Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2: Match Thoughts as City Come Up Short In Europe Yet Again

And so, another lesson if one was needed, that City are not yet ready to conquer, or terrorise, Europe. It was men against boys for 45 minutes, and by the time city woke up, it was too late.

All the talk before the match was of how City would not fall for the same mistakes as last season, and not be overly-cautious against the might of Barcelona, but perhaps that was in fact the team’s first mistake.

And as the team was announced, my fears were confirmed. You see, I don’t think City were overly-cautious last season. They were negating Barcelona for 50 minutes, and a misplaced pass, penalty and red card ruined all the tactics. We’ll never know of course, but it’s my theory they were keeping it tight for an hour or so before showing more ambition, playing with the two legs in mind. Either way, last year’s caution was a better tactic than this season’s “let’s-go-for-it” line-up, with the wonderful gift of hindsight.

So, two upfront. It made no sense to anyone bar the manager, but as those who know more about tactics will point out, it worked well for Bayern Munich when destroying Barcelona the other year. We’re not Bayern Munich though, and it relies on the forwards dropping to midfield, covering the pitch and working their socks off. Dzeko was far from the worst performer, but it’s not really his forte to show the required agility to play in such a role in such a game, but he did ok in my book. It was suicidal to play a proper 4-4-2 against a team that dominates in midfield as much as Barcelona. So naive in Europe again, and the stinging criticism obviously hit home with the manager when he should have ignored it and done his own thing. Or maybe this was his own thing, which is even more worrying.

However, a caveat. I’d say it’s not 4-4-2 in itself, it’s what you do with it and who you employ, as hinted above. Atletico Madrid can do it too, but I just don’t think we have the personnel to make it work against such teams, and thus five in midfield makes more sense. However, I didn’t know before kick-off what our team should be – I bet Barcelona fans did, and there’s another part of the bigger problem.

The first half was, quite simply, a disaster. City’s only chance of pulling off a result required incessant pressing of the away team, and this was sadly lacking, alongside a very square back line camped on the 18-yard line. Milner is a great player, and one I pray stays at the club past the summer, and he has put in a man-of-the-match performance at the Allianz Arena, but I don’t think he can do much alongside Fernando in a four-man midfield against Barcelona. They can just pass round him.

The first goal only took 16 minutes, and you can blame Kompany, but it was fortunate to be fair, an attempted block falling right back at the feet of the cannibal, and that was that. Then Kompany did what he does worst and went charging forward and diving in for no reason and Alba was freed on the left after more exquisite play from Messi and the full-back squared to Suarez who criminally wasn’t picked up and prodded the ball home ahead of a sprawling Demichelis.

All our worst fears were coming true. This was looking like a humiliating defeat on home soil, and you wondered just how many goals the Catalans would pick up. Messi was at his predictable best, an absolute joy to watch, utterly unplayable. Suarez has come into form for Barcelona, and Neymar is Neymar, another player of exquisite skill, as you’d expect for £80m. Rakitic keeps the midfield ticking over and Iniesta is quite simply one of the top three midfielders of his generation. Alba’s not bad either. The only potential weak link was the keeper, but there was little opportunity to test that theory. Another team came to the Etihad and showed perfect ball control and retention skills, whilst we looked nervous, pressured and panicky with the ball.

I was just happy then to get to half-time with no further goals. Alves (the ****) clipped the bar from wide, and apart from Dzeko heading comfortably wide, and a fumbled save by the keeper, there was little hope. Neymar had a lob cleared near the line by Zabaleta and Hart had to be alert to smother two other chances.

Thankfully, the attitude changed in the second half. Was the formation to blame after all? With the same 4-4-2, City were pressing much better, and creating chances. Aguero shot wide, Nasri had a great chance blocked and Dzeko spurned a header that was easier to score, hampered by a standing start, after a lovely flick on FROM A CORNER from Vincent Kompany.

The situation was helped though by Fernandinho coming on, who was far superior to the midfielders of the first half. Of course Barcelona had a two goal lead by now, so it would be natural for them to sit back somewhat and protect what they had, but I don’t think that argument totally holds as they still had the desire to seek further goals and that wouldn’t explain City creating chances. Anyway, eventually, City got a goal back. Clichy won the ball well from Messi, fed Silva who flicked it behind him for Aguero to pounce with a massive burst of pace, before finishing off the move with a goal that somewhat resembled a certain famous goal of seasons past.

City were definitely improved, and there was renewed hope, but that was extinguished with the third red card in a row against Barcelona. There can be few complaints either. It wasn’t the worst foul in the world as Clichy went for, and missed, a bouncing ball, and of course Alves was always going to act as though he had been shot, but it was a typical yellow in a European game. Clichy had paid for his slow reaction to getting to a loose ball contested earlier with Rakitic, which earned him his first yellow.

From this point on, I just wanted to walk away with a single goal deficit. City toiled manfully, but Bony wasn’t fully awake and he  went for the same ball as Fernando resulting in a comedy shot wide, whilst Aguero dallied on the ball for too long and was tackled. Alba was denied by a superb Zabaleta tackle then pathetically feigned injury.

And that was almost that – Alves had a strop when subbed, Neymar argued with a City fan, and then Zabaleta lost the plot as the game came close to the end. No doubt the brilliance of Messi forces players to do stupid things, but Zabaleta’s lunge at Messi as he ran onto a Pedro flick was very poor indeed, and it seemed what little chance of progressing to the quarter finals was being extinguished. Thankfully, it seems that Lionel Messi, the best player I’ve ever seen grace the Etihad pitch, does have two weaknesses. Having missed three of his previous six penalties, he proceeded to have another saved by Hart, then somehow managed to head the ball wide. Penalties and diving headers – he is human after all.

So a single-goal defeat, which almost felt like a victory after the opening half-hour. Recriminations will be plentiful of course in the intervening three weeks, so where did it all go wrong?

Two things really. The team put out by Pellegrini was, in my opinion, all wrong, if not the formation. To give Fernando, a player who struggles with the likes of Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday, a start against the best front line in world football was ridiculous, especially overlooking Fernandinho in the process. No tackles, no aerial duels won, no clearances – and this wasn’t his worst game in a sky blue shirt if I’m honest. Clearly Pellegrini wanted a pure defensive midfielder on the pitch to screen the defence, but as we don’t have one capable of the job, picking “the octopus” wasn’t really the answer. City then failed to press, and the problems were exacerbated by the rather large, woolly-mammoth-sized elephant in the room, namely the continual erratic form of our club captain, who as a friend commented some weeks ago, seems permanently angry. Something’s not right anyway. City improved in the second half, but the damage had been done – and you have to ask why the team didn’t start that way and with the personnel that were on the pitch with 20 minutes to go. Nasri once more underwhelmed against top opposition, with a mere 31 touches in an hour (though we’ll always have that night in Rome), whilst Dzeko was reduced to spending much of the first half on the left wing. It clearly wasn’t working after the first goal went in, let alone the second one, and a braver manager would have made changes immediately. It could have been even worse because of Pellegrini’s inactivity, but credit to him for once more firing up the team at half-time and spelling out their responsibilities as the same eleven did improve after the interval.

But here’s the big reason, that some seem reluctant to grasp. Are you sitting comfortably? Well, the main reason Barcelona won this game is this – and it may shock you – they have a much better team than City. Their front two cost £140m, supplemented by the world’s greatest player, and sometimes you have to just admit we’re not on the same level. This is not a squad value comparison argument – whatever the players cost, their team is simply better man-for-man. This is partly due to Financial Fair Play, partly due to the academy not yet bearing fruition, partly due to not strengthening the team or squad sufficiently after our league title victories and whatever the reasons, it still comes down to them being better than us. This is not an excuse for losing – Atletico Madrid have prospered without spending hundreds of millions of pounds, but then Sid Lowe recently called Simeone’s achievements the greatest of any manager in the last 20 years, and he may have a point. Bayern Munich, for all their power and pillaging of any team that threatens their crown, haven’t spent huge sums either, so it’s not an excuse, but the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid go and spend £60m on a top-class player when needed, and the gulf shows. We have great players, but we sign Wilfried Bony – I think it’s a great signing, but I’m not sure it’s the type that will make us dominate Europe. The simple fact is, we have a long way to go to match teams like Barcelona. You may blame our Spanish executives, our manager, our players freezing on the big night, Michel Platini or someone else, but that’s the way it is. This summer is very important in determining which path we take in the near future- we must strengthen significantly next time around. This squad with the likes of Pogba and Reus in it would be a different proposition, one that could go up against any team as equals – but it’s not easy attracting top players like that – it’s still easier for the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid or Bayern Munich to do so instead.
After all, we wanted Isco (in sublime form at the moment, naturally), we wanted Hazard, and we’d love Messi and Guardiola too, but it’s really not that simple.

Milner and Fernando against Rakitic and Iniesta. Dzeko v Neymar. Messi v Nasri (or Silva!). There are no comparisons. When their lowest-key member of a front three is last season’s Premier League player of the year (by a country mile), then you know you’re up against it. We have a squad to win domestic trophies, but not one to conquer Europe. We can still do better though. And of what we did spend? We spent £40m on a defender six months ago who is still not ready for the Champions League “biggies” it seems. We kick out a player from the Champions League squad and effectively end his City career to include a new striker we put on the bench. Worth it was it?

The fact I won’t really miss Clichy in 2nd leg (his absence confirmed as soon so he picked up his first yellow card) tells you all we need to know about the squad deficiencies in Europe.  We need a top class left back,  a top class (left?)winger,  and an ageing squad may be close to needing a major overhaul,  with some major names getting no younger…

And for all the criticism of Kompany, he could do with help. He never has the same defensive partner for any period of time, and his rashness seems to at least partly stem from feeling the need to cover for others. With a top class defensive midfielder in front of him, a deeper defensive line and a regular partner, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation (as often).

In the end, it was a player who I don’t quite rate as top, top class – Joe Hart, who once more made me eat my words on a big night – he was excellent, the Man of the Match for City.

So what now? A ridiculous three-week gap until the return leg, and City need luck, skill and grit to pull this off. Perhaps a red card for the home side would help too (yeah, right!). Aguero up front, with Silva and Yaya behind? Yeah, why not…

As for the manager, his possible departure draws nearer if City go out. I have no doubt that the players thought the domestic cups not fully worthy of their attention, and all so we could concentrate on trying to get past a better team which would then leave us with three more huge hurdles to win a trophy our owners crave so much. Hope it was worth it lads. Having won both domestic cups in recent years, you’d hope that the players would want to experience that day at Wembley again (though not the Wigan one), If other fans wonder why we haven’t embraced the Champions League, they will point out it’s only because we’re not very good in it, and whilst there is an element of truth in that, with City putting in a ropey performance on day one, that doesn’t really tell the full story. I grew up dreaming about the FA Cup and the league, and it’s those trophies I still crave. It will change no doubt, but not yet. You’ll never hear me booing Abide With Me.

And so to another big match. A loss to Liverpool and the season, draws closer to a premature end. With Chelsea at Wembley though, it’s a chance to narrow the gap and put some pressure on the league leaders. Two up front?

Manchester City 5 Newcastle 0: Too Easy For City as Silva & Co. Run Riot

Such a perfect day, drank sangria in the park. And later, when it got dark, we went home.

That went better than expected. To top it off, a red card for Joey Barton was the delicious cherry on a perfectly iced cake.

The big question was whether Bony would make his debut for City, but Pellegrini decided against it, despite starting with two upfront. Dzeko came in instead, and with Milner injured, I was surprised not to see Navas start against a team that were never going to park the bus. Yaya of course returned to the side.

So after an afternoon listening to James Stannage (correctly) deride jazz in the pub, it was time to see if City could reduce the gap once more.

Saturday evening kick offs may not be for everyone, but they do lead to a better atmosphere, along with the news of Chelsea’ s draw. And as Newcastle foolishly tried to play open football, as we all knew they would, this played nicely into City’s hands, and with the fastest penalty in Premier League history, their game plan, whatever it may have been, went out the window.

And so whilst I was still adjusting my coat zip, City were in front. A dreadful touch from Anita let in Dzeko and it was a clear penalty as the Newcastle defender bundled into the Bosnian. A sublime penalty from Aguero, who gave Krul “the eyes” saw City lead, and it was soon two after a sublime piece of patience from Nasri who waited for the right moment to shoot home, leaving Krul on the floor. A sublime pass from Silva saw Dzeko chest the ball down superbly and slot home for a third with under a quarter of the game gone. I suspected and still suspect a suspicion of handball in Dzeko’s control, but no one else seems to have mentioned it, so maybe not.

Either way, it was a rare opportunity to fully enjoy a match City were dominating and had in the bag by half-time. They toyed with the opposition, who were truly awful, for the rest of the half, but without adding any more goals, as they coasted to the interval. Newcastle’s coaches will surely have seen that City struggle against teams that pack the defence, so you have to wonder why they repeatedly don’t adapt for such games.

The second half was a similar procession. Joe Hart did his one thing superbly, saving a deflected shot excellently, and once the goal of the game, the 4th goal, went in, the game was truly over. Aguero showed sublime skill and strength on the left, and after a surging run supplied Nasri who cut back for Silva, who supplied an exquisite finish. That was the best goal of the game because of the move that proceeded it, but Silva finished even more sublimely soon after from an Aguero chest-down. The only shame on a near-perfect evening is that Bony, on as a substitute in the 2nd half, couldn’t grab a debut goal, Krul admittedly saving well from a low shot after Yaya Toure had superbly latched on a poor keeper clearance to set him up.

After that, Pellegrini wisely substituted some big names with Tuesday in mind and City cruised over the finishing line. At one point, the crowd was so giddy and full of optimism that some even ventured to discuss the possibility of a goal from a corner, but it wasn’t to be – one step at a time.

Man of the Match? Well David Silva of course, though everyone performed admirably. And having written off Edin Dzeko for the 37th and hopefully final time, once more he stepped up to the mark just as a new striker appeared on the scene. He likes 2nd halves of seasons, so we shall see…
As for Yaya, his control of the game and his effect on the team is just very obvious. Today his agent is talking about him now staying for the rest of his life, so god knows what’s going through his head right now, but his birthday is under three months away, so I suggest we start planning now.

“Where were you when you were shit?” asked the Newcastle fans of whom half left in the second half because their team was so shit. Apropos of nothing, in 1991, Newcastle’s average attendance was 16,834.

Elsewhere and United lost, Chelsea of course drew and Barcelona surprisingly lost at home to Malaga. Having watched them recently they had been totally back in form, and Tuesday’s match will be some challenge, and I consider City to be underdogs.

The next morning, we were subject to the Jose Mourinho show, on Goals on Sunday, a show that managed not to show any goals as Mourinho cried his way through the many conspiracies against his team this season. Things certainly went against the team against Burnley, but it happens, as we know all too well. With Ivanovic feigning injury and trying to prevent the referee issuing a red card, they are hardly blameless themselves, a team that perfectly mirrors their manager.

It really is quite pathetic if he truly thinks the world is against him, that his team is the only one getting bad decisions. I only have to think for 5 seconds to recall Aguero’s yellow card for being fouled in the penalty area at Southampton, or Burnley also getting lucky at the Etihad, with an offside first goal. Then of course there were the three non-penalties at home to United. Or the penalty not awarded for a push on David Silva that may have cost us two points at home to Hull. Hey, both of Arsenal’s goals at the Emirates shouldn’t have been allowed in my opinion, so perhaps there’s a conspiracy against us too? The reluctance of many a referee to give us clear penalties his season has been baffling.

Many of the Chelsea incidents were in games that were won anyway, so their influence has been negligible, whilst conveniently ignoring incidents that went in their favour, such as Gary Cahill’s recent lack of justice for a poor challenge on Alexis, or their diving, flailing-arm front-man.

Chelsea have also been fortunate with injuries -however that is not all down to luck. Mourinho has nursed the team well, especially Costa, and kept absences to a minimum. City’s endless muscle injuries and Arsenal’s wretched track record with absences is not all down to bad luck.

Still, we know all about Mourinho and how he acts. I’d be embarrassed if my club’s manager was sat on that sofa with tin foil on his head crying about decisions. Still, it’s an approach that will probably work with his players and that’s why he is doing it after all, and expect a few generous decisions in matches from now on. Job done really…

And so to a biggie, and the over-hyped Champions League (unless we do well, in case the hype is FULLY deserved). No Yaya and probably no Milner, I’ve no idea what the team will be, but expect one up-front and hope for a tad more ambition than the game last season. Fingers crossed…

Stoke City 1 Manchester City 4 | City End Barren Run With Much-Needed Victory

Well, they got there in the end. Manchester City eventually securing a much-needed first Premier League win at Stoke, and finally ended endless tweets about never winning without Yaya Toure. They took time to get motoring however, but in the end coasted over the line to secure a first league win since New Years’ Day.

The evening had an air of desperation about it, with little chance of City emerging winners in the title race – and yet it was so nearly the case.

The line-up led to more groans as the two Ferns were paired once more, critics ignoring when they have actually played well (away from home) together to decry picking a pair who have instead never played well together. What their inclusion (well Fernando’s anyway) shows is the lack of depth in the squad right now. Frank Lampard has faded from sight now we have him for the season, but has been most effective off the bench anyway, not as a starter. It was good to see Milner included, the game demanded it, though I thought Navas might start too. Yet again, Pellegrini infuriated by tinkering with the back four, Kolarov and Mangala coming in. They did ok, but constant changes in defensive personnel are surely contributing at least partly to shaky performances.

Anyway, City started quite brightly, Aguero scuffing a shot when he should have done better, the commentators suggesting Fernandinho got in his way, but as the Brazilian was running onto the ball, perhaps it should have been left for him. Either way, after that, the team regressed, turning in a 15-20 minute shambolic display as Stoke pressed and found confidence in abundance as City panicked. Hart spooned a shot wide, then failed to hold onto a shot that was thankfully disallowed, correctly, for offside, saved another shot, and City were all over the place. Moses was giving Zabaleta the run-around, meaning Milner being shifted to the right to protect him.

In the middle of all that, after Hart spooned that shot wide, Peter Crouch was allowed a free header, and there were strong calls for a handball by James Milner close to the line. Replays weren’t totally conclusive, but it seems that the ball did deflect onto his hand, so it was a stroke of fortune for City as whilst it didn’t appear deliberate, if Mason had seen any handball I’ve no doubt a penalty and red card would have followed, as I’ve seen such decisions against City players too many times. Still, karma for Peter Crouch once dribbling the ball into our net basketball-style. I hold grudges for a long time.

Elsewhere, and it didn’t help that David Silva appeared to be completely invisible to Lee Mason, fouled pretty much every time he got the ball, with little protection from the referee. Nevertheless, City did improve after the shaky period, Fernandinho wasting a glorious opportunity when through on goal, passing wide of Nasri, then Aguero chased a Milner hoof up field, brilliantly shook off another robust Stoke challenge before firing into the far corner through Bardsley’s legs.

Unfortunately, City soon relinquished their advantage. A great cross it may have been from the right, but Kompany let Crouch get away from him, Hart fatally hesitated, though I doubt he would have reached the cross, and the ball was headed into the back of the net. Not all goals have to be someone’s fault, but neither the captain or goalkeeper came out of the move well, and Hart’s hesitation left him powerless to position himself to attempt a save. Perhaps we should look more at why he had so much time to put the cross in in the first place, but it was a great cross, so fair enough.

At the time though, it was no more than Stoke deserved, until City seemingly retook the lead on the stroke of half-time. Except that they didn’t, after a comical occurrence that didn’t have me laughing, but instead cursing for the entire half-time break at the magnificent typical-city-stupidity of it all. Thank god City won this game, because if this had cost us points, and our league title challenge, I’d have needed therapy.
Anyway, after a wonderful Fernandinho pass, and a Silva squared ball, we all know what happened next. Or judging by my Twitter timeline at the time, it seems not. So to state obvious facts, Aguero did hit the ball with his hand, so the goal was rightly disallowed. He also moved his hand upwards, so whilst the yellow card was harsh, I can see why it was given – referees tend to give handballs a caution by default anyway, not that they should. As for the claims that it was going in anyway, definitely, but it was just one of those crazy impulsive actions. It was bizarre, ridiculous, stupid, and thank all the non-existent gods in the world that it proved irrelevant in the end. Still, if you date Maradona’s daughter, then it’s bound to rub off on you.

And it was irrelevant because Manuel Pellegrini managed to fire up the troops for once at half-time, and they came out firing. They were helped by a Stoke side that left space available, and the chances piled up. Kolarov shot when he should have squared to Aguero, Fernandinho did likewise with a man square, then Milner finished off an exquisite set of passes on the right with a brilliant header from a chipped Nasri cross that thankfully evaded Zabaleta. Shame about the goal celebration though.

After that, City opened their legs, so to speak, and Silva’s determination won him a penalty, which should also have led to a red card as I thought he would have had a goal-scoring opportunity (maybe he was just a fraction too wide).  No matter, we actually got awarded a penalty (Aguero possibly had a shout for another in the second half), and Aguero scored his second of the match, before somehow injuring himself just as he ended his barren spell.

There were more chances, sandwiched around Nasri’s wonderful goal, most notably when Dzeko spurned a one-on-one (again with a City player square, Lampard), and City threatened every time they went forward. Stoke threatened little, apart from a soft penalty claim late on, and a free kick that Moses fired over, after a non-existent David Silva foul.
A much-needed win in the end and an international break to follow by the end of which our two cup-winning Ivorians will have returned.

Substitutions weren’t crucial on this occasion, with Dzeko replacing Aguero, every City fan holding their breath at the prospect of another muscle injury for our star striker, but he seemed comfortable enough and sat on the bench, so hopefully it was just a precaution. Off came Silva and Nasri too, on came Lampard and then Navas came on, hit a defender with his first cross, and that was that.

Man of the Match? Hard to say – Nasri perhaps, Milner probably, but Silva shone for me because he was battered for much of the game and just kept going and going and jinking and jinking and was pure class. The two Ferns put in a better showing but let’s not be totally fooled by the result. Our defence was very shaky, against  a team decimated by injuries, and whilst it was a nice step in the right direction, we now must hope it is not another false dawn. Mangala still needs to sort his feet out.

Unfortunately a late Chelsea goal, a rather fortunate deflected shot (the stuff champions are made of etc etc) meant the gap was not cut – we’d have taken the gap staying the same before the matches kicked off, but it feels disappointing to have happened this way, as after all we were only minutes from cutting the deficit. Ah well, there’s still a long way to go, and we saved a point late on last weekend, so, swings and roundabouts. What’s more, Milner could have been off in the first half, or even after a rather robust challenge in the second half (not that I am saying he should have been), so it was a satisfactory night in all.

And the match showed the difference when playing a team that don’t defend en masse, perhaps partly explaining our mixed home form compared to our excellent away form. The test will come when we meet another defensive team, which hopefully Newcastle won’t be.
City have now scored in their last 19 away games, have 28 points from 13 away games this season and we have the bizarre scenario of preferring away games to home ones. Strange days.

Trevor Francis – dear oh dear. Another Grade F co-commentator.

I haven’t watched the post-match press conferences, but I will take a wild guess that Mark Hughes felt cheated, that James Milner should have been sent off twice, Stoke should have had seven penalties, Aguero is a diving cheat, and Stoke can’t compete with our billions. Correct?

HOW DID LUKAKU MISS THAT??!!

Manchester City 1 Hull City 1| Milner Late Show Cannot Spare City’s Blushes

Another late show from James Milner, but it was too little too late, through no fault of his own, as City’s terrible run of home form continued with another insipid, lifeless display as Chelsea placed another finger on the Premier League trophy.

To be honest, we all thought this would be a walkover, even with recent problems in mind. Hull have been pitiful recently, leaking goals for fun, struggling to score, and looking like a team doomed for the drop. Never mind, when a manager’s job is on the line, City are often more than willing to give the man a boost.

The line-up should have given the first hint of what was to come. Again, as is always the case, it was a good team that was easily good enough to win the game, but in a shape that seemed ill-equipped to deal with the opposition set-up. Dzeko came in up front, as did Nasri, meaning no place for Navas and Milner.

And so after ten minutes, you go the sense of how it was going to be another one of those days. I hate to use Ferguson’s United team as an example, but they are a blueprint for success, and teams often went to Old Trafford already beaten. Ferguson helped create this aura by sending his teams out all guns blazing, playing a high tempo and looking to blow away the opposition before they have time to settle. City on the other hand seem totally incapable of doing this. We pass and we pass and probe and probe and the opposition team put men behind the ball, settle into the game, and generally force a mistake out of the home team when they eventually venture forwards. That’s not to say this is a doomed tactic all the time as we’ve done it for a while and often it wears down the opposition in the last quarter, but I do wish we’d show some intent from the first minute.

And linked to that is the clear feeling to many of us that the play is plodding, predictable and almost boring.

So as per usual, having felt their way into the game. City generously opened up their defence for Hull, escaping once as the bar was rattled, Clichy once more showing his unwillingness to challenge robustly for crosses, and when the goal eventually did come, it was beyond comical. Demichelis cleared a ball that Hart had called for, though he was right to clear it, and a poor clearance coupled with Hart now being in an awful position mean Hart had to parry an incoming shot that was going wide anyway, Fernandinho then decided to attempt a stupid back heel to get rid of the ball, Zabaleta tackled the ball and player forcing the ball to fire onto the post, leaving a simple tap in at the far post as it bounced out. It was staggeringly inept, and summed up City’s error-strewn play right now.

The response was pretty much non-existent in the first half. No real shots, Nasri turning in and getting tackled by Bruce, a perfect example of the team’s reluctance to shoot when in good positions, and half-time arrived with a whimper.

As for the second half, more of the same. Navas came on for Fernando, to give us that much-needed width and Hull had little desire to attack, so it was a case of another 45 minutes of probing, Navas crossing blindly, and frustration. I’ve defended Navas on numerous times in the past, but it does frustrate me that he crosses into a packed box along the ground far too much, when a whipped cross would be much better.

Anyway, another blatant penalty for City was ignored by yet another referee. I cannot understand the reluctance to give us penalties this season – it was obvious to everyone in the ground that Bruce pushed Silva in the back, and yet once more it seems anything goes where City are concerned, and these numerous bad calls could cost us dear come season-end.

Milner was introduced and Silva strangely substituted, and there was little surprise when Dzeko departed also. Jovetic couldn’t change things from the bench though there was at least one excellent lofted pass to Aguero, and as all hope faded, up stepped Milner to fire a beautiful free-kick home, a ball that curled from outside the post and back into the goal. A point was better than none, but clearly wasn’t enough.

And so the end of another deeply frustrating day at the Etihad. I wish I could tell you what is up with this team at the moment, but I have no answers. I know, with hindsight, that the manager once more picked the wrong side, perhaps thinking any team would coast to victory, two up front when neither is fully fit a bad mistake, a lack of width against a bus-parking team proving costly, and moving Silva wide once more reducing his effectiveness. Fernando and Fernandino might have contributed in Rome and at Stamford Bridge, but they are lacklustre at home – Fernandinho is dragged back down to mediocrity, whilst Fernando still isn’t performing.

He’s not the only one though. Kompany’s troubles are well-documented, Zabaleta laying into him after committing a foul in the first half, but the Argentine is under-par too, as are so many more. The likes of Kompany and Aguero have had enough playing time to be fully fit by now.

The manager must be scrutinised for picking a team lacking such width when up against a team with men behind the ball –we just can’t stretch teams at all. What’s more, why drop Milner when he was one of our best players last week and when we are trying to sign him up to a new deal, and why continue to play a defensive midfielder so out of form?

Having broken club records whilst hauling Chelsea back over the Xmas period, it is baffling why the team has not been inspired to push on further. There really is a lack of energy in the team, there is a lack of variety or a Plan B, and we saw yet again that when Yaya Toure doesn’t play, we struggle, the nadir being a performance that makes Steve Bruce look like a tactical genius. It is ridiculous that we are still so reliant on a select few players. Now we are in danger of breaking new unwanted records having failed to win in five games, and we can’t even fashion many chances in games – Dzeko’s well-saved shot in the second half was our first chance of the game, and the first shot on target. Desperate stuff.

And so attention will turn again to two areas. Firstly, the manager, who has to take blame as the team is his responsibility.  He isn’t firing the team up right now, and whilst the last thing I want is some neurotic arsehole like Mourinho in charge, Pellegrini’s tactic of saying little means he gives off the air of not doing much to arrest the slide, which might not be the case, but he is a closed book, so it just feels that way. Mancini got an easier ride because of his charisma, but I’m not getting sucked into discussing him ever again. Nice Instagram photo though Roberto.

The second area is of course our activity in the transfer market. We have a tendency to stand still after success, it enraged Mancini (damn, mentioned him again), and it is hampering the current manager. That’s not to excuse current performances, we should be doing much better with the talent at our disposal, and I was quite happy with the summer activity, but only with the understanding that we bought with one hand tied behind our back. Success does not have to be obtained by making big-money purchases, but it of course helps, and City have managed to spend over £100m in the past 18 months (Bony excluded), with little return, yet. Players take time of course, as Kompany and Zabaleta were hardly instant successes when they arrived, or even that well-known, but whilst Chelsea added the likes of Fabregas, Costa and Matic over the past year to strengthen their squad, we’ve not progressed in a similar manner, from a position of strength. It’s easy to criticise with hindsight of course, as having broken scoring records last season with Aguero injured for half the season and Negredo as much use as a wet towel after January, there seemed little need to strengthen our attack, especially with Jovetic at last fit again. I’ve no doubt that we will spend big in the summer with finances on an even keel and a few players shipped out, but the one purchase that sticks out like a sore thumb is Mangala.
I make no comment on how good he may be, and he will have been extensively scouted, but to pay £40m for a central defender (and it WAS £40m), you should be buying the world’s best central defender, ready-made for action, not potential. It was a ridiculous price, scammed by a club who are excellent at getting maximum prices for their players, and with a limited budget it made little sense, even though buying a defender was clearly the priority in the summer. I hope he comes good, but by spending so much on him it has hampered us elsewhere.
And if we must criticise our buying policy, then we cannot just focus on our manager, as I’m not sure what input he has anyway. Our Spanish duo must also come under scrutiny if they continue to purchase players who don’t excel at the club. What’s more, our selling policy is not working either, as we are seemingly incapable of getting rid of players for good money (unlike Chelsea, who get suspiciously inflated values), often having to loan out unwanted players instead.

However, we don’t buy “crap” players (as many of our fans like to call some of our own), and none of our squad are rubbish. Fernando came with a great reputation, as did Caballero, one of La Liga’s highest-rated keepers. Jovetic had a huge reputation, tipped as a future world-star when he arrived, but sometimes players don’t settle, can’t handle the different pace of the Premier League or just don’t fit into the team. Every team has them. Look at the other “rubbish” players that have left the club. Boateng is a first-team player at one of Europe’s best clubs, whilst Savic is one of Italy’s highest rated young defenders. The question we should be asking sometimes is not whether players in our team are rubbish, but why we make them look rubbish?

It is clear now City have no more lives left – which is bad news with Stoke away on the horizon. We really do have to win that game, and the games that follow. We’ve come back from hopeless situations before, but I’m not sure we will this time. Yesterday felt like confirmation of that.

Another problem with this bad run is that we must now look down the table rather than look up. The chasing pack is close, and there is no guarantee of a top-four finish, let alone a title.

Still, at half-time a friend said Pellegrini should be sacked. An utterly pointless and ridiculous idea that I’d expect from a set of fans rather spoilt nowadays, but then I remembered – Harry Redknapp is available! Let’s hope his non-existent knee injury clears up soon……

Chelsea 1 Manchester City 1| Title Race Still Favours Chelsea After City Dominate

Honours even in the biggest match of the season, and a well-earned point I was very pleased with at full-time seems less of an achievement now that the dust has settled.

A little part of me was not nervous about the match, having accepted that the team can’t win them all, and that a trophy-less season is hardly the end of the world. I had my glass half empty as usual.

The team had few surprises bar the inclusion of Sagna over Zabaleta, though considering Pablo’s travails against Hazard in the past, there was logic to it, and it proved a wise decision.

Fernando and Fernandinho, predictable but not that inspiring, however, this was always going to be a tight, tactical game, so the two were needed there to keep the midfield secure.

The rest of the team picked itself, the energy of Milner necessary to help negate Chelsea’s attacking threat and Navas out wide to hopefully pin back at least one Chelsea full-back.

And all of that generally worked. It was tight, supposedly boring to the neutral (though not to me), as the midfield was swamped and space was at a premium. City dominated possession and posed the early threats with some half-chances, the best being Aguero’s wasteful shot wide, whilst Zouma prevented another chance with a great tackle and Courtois batted a shot away. Out of nowhere though, Chelsea were ahead, and the captain will attract more criticism. Hazard was given far too much space at the side of the penalty area, something Sagna shouldn’t have allowed, and his superb cross was left by Kompany for Remy to slot home.

It’s easy to criticise Kompany from my seat in the pub I guess, and I would speculate that he didn’t know who was behind him. For me though, he had to attempt to clear the ball, even if that meant the possibility of an own goal. That aside, and a foolish attempt to control the ball earlier that allowed Chelsea to break on goal, he did better than in previous weeks.

And that was Chelsea’s last shot on goal.

And thankfully for City, they hit back quickly. Sky spent plenty of time looking at whether City should have got the throw-in prior to the goal, but quite frankly who cares? If we go down that route then we could pick apart 100 occurrences during a match, and Chelsea actually regained control of the ball briefly after the throw-in so it was irrelevant.

As for the goal itself, credit to Navas for another good cross that had Courtois flapping and Aguero’s wayward shot was turned in by an alert Silva.

Level then at half-time, and that’s how it was at full-time too. City dominated the second half, as all the stats suggested, but didn’t really threaten too often. Milner headed tamely over, Fernandinho headed tamely down, and Milner shot wide. But Mourinho did what he does best, and played for a draw, as he is entitled to do, and it’s hard to score against his sides when they do that – better sides have failed in the past.

The subs showed City’s intent, whilst Mourinho brought on Cahill to screen Lampard, but there was no special script to be written for the ex-Chelsea man on his return to Stamford Bridge, though thankfully the majority (though not all) of the crowd applauded him as she entered the pitch. He couldn’t make a crucial difference, and nor could Jovetic.

Still Duncan Castles at the Times, a man never knowingly wrong, scored Chelsea players as the better on the day, bizarrely commenting on how Remy and Hazard’s pace had troubled Kompany (5/10), so what do I know eh?

The full-backs did fine (I doubt you’ll see much praise for Sagna though, who kept Hazard quiet), as did the central defenders, bar one obvious example. Hart had nothing to do, Navas and Milner were excellent, apart from awful corners as per usual from Navas, Aguero was not on top form but is getting back to his usual self and Silva ran the show as always. Fernandinho was great too, apart from wasting a half-chance on the right in the first-half and Fernando did his job. Chelsea had fewer shots than any game for many years, but they’ll take the point, and having seen their upcoming fixtures, perhaps this wasn’t such a great day for City after all – time will tell, and City now need to go on another great run, which includes tricky games at Stoke and Liverpool.

Were Chelsea there for the taking? I don’t agree that they were exhausted, as they hadn’t played for five days. Both teams had two big players out so it rather evened out on that score. As mentioned above, Chelsea played for that draw, not fashioning a shot in the second half, and were successful. City are still that little bit short in attack as shown in recent games, and the result was probably fair.

City were caught between a rock and a hard place. They could not afford to lose as that was the title race pretty much over, but a win would have been a huge bonus to City, cutting the gap to a mere two points again. City generally played it right I thought, dominating possession and probing, but in the end they didn’t have enough to break through. Still, the season has a long, long way to go, and this Chelsea team is excellent, but no where near the peerless group of individuals painted by many journalists earlier in the season.

Empty seats aplenty at the Emirates as Arsenal take on Aston Villa, yet a lack of banter about the Emptyrates on Twitter (thankfully). Of course City get it more as much of it comes from United fans that have nothing else to crow about, but Arsenal fans more than anyone face being priced out of the game we all love. Hopefully as the Premier League go to clubs following fans groups’ concerns, something more can be done in the near future, but I won’t hold my breath.