Sevilla 1 Manchester City 3: It Should Have Been 10 – City Qualify For Knock-Out Stage

A coming of age (part whatever), City’s most complete Champions League performance, a triumph in Seville, call it what you want, I didn’t see THAT coming, and City were simply magnificent.

All the talk was of rain, fans being attacked, and whether Pellegrini would be pragmatic like he was at Old Trafford.

A nice comic touch from City fans to hold up pieces of paper with BOO on them. I just hope for the club’s sake they were written in a UEFA-accredited font.

Meanwhile, United’s OFFICIAL supporters’ group were counting the number of City fans in the ground an hour before kick-off. No, really.

And the team sheet suggested Pellegrini was indeed pragmatic. He gave us what we wanted, namely Fernando in defensive midfield (how times change), with Fernandinho and Yaya as the other two “central” midfielders.

But with that news came the surprising omission of Kevin De Bruyne, relegated to the bench. Surprising, but perhaps with reflection, not really.

So why was he on the bench? Saturday’s game showed he was clearly showing the strain of two games a week, as I alluded to in the match report, so it made sense for that reason, though my first thought was to wonder why then he wasn’t rested for the Norwich game and played in Sevilla? But then…

Pellegrini probably wanted to keep it tight, and it made perfect sense to look to hit Sevilla on the break, and there’s no better way to do that than with pace. Sterling’s threat could have been nullified at home to Norwich against a team with men behind the ball.

Anyway, it worked, though far more dramatically than I or even Pellegrini could have dreamed about.

Yep, City started on fire. They tore at the home team, with Fernandinho shooting on goal within 30 seconds, and Bony looking lively, though it was Sterling along with the aforementioned Brazilian whot was truly sparkling, tearing into Sevilla’s defence time after time.

Thankfully the narrative of another non-award for a blatant penalty was not to become the story of the night, as City took a well-deserved lead soon after. There was no surprise in Fernandinho being the supplier, freeing Sterling in the inside left channel, and he slid it past the keeper on his weaker foot. I think that’s the 6th goal of the season for the player who can’t shoot and will spend his City career warming the bench. He is also City’s youngest ever scorer in the Champions League.
Which when you come to think about it, isn’t THAT impressive a stat. Still, well done him.

City did not ease off however. Sterling cut back for Bony, whose shot was parried by Rico, and Fernandinho leapt like the world’s fittest salmon to head home into the now unguarded net. The home support were stunned, as was I.

It could have been three. A Navas shot was superbly tipped onto the post by the keeper, and the home side were being swamped across the pitch.

The central midfield trio worked superbly. Fernando was the pivot, allowing Yaya to get forward without worrying about defending, not that he does lose much sleep over such matters, whilst Fernandinho could be the box-to-box player we all love.

It was now that Sevilla had their only sustained pressure of the game, for about 15 minutes, and it brought a goal back, though not before Llorente had spooned the ball over the bar from just a few yards from what looked an offside position to me (no replay seen though). Otamendi, keen not to concede a penalty, let Coke past him too easily, who chipped to the far post for left-back Benoit Tremoulinas to head home easily.

Damn. Now City were on the back front after such an explosive start. A key moment was to follow, Hart saving superbly from a header, but City continued to threaten themselves, and the home side’s threat waned. Bony was leading the line well, and he got his reward when he swept in a Navas cross to restore the two-goal lead. By half-time, City had had 16 attempts on goal, and their lead was fully merited.

A response was expected from Sevilla in the second half, but the truth is that City repelled their threat well, limited chances whilst creating chance after chance at the other end, without reward. There were so many I can’t recall them all – Sterling jinked into the area but saw his effort blocked, Yaya curled one wide, Bony missed a great chance by shooting wide, the keeper superbly saved another of his chances, and there was more. Fernandinho also had a shot saved from a Sterling cut-back – both continued to prosper.

Sevilla never had time to settle. The City players were well up for it, and closed down the home players at every opportunity. They were reduced to endless deep crosses that City’s defensive pairing repelled well, and City’s offside trap worked a treat on numerous occasions. The clock ticked down, and in the end it was comfortable.

For me, there were two truly impressive things to come out of last night’s match. Firstly, the team shape was spot on, and it made Sevilla look like a terrible team, which they are not – so City must have made them look that way. Secondly, it really could have been seven or eight, and City sliced open the home side at will during certain parts of the game.

Let’s make it clear, Sevilla are a phenomenal force at home. Apart from their multiple Europa League titles and clear European credentials, they have built a fortress at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium. Ok, maybe less this season, but it was enough of one to defeat Barcelona recently, and European home defeats were a distant memory – Sevilla had won their previous 10 home European ties.

Man of the Match? Too many to choose from. Sterling was electric, tearing apart the Sevilla defence time after time. Fernando was a rock sweeping up in front of the defence and Navas excelled once more against his old team – he has been excellent for many weeks now. Bony held the line well and peppered the Sevilla goal throughout, the defence were excellent in dealing with multiple threats, Yaya was allowed to be destructive up the field, Hart made a crucial save and distributed the ball well, but for me it has to be Fernandinho, who was everywhere, and ran the show. He continues to make strong claims for being our player of the season.

I was surprised to see Delph come on however. Loved the warm-down, however. With a possibly poisonous atmosphere awaiting him on Sunday, it would have been easy for Delph to have been kept under wraps until after the international break. Maybe he wants to play there, or at least be in the squad.

And so with a draw in Germany, City are through after four games, despite losing their first fixture, at home. A great achievement in a tough group (though not quite a “group of death”), the aim now is to win the group. Win in Juventus and that will do it, though winning our last home game could be enough on its own as well. Either way, with qualification in the bag, we can enjoy a couple of Champions League games for once. I never thought that day would come.

I’ve no idea what the best team is for Sunday though, especially if Silva is back.

Oh, and just to make it clear – I’ve always loved the Champions League. What a great, noble competition – shame on anyone who doesn’t. #cheer

 

Manchester City 2 Norwich 1: What Just Happened Then?

WHAT ON EARTH HAPPENED THERE???!!!!

And so after the dour draw at United that kept City top, it was widely expected that City would stroll to a routine victory at home to a struggling Norwich side.

Before the team had even been announced, Pellegrini was getting stick for something he may or may not do, after hinting the previous day that Caballero might retain his place in the team after the midweek Capital One Cup romp. Thankfully Pellegrini saw sense, and we could all relax knowing the defence would be protected by the safe hands of Joe Hart.

And to everyone’s joy, a league debut for Iheanacho. The rest of the team picked itself due to injuries, though I thought Yaya may be rested with Sevilla coming up and considering he started in midweek.

But as is often the case this season against “lesser” opposition, there is no charging from the blocks, and no blowing away of the visitors. Norwich put men behind the ball en masse, and we struggled to find the gaps. They then looked to counter attack with pace, knowing this was where our main weakness lay. And for a long while, it worked.

Bony turned well and forced a good save from Ruddy, then of course sliced wide twice, the first one criminal not to get on target. Iheanacho did ok, but was not finding himself in the right positions to capitalise. Norwich looked dangerous when they broke forward, and it was Hart forced to make the best save of the half from a fierce shot after City had been passed through far too easily yet again.

So goalless at half-time – would City blow away the opposition like they did with Newcastle?

No. City probed, but without little success. Sterling came on for Iheancho, though many wanted his strike partner off instead.
Thankfully one moment of immense skill looked to have got City out of trouble. Well, two moments really. De Bruyne, who wasn’t at his most effective, put a lovely corner in (what’s one of them?), and Otamendi rose magnificently and with one swipe of his head bulleted the ball into the back of the net. 1-0, and the relief was palpable around the ground.

Relief, but still nerves aplenty. City pushed forward in subsequent minutes, but didn’t create too much, though Bony swooped and headed wide and had another shot blocked, but Norwich held firm. The game seemed to be petering out. And then Brady put in a cross…

There’s no analysis needed here. It was a horrendous error, a rarity, a freak, and that is that. And it looked like it would lose us not only two much-needed points, but first place in the league. In the end, it did not matter, as the other keeper was intent in matching the incompetence, and gave us a gift back. And that’s the important thing here – every keeper has a moment like this, the stuff of nightmares, but in the end it didn’t matter, so you hope Joe can wipe it out of his mind, not let it affect how he reacts to crosses in the future, and move on.

So just seven minutes and injury time to put this right. And with time almost up, Ruddy flapped at a corss, raced out to collect the ball, realised it was leaving the area, left it for a defender who had left it for him, swiped at Fernadinho, and when it fell for Sterling the ball was on its way in until Russell Martin elbowed the ball away. Clear penalty, clear red card.

And cometh the hour and a half, cometh Yaya Toure. The keeper went the right way, but stood no chance. City retook the lead.

And for Hart, redemption. Kneeling in his own net, praying with us all, the relief was clear for all of us. And a celebratory hug with Kolarov, as the emotion overflowed. Thank **** for that.

And credit to Raheem Sterling for his role in the goal. For a player we are repeatedly told (mostly by Liverpool fans) can’t finish to save his life, his shot was sweet and heading for the back of the net until Martin’s intervention. And for a sub to win two penalties is no mean feat.

So City had saved themselves by fighting to the end once more. An unconvincing, gritty win that used to be the hallmark of United’s title-winning teams, but will probably be seen as a weakness in our team.

The problem is, the game wasn’t over yet. Psychology now came into play. City were ahead to a ten-man promoted team without a victory in many weeks, so it should have been easy. But it doesn’t work like that. City had just scored, so wanted full-time, Norwich had to pour forward, they had nothing to lose, and City thus panicked.

And then Joe Hart got his redemption – a superb save from a fierce deflected shot was world-class, and won us three points. Ten minutes is a long time in football.

And that was that. Oh, no it wasn’t. Still time for Sterling to be felled in the area and after players had squabbled over who should take it, Kolarov shot woefully wide, then the whistle went.

And as Sterling was lining up a shot 10 yards out, why was there not a second red card? The fact it was the 95 minute is irrelevant.

Still, that’s the least of our worries. Still top, and United four points behind, but Arsenal march on.

Credit to Norwich for a good performance. They defended well, and broke well and threatened. Less credit to the away fans, AS PER USUAL, with one obvious chant making its usual appearance and another calling us a “s**t Man United”. Have chants always lacked such imagination and humour as they do right now?

As for City’s players, Otamendi had a shaky opening fortnight at the club, in a sport where no players are allowed time to settle, but is really showing his worth now. Crucial interventions, cover for a wayward left-back and a crucial goal – my man of the match, and some defender right now, and the first signs of a settled and accomplished central defence pairing, though both are proactive defenders which will always lead to the odd error and opening for opposition strikers.

All of which is harsh on Mangala, who has done little wrong this season. He wants to prove the doubters wrong, but may not get a chance – but then there’s always another injury around the corner and a lot of games to play, so am sure his time will come.

Elsewhere, there is the issue of Mr Bony. He seems not to be relaxed in his shooting, and confidence is everything for a striker. Many City fans have already written him off as not good enough, which is tiresome and utterly predictable – he is no Sergio Aguero, but we cannot have three strikers of that quality in our squad, as we cannot play them all. I’m not saying he has played well enough, because he hasn’t but I don’t know what effect having malaria has on a person, and he is easily capable of turning this around, though he may never get the chance, like others, and may never turn it around, like others. I wouldn’t want to trash him just yet though, and he will have to play on Tuesday.
For me it’s not the finishing that worries me, that will come, but his awareness to release others. He holds up play well, is physical and can work the line, but on many occasions he has failed to see the good pass available to him by an overlapping team-mate. He needs to look up more and gain an understanding with those besides him. He wasn’t particularly terrible though, whatever others may say – just, at our level, we need more.

Of course when players are being written off and slagged off, it’s easy to be selective. Bony isn’t fit to lace Dzeko’s boots according to some, kindly ignoring Dzeko’s contribution of precisely zero last season, and likewise, Pellegrini is not close to the level of Mancini, conveniently overlooking the Italian’s final appalling season.

Anyway, we’ve got lots of good players, so don’t worry about it all too much.

The only other issue is whether Pellegrini is utilising our players well. His hands are tied somewhat by injuries, which give him few options, especially in midfield, and he is sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place, because if he had put out a weakened team against Palace and we had gone out, he’d have been slaughtered – but then he will be if he picks a good team and a key player gets injured, as Silva did last season. I only mention this as it would not surprise me if De Bruyne is below 100% fitness right now, as he has not stopped playing, and it cannot help performances, and it also leads to an increased risk of injury. Still, there’s no chance of a break for him until after next weekend, as he is needed right now. He still managed to pick up an assist, a fantasy football player’s wet dream.

And you shouldn’t worry about it because of the 35th minute, because of what has happened over the past week or so. Was it Shankly who said football is not a matter of life or death – it is more important than that? Either way, that’s rubbish, it isn’t that important really, we all scream, get depressed, shout abuse, jump with joy, cry with emotion and more over some men kicking a ball around, but there are more important things in the world.

And so, how reaffirming to see the ground rise as one to salute Chris Shaw, cruelly taken away from his friends and family at such a tender age, and what touching tributes from many at the club, including our wonderful captain, and Sergio’s act of kindness during the Palace match. Football will never matter as much as life or death, but it can create one big family and be a wonderful comfort and support to those that need it. R.I.P. Chris.

And the key thing is that football clubs, all football clubs, do wonderful things in their communities every day. They are not just there to win matches, but it sometimes gets forgotten by joyless buffoons counting empty seats and net spends. Such people should stop following the sport, as they clearly aren’t getting anything beneficial out of it.

And to prove a point – a couple of years ago I wrote an article highlighting the wonderful work football clubs do in the community. I made it clear that to prove the point I would use totally random examples, picked from a hat. So what was the first comment on the blog? Some joyless pea-brained moron complaining that I hadn’t highlighted the award-winning efforts of his club Spurs. And that says it all really.

I digress. Onto Sevilla, and a draw would be lovely. They lost yesterday, but are some force at home, and we saw what they could do in the last match. It’s going to be tough, so let’s hope our magician is back, and we can do the business.