Thursday 21 September 2017

History is the final hurdle with finishing line in sight

Victory today could end the agony for Manchester City's long-suffering fans, writes Dion Fanning

Given all that Manchester City and Newcastle United have endured in their glorious past, it would seem perfectly possible that, as Bill Shankly once wished on his rivals, they could both lose at St James' Park this afternoon.

They are clubs that have established masochism as part of their DNA. So while they can't both lose, there are plenty of other ways for both clubs to be disappointed after this game.

City have reclaimed the power in the title race while Newcastle could win their next two games and still lose out on Champions League football. After their season, Newcastle do not deserve that but their history suggests another form of exquisite torture.

Tottenham have the power at the moment as those close to White Hart Lane talk about it being a different club in the week since Harry Redknapp discovered he would not be England manager. Arsenal's dropped home points yesterday have ensured that Newcastle still have it within their own hands to finish fourth, even if that no longer provides guarantees. But when Newcastle have it in their own hands, sometimes things go wrong.

At Wigan last weekend, Newcastle seemed to be aware of their destiny and engaged in an act of ritual disembowelment that afternoon before Chelsea could destroy them. Chelsea had just knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League and reached the final, bringing the possibility of Newcastle finishing fourth but ending up in the Europa League even closer.

It was a day for self-sabotage when they could forget the possibility that even if they finished fourth, Chelsea could win the Champions League and none of it would matter.

Nothing they can do today can change that but Newcastle's victory at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night was another demonstration of their advance under Alan Pardew and the ownership of Mike Ashley.

Pardew had interesting views on Carlos Tevez and Manchester City last week, stating that Mancini "wanted to make a stand and show who was boss". If it was a principled stand, it ended in pragmatic resolution with the only losers being Manchester City who went without Tevez for key months of the season.

Last Monday, there were other players at City who demonstrated their reliability. Vincent Kompany was foremost among them. Kompany should have been among the shortlist for Player of the Year and, along with Yaya Toure, he provided so much of what United are lacking this season.

City now have to demonstrate their ability to be champions. As Mancini said, the only thing that matters now is if they win the title and the chances are that they will need to beat Newcastle to do that.

Yet City fans will understand that they can't shake off history so easily. They have been toyed with this season, believing that the challenge was over when they lost at Arsenal.

This was a reminder of the old Manchester City, the club that went out of its way to break a fan's heart but now they have a different resolve. Today will determine how much of the old patterns of behaviour linger within a club that is so different.

Manchester United are always a threat, too, despite their failure last Monday night. United's lack of adventure ensured that City's early nerves weren't exposed and instead it was United's systemic failings that were decisive.

Perhaps no more should be expected from a midfield of Park Ji-Sung, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. Carrick has accumulated some excellent statistics in recent seasons but he remains a player who shrinks in decisive games against the biggest opposition. In some ways, he is the perfect modern Manchester United footballer, relentless and prominent against the small sides but anonymous against the big ones.

For that reason, it was hard to understand why Antonio Valencia was left out. Some said he had failed in last season's Champions League final but he was not alone and he was a player in form. Ferguson played safe, perhaps revealing that

ultimately he is as surprised as anyone by this side's ability to challenge for the title.

Last Monday's defeat revealed again the genius of Alex Ferguson in keeping a side that has been reduced to the minimum by the Glazers' debt burden in contention for the title.

They have done so thanks to the management of Ferguson. Last Monday, he demonstrated the same lack of faith he has often been guilty of in European games with good reason. In Europe, as Basel proved this season, teams are not intimidated by Manchester United.

City are a side he would hope to dominate but the 6-1 at Old Trafford might have changed things, along with the presence of men like Kompany, Tevez and Yaya Toure.

Even still, there was a time when United would not have shirked as they shirked last week. Yaya destroyed United, proving that there are certain realities beyond Ferguson's management.

United have tried to manage their debt while City burst the bank. In football, geniuses like Ferguson can only do so much. He had driven United in the title race and even if they are to fail, it is an astonishing achievement that they came as close as they did with the squad they have. They have tried to win the title without a functioning midfield or a midfield which only began to function once Scholes came out of retirement.

Ferguson can, through force of will, make the outlandish seem reasonable. He has insisted that there was nothing desperate or even unusual about Scholes' return. The reality is that it demonstrated the poverty of options in English football's most powerful club.

United will need to invest in the summer as City will strengthen again.

Mancini shook off some of his defensive caution this season, only to replace it with a pointless and self-defeating war with Tevez. He took a stand and then backed down, making the stand meaningless.

None of it seemed to matter when the final whistle went at the Etihad last Monday night. City were united in victory. They had done the hard bit. Or so it seemed. History tells Manchester City that today will be even harder. History tells Newcastle the exact same thing.

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