Wednesday 4 June 2014

We Are The Champions...Again!


Although the final day didn’t quite encompass the unequivocal drama experienced two seasons ago, when Martin Atkinson blew his whistle to signal full time, the outpouring of emotion at the Etihad Stadium was parallel to that witnessed on that special day. Thousands took to the pitch in euphoric glee. Grown men swept their children up and raced towards the turf, couples held hands, helping each other over the electronic advertising boards and groups of friends held aloft triumphant signs. Complete strangers embraced on the turf, delighting in unbridled joy. It had happened again.

Their team, my team, Manchester City, had just been crowned Premier League Champions for the second time in three years. It’s a feat the fans of this club can never get used to. Based on the evidence witnessed so far, there’s certainly a justification for such occasions to become the norm.

The club started the season with a new manager- 60 year old Chilean, Manuel Pellegrini. Having had success in Argentina, spells in La Liga at Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga had ended trophy-less. The previous season ended in disappointment for the Blues: beaten by Wigan 1-0 in the FA Cup final, manager Roberto Mancini left by ‘mutual’ agreement amongst a cloud of negativity surrounding dressing room unrest rumours. It was hoped Pellegrini would bring a more ‘holistic’ style to the dressing room. Nobody quite knew at the time what defined holistic: but if holistic is in fact defined by winning two trophies in your debut season in a new league, he most certainly delivered.

There had been no denying the quality that City had possessed through the season. After a shaky start, with away defeats at Cardiff and Villa, and a calamity mix-up at Stamford Bridge between Joe Hart and Matija Nastasic that gifted Chelsea three points, City really turned on the charm. Big scoring wins against Spurs, Norwich and United impressed and a 6-3 victory over fellow title challengers Arsenal left pundits and critics alike purring. Teams began to look intimidated, often fearful, when it came to playing against City. The football on display: inventive, inquisitive, imploring and incisive, was a delight to behold.

Progress was also made in the Champions League. Drawn with Viktoria Plzen, CSKA Moscow and Bayern Munich in the group stages, City won five out of six of their matches, including an impressive 3-2 victory at the Allianz Arena. Finishing level on points with Bayern, the Blues were pitted in the final 16 against Spanish giants Barcelona, but went on to get knocked out with an aggregate score-line of 4-1 over the two legs. A promising FA Cup run was ended abruptly at the hands of Wigan (again!), who beat Pellegrini’s men 2-1 at the Etihad. But silverware was won in the form of the Capital One Cup, when City came from behind to beat Sunderland 3-1 thanks to superb goals from Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas. 

In the League, the match that had been billed as the title decider – versus Liverpool at Anfield – saw City fall two goals behind in the first half. The Blues pulled two goals back before Vincent Kompany’s sliced clearance gifted the winner to Coutinho. At the time it felt like a sucker punch: Liverpool had the momentum with 10 successive wins, Steven Gerrard was crying tears of joy and ‘we’re gonna win the league’ rang out around Anfield. The gap between the two teams was seven points but City did have two games in hand. The first of whom was Sunderland, who were next to visit the Etihad after the Anfield game and stunned most by taking a two goal lead, thanks to a double from Connor Wickham. A late, scrappy equaliser secured the Blues a point- but it looked like an uphill battle from there for the title. 

All that changed when Chelsea visited Anfield. A 2-0 win for Jose Mourinho’s men, initiated when Gerrard slipped and Demba Ba slotted home, turned the title race on its head. It was the perfect opportunity for City to take full advantage, playing Crystal Palace just minutes after the final whistle blew at Anfield. The Blues went on to win 2-0 at Selhurst Park- and from that point never looked back. A testing 3-2 victory against bogey team Everton was a significant hurdle to cross, but once the three points had been secured the finish line was firmly in sight. Home wins against Aston Villa and West Ham proved conclusive, encouraged further by Liverpool throwing away a three goal lead against Palace at Selhurst Park to draw 3-3. The Blues ended the season having scored 102 league goals, one goal short of Chelsea’s record, with a +65 goal difference- their goal difference alone was more than United had scored all season.

A lot of people are obviously quick to play the money card when it comes to City and any success they have. Yes, money buys talent and boy, have City got talent. Yaya Toure, the Ivorian midfielder who contributed 20 goals this season through his unique blend of power, tenacity and technique. David Silva, whose vision and silky prowess effortlessly creates sweeping attacks and turns possession into goals. The ever-reliable presence of captain Vincent Kompany in the heart of defence. Argentine Pablo Zabaleta, who’s so often criminally under-rated- a warrior at right back. The heart and soul of City, a man with passion and pride who leaves everything he has on the pitch. New signing Fernandinho- a player that effortlessly pulls the strings between defence and attack. He controls the midfield with an under-stated confidence that has earned him a place in Brazil’s World Cup squad. Samir Nasri, who under Pellegrini has been reborn and had his best season in a blue shirt, contributing with vital goals and crucial link-up play in midfield. Sergio Aguero, the diminutive striker capable of conjuring goals out of nowhere, again influential, contributing 17 goals this season despite spells on the sidelines through injury. 

A lot of credit has to go to Pellegrini. Take for example the way the Chilean handled the Hart scenario: England’s number one goalkeeper was blamed for a spectacular error at Stamford Bridge that gave all three points to Chelsea. Pellegrini took him out of the media glare, rested him for a few games and brought him back in but only when he saw fit- and the Shrewbury-born stopper returned better than ever. He’s also refused to rise to bait laid out by several managers, including usual suspect Mourinho, Brendan Rodgers and Alan Pardew (the latter bizarrely insulting his age), keeping a calm and respectable demeanour throughout the season. He’s also persisted with players when the fans haven’t quite had the same level as faith as him. Edin Dzeko, Javi Garcia and Martin Demichelis have all been scapegoats for the boo boys at varying stages of the season, but Pellegrini’s persistence proved dividends, with all three players remaining consistent figures in the starting line up throughout and playing vital roles, particularly in the latter stages on the season. Pellegrini – or the Engineer as he is affectionately known – is a rare breed in the sport. A true gentleman: a manager who has seemed to transform the dressing room into a significantly more harmonious place to be.

So, what now? After the tickertape has fallen and a selection of the City players are preparing to jet off to Brazil, the rumour mill has already been in overdrive predicting the future for the Champions next season and beyond. Toure has caused a stir on Twitter with ‘birthday cake-gate’, saying that he will discuss his future at the club after the World Cup and Aguero’s Dad is allegedly attempting to provoke a move to Barcelona, with the Spaniards bidding £30 million for the striker. Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry and Costel Pantilimon have all been released and Micah Richards is supposedly looking to move on. Meanwhile City are being linked with signing all and sundry, from Cesc Fabregas to Porto’s Fernando. It looks like Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna is a done deal on a free but any business done has to be shrewd to comply with UEFA’S Financial Fair Play regulations. Needless to say, one thing you can guarantee is that there’s never a dull day when it comes to City. They’ve most definitely found a brighter day, too- and an even brighter future. 

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