Pellegrini, as he rested David Silva, Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero. City looked devoid of ideas, Yaya Toure, at the risk of being sent off, was removed at half time and a Demichelis foul on Marc Antoine Fortune saw Wigan awarded a penalty to take the lead. From thereon in, what had been a bumpy ride in the FA Cup was over (the third round game at home to Watford saw us go 2-0 down) and Demichelis had become a liability amongst the crowd. Either the pony tail had to go, or Pellegrini’s huddy.
The Chilean’s cheap last minute printed apparel went out the window, as did any uneasiness that brewed over the trips to Old Trafford and The Emirates. City took four points from six (but should have delivered the maximum after going off the boil after half time in the capital).
Ask Mubarak for his favourite games, he cites the first derby, the win in the Allianz and the Capital Cup Final as his picks “It was great to get that first trophy out of the way” he reflects. And he’s right. But as much as a trophy is a trophy, it didn’t feel like job done. Not yet anyway. There was work to do as Liverpool were cementing their place at the Leagues’ summit.
Ask the Chairman for his season lows, and most of them came as the season neared its climax in the following weeks; Anfield, Sunderland even West Brom. Despite the win the performance was deemed too lacklustre for any Champions in waiting he claims. Had it slipped at Anfield? “Not at all” he rebuffs, but it’s not a committed enough response to fool me. Sunderland was the game where belief waned, only for a Sheik Mansour phone call, post-match. “I know you are disappointed” said the man that has pumped a billion of his own money in to Manchester’s community club rather than leveraged it with debt, for the purposes of getting his knuckles rapped by UEFA. “Lift yours and the teams’ spirits.”
It feels a long time since the last edition of Corazon was published; discussing that pivotal weekend where City travelled to Palace and Chelsea to Anfield, but that’s where it slipped. That’s where the pendulum swung.
Not even when we travelled to Hull and Vincent Kompany was dismissed did Pellegrini lose faith “after Vinny was sent off we showed important character” and it continued from there. Villa at home followed, and despite an eerie atmosphere after the fans trickled in, delayed due to a local road accident, the deadlock was finally broken. The Engineer “never feared we’d fail in that moment.”
With a man at the helm more interested in the club’s records (namely the 102 goals we scored in the League) being more important than he being the first man outside of Europe to win the English title, it sets City in good stead.
After that Sunday’s scenes followed the parade, and Pellegrini (taken from his interview) “will remember it fondly.” He’ll remember it how, and the fans will remember the last 12 months; “A beautiful season, in all senses.”
Joe Hart – 6 – Not the England number 1’s best season by any means. A rising star on loan at Birmingham and backed by Roberto Mancini Hart never failed to deliver. There’s always dark moments to every players career and Pellegrini’s man management saw Hart return equally as strong. Moments at Cardiff, Villa and Chelsea will be moments to forget. Costel Pantillimon – 7 – The gentle giant deputised Hart with aplomb, in all competitions. With City securing advancement to the Champions League last 16, I’d like to have seen Costel feature in the Allianz. The big visit of Arsenal proved too much for inexperienced nerves, but a League Cup medal well deserved nonetheless.
Pablo Zabaleta – 7 – weary legs might deprive Zaba of another player of the season award, but that’s no fault of his with a lack of competition. Two questionable games against Barca and Chelsea (at home), but otherwise, he remains City’s favourite foreign son. Micah Richards – 5 – The last success from Platt Lane, and it’s a shame that Richards might have played his last game for City. It’s time for both to move on after failing to threaten Zaba in the right back berth. Dedryck Boyata – 5 – Showing greater promise under Mancini, Pellegrini seems to see the young Belgian surplus to requirements. Following a certain low in his dismissal at Blackburn in the Cup, Boyata looks set to leave too. Vincent Kompany – 6 –The stars aligned two years ago and nothing could have stopped the skipper then, but this year’s been a test. Often colossal, Kompany was schooled at home to both Barca and Bayern. City might be conquering England, but Vinny must continue to realise his potential in order to be the pillar of European success. Martin Demichelis – 8 – Proved all his critics wrong, and would be happy to see him stay on, with addition of another seasoned centre half to aid Kompany. Forget Vinny’s mistake’s at Liverpool; forget Demichelis’ against Wigan and Barca. Matija Nastasic – 6 – Preference to take the long ball option when in space frustrates me still to this day. Not a huge loss for me this season, but expect his services to be retained yet. Joleon Lescott – 6 – Lescott will always remain top of the league as he looks set to depart City at long last. A further nail in City’s eight from 21 coffin, and preferred partner of Vincent Kompany, but not a trusted lieutenant of the Engineers. Gael Clichy – 7 – Patchy this season, but will remain with the Blues next year no doubt. The preferred choice when up against the more potent sides, and continues to prove a bargain. Aleks Kolorov – 8 – Most improved player? He’s a prime candidate and benefitted from Pellegrini’s attentions where others haven’t been so lucky. Came to life in the home derby and hasn’t looked back. Pot shots from 40 yards out are a thing of the past. His left boot is rifle turned can opener down City’s left flank.
Samir Nasri – 8 – Forget most improved, perhaps player of the season outright. The Frenchman has flourished with Mancini out of sight. The synergy with David Silva is something I’ve never seen in my lifetime. A shade fitter and I’m sure he could be a shade better still. James Milner – 7 – The Englishman is Mr Seven O’Ten himself. Marked on the whole campaign rather than what was an under par end to the season. Nothing was going right for Milner at Old Trafford, Emirates and he struggled to find form thereafter. Hard to imagine the squad without him though. Jesus Navas – 5 – Didn’t give City the Plan B I wrote about back in August, and failed to add anything we had with Adam Johnson, as a starter or impact sub. Javi Garcia – 7 – not like the cheap stuff used in sangria he himself drinks; he’s maturing with time. In the end preferred to Fernandinho for his discipline and organisation. More frequent game time has seen him read the game better, get fitter and start to put a few more fires out. Yaya Toure – 9 – First of all; Happy Birthday. Jesus. A great player, African or not. Exceptional once more at Wembley and in the title run in. His record this year can’t be questioned, although is fitness at time could. Fernandinho – 8 – Impressive maiden season in the Premier League has earned the Brazilian a place in the hosts World Cup squad despite Scolari usually favouring the tried and tested. At times looked a little lost when Yaya was side-lined, but only expect Ferna to get better and better. David Silva – 9 – The magic seemed to go missing when Merlin was injured. A bigger and better contribution to the goal haul has capped another fine season for the Spaniard. Marcos Lopes – 6 – The hopes of a youth system rest on Ronny’s shoulders. At Southampton, he’d be playing every week. Hopefully he can force his way in as City have to shoulder UEFA restrictions next year.
Edin Dzeko – 9 – Of an attacking unit of eleven midfielders and forwards scored around a sixth of City’s goals. Handled the pressure of carrying City’s front virtually alone for long parts of the season despite his critics. If it’s so easy to score against the big sides, ever striker in England would be getting 25 plus goals. Sergio Aguero – 7 – Swapped his legs for balsa wood at the start of the year. Not quite the player who helped us lift the title two years ago, but weighed in when available. Alvaro Negredo- 7 – The Beast was unplayable when he first arrived, but hasn’t scored for City since January, and despite lifting the title in his maiden season, has missed his place on the plane with the World Champions heading to Brazil. Hopefully back to his best after a long rest. Stevan Jovetic – 6 –Didn’t see enough of the Montenegrin to form a clear picture of his capabilities, but when he featured, he excited. Watch this space.