Please Manchester City, don’t make this the sign of things to come for 2015. Another phew, another three points gained, and City joint top of the league. In the end, it was fully merited.
On a miserable day, as rain lashed down on half the crowd, there was a surprise in store as Caballero was picked in nets. The first reaction in the pub was that Hart had been on the lash the previous night, which is of course ridiculous. Pellegrini no doubt rates Caballero, a keeper he knows well, and I suspect does not see him as particularly inferior to Hart. He perhaps feels he cannot sit on the bench all season. With him likely to play in the cup, it is likely that the manager decided he needed a couple of games in succession. This was naturally a decision met with shock from fans who have already decided he is no better than our previous back-up Pantilimon (one of the best players yesterday) despite knowing nothing about the man. Hart made a bad mistake against West Brom and didn’t cover himself in glory for Burnley’s opening goal – if Caballero did the same he’d be vilified. Sadly for those that deride our Number 2, he didn’t really put a foot wrong on the day, being blameless for both goals.
Elewhere, Clichy returned, and Milner was once more rested. Jovetic returned to give the side something close to a striker on the pitch.
If ever the description “a game of two halves” was needed, it was for this game. For the first half. Sunderland defended in numbers, as City probed and probed and probed, without success. Sunderland barely ventured forward, but repelled anything City had to offer with ease. Caballero saved well from one Larsson free kick after a blatant foul had been ignored by yet another appalling referee to pass through the Etihad, and whilst City created the odd half-chance, there was little to excite. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho completed 199 passes, out of 209 attempts. The problem was, most of it was sideways, endlessly probing in front of two banks of four.
The second half? Yeah, that was a bit different. To let slip a two-goal lead at home to a team struggling for form is careless, but to do it twice, in four days, is simply unacceptable. Thankfully, it didn’t matter in the end, and the day improved thereafter. City have often relied on genius when struggling to break down a stubborn team, and like at Wembley against the same side, cometh the hour, cometh Yaya. Toure has tended to welly plenty of shots into Row Z recently, but when he has shot on target they tend to go in. At just under the speed-limit, his blockbuster to open the scoring against Sunderland was stunning, and another reminder of how he will be missed in the next month or more, the ball still rising as it hit the back of the net.
Soon after, another exquisite goal. Jovetic laid it off to Clichy, he returned the ball in pinpoint fashion, and a beautiful flick from Jovetic doubled the lead. Surely now we could relax?
Nope. The goals spurred Sunderland into some attacking intent, and they constantly posed a threat, making you wonder why they hadn’t shown this ambition earlier. In no time at all, City had spectacularly shot themselves in the foot once more, and it wouldn’t be City if it wasn’t two old boys that inflicted the damage. Jack Rodwell was left unmarked at a corner to head home after Caballero had saved an earlier shot then Zabaleta chopped down Billy Jones. It was a penalty, and Adam Johnson shot in the place that statistically leads to more success than anywhere else – down the middle.
And yet there was little time to mope. Just two minutes later, Frank Lampard reminded us why City were so desperate to extend his stay in Manchester with a sublime header to restore the lead, after another exquisite assist from Clichy. It was a great piece of skill, Lampard static and boots planted in the ground, allowing the ball to come to him before the most precise of headers inside the post. Relief swept round the ground.
After that, the game should have been put to bed. City were rampant – Navas ended the game hitting the post and forcing a great save from Pantilimon. Fernandinho also forced an excellent save but should have scored. Lampard could have had a hat-trick, and Milner fluffed his lines late on. Thankfully, City didn’t pay for such profligacy.
Thirty-two attempts to four tells just part of the story, as it didn’t feel like that type of game, where one team totally dominates. City’s twelve shots on target was the most by any Premier League team this season, mostly due to the late barrage and a crazy second half.
For once, Silva and Nasri were not the stars of the show, though they were central to much of the play throughout. Caballero did fine in the sort of conditions any keeper must dread, whilst Gael Clichy continued his resurgence, with two excellent assists. For me, Clichy’s main problem has always been his tendency to cut back when receiving the ball out wide. So it was nice to see him feed balls into the box this time instead. He did this numerous times, and on another day could have had even more success. Navas was excellent, perhaps man of the match, whilst Yaya and Fernandinho controlled the midfield. I thought Mangala too had a good day, though I still feel the defence lacks organisation sometimes when opposition teams break.
Still, it’s been a great six weeks or so. The Burnley result still annoys me each time I think about it, though they showed at Newcastle that they are no mugs and also displayed the merits of a settled side. It’s time to forget that though, as City have reined in Chelsea, albeit with an easier fixture list, have dropped two points in 11 games, and sit at the top of the table with their London rivals as we head into FA Cup weekend. All in all, a job very well done in recent times with the spine of the team largely absent. Chelsea’s capitulation later in the day was as welcome as it was surprising, and shows not only the rigours of the winter schedule, but that, like any other season, there are many twists and turns to come. Every year it seems a team is made champions-elect before October has ended, and every year they end up falling away at some point.
Credit also to the Sunderland fans, who showed tremendous restraint in waiting over 35 minutes before singing “where were you when you were shit?”
Well done lads.
Apropos of nothing, Sunderland’s average attendance in the 2003/04 season was 27,119, when they were, as the records show, shit.
It’s fair to say it wasn’t a good day for referees – City got off lightly in the end. The game is faster than ever and to err is human, though the incompetence of booking Sergio Aguero for being chopped down in the penalty area or giving Liverpool a penalty because the ball hit a Leicester player’s head should not go unpunished, a couple of the roster of referees simply not up to the job. The speed of the modern game, that means a linesman can’t even spot a goalkeeper handle the ball three yards outside the area, only aids the calls for a greater use of technology. I’m fed up of games being decided on bad calls or the whim of a referee deciding what counts as handball.
More debate on empty seats, as people who had purchased tickets simply decided not to turn up. It happens a lot recently, the tiresome debate about empty seats often refers to seats sold rather than an inability to sell out games, and you can understand on this day more than most why people didn’t make it. Poor weather (not that this is much of an excuse), a hungover world and a game on telly will have persuaded many not to bother. The family stand, an ill-thought out idea in the first place, is usually the worst to suffer, apart from the predictable gaping holes in the corporate sections. There was much debate on message boards after the game about why it happens, and if fans should be embarrassed, but at the end of the day, the last time I checked we lived in a democracy and people can choose whether to go or not. I can’t speak as my Xmas works do left me incapable of attending the Crystal Palace game, though that was a one-off, and I don’t think the gaps week-in, week-out are due to City fans all being alcoholics. Players must be baffled at finishing matches in front of a half-empty stadium though, especially for games that hang in the balance. A lot of fans don’t seem that bothered right now.
Having said all that, a game on New Years’ Day is a game too far. Jamie Redknapp was in full UKIP mode this week, disparaging foreign managers coming over here and criticising our traditions. I mentioned in the last report how managers are simply looking at the welfare of players that have to play every few days, but whatever, tradition didn’t seem to extend to the football league, who despite having a season with eight extra games to fit in, didn’t feel the need to cram yet another game in to the festive period. What a disgusting two-fingered salute to tradition, eh Jamie?
I keep hearing that fans demand all these games, but I’d love to know how they came to this conclusion, as I certainly don’t, and the empty seats yesterday suggested that I am not alone. Now we move on to yet another game, against a team that has had a nice rest this week.
And debate also rages about Frank Lampard’s new contract of course. We cannot as a club boss New York City around if we want to treat the franchise seriously, but City set up the club and it is football’s food chain in full effect – every team pillages those below them in the chain, it has always been thus. He wants to stay, we want him to stay, and it seems he wasn’t on loan so we have the right to sign him on a contract, though that surely requires the agreement of New York City as it overlaps their agreement with the player – therefore, it is surely the case that we have made it worth their while. Time will tell how. I expected that we’d keep him until Yaya’s return, thus allowing him to start New York’s season in their team, but as much as it has annoyed their fans, who I struggle to comprehend are supporting the team and purchased season tickets because of the signing of one 36-year-old, I only care about what is best for City, selfish as that is, so am pleased at the news, and he has shown his worth immediately.
As for New York City, their fans seem surprised that City dictate terms – erm yes, it is clear they take priority, you wouldn’t have Lampard, Villa or a club without our owners, but I accept that this must be a one-off, and the new franchise (what a horrible word) should be allowed to develop unhindered in future, and this unfortunate situation resolved with the odd gift sent their way. For Lampard though, he has somewhat burned his bridges, and may get a rather cooler reception when he does turn up in New York, assuming that day ever arrives.
The important factor in all of this is quite simple however – the right decision was the one that enrages Arsene Wenger and Chelsea fans the most, so for that reason, well done City.
And no, of course we shouldn’t sign Steven Gerrard, who has been one of the giants of the Premier League era. Perhaps we could persuade Gerrard and Wesley Sneijder to sample the delights of the Big Apple instead? And if season tickets have been purchased due to a concerted media campaign based around the imminent arrival of Frank Lampard, then the offer of a refund should be made. I’d wager very few would take up that offer.
2014 was a great year. A league title, a cup, a place on the parade bus, a new job, and I even met James (the band, not a random bloke in the pub), and to top it off, finally learned how to poach an egg. What a year, here’s to more of the same for the blues in 2015, and I hope you all have a great year, thanks for your tremendous support.