Thursday 23 November 2017

City need to make a statement in Europe

Champions League showdown with Barcelona could be a defining event in the current phase of the Manchester City project, writes Dion Fanning

Yaya Toure captained the Ivory Coast to victory in the 2015 African Cup of Nations — his return to duty could prove vital for City against Barcelona
Yaya Toure captained the Ivory Coast to victory in the 2015 African Cup of Nations — his return to duty could prove vital for City against Barcelona

Dion Fanning

On Tuesday night, Manchester City embark again on their search for meaning. They have been here before. This week they face Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium in the last 16 of the Champions League. Last season, Barcelona lifted themselves to knock City out of the competition before Atletico Madrid eliminated them in the quarter-finals.

Barcelona once had so much that City wanted, something that can be seen in the presence of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano among the club's executives. They were men who were working in the Camp Nou when the genius of Messi and the neurotic brilliance of Pep Guardiola combined to lead Barcelona to the greatest era in their great history.

City are still striving but if Barcelona have changed in many ways, they are still capable of providing an examination of City's progress.

By all objective measures, City's development has been remarkable. They are a club who could provide the blueprint if any other club was in the fortunate position of looking for the correct way to be run by a billionaire.

They may have violated UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, something which has led to much bitterness across the club, but they have not turned into a capricious, temperamental plaything for a petro-billionaire.

Their plans for the redevelopment of the areas surrounding their stadium and new academy are ambitious. They have embarked on a regeneration of a rundown area - before Sheikh Mansour came along, the site of the Etihad campus was going to be a supercasino. In 2008, those plans were abandoned when Gordon Brown took over as prime minister and the government acknowledged the "potentially negative impact" the supercasino could have.

This was the fate for this part of East Manchester before Sheikh Mansour bought the club. "The massive investment not only in the club but the community and economy of East Manchester has improved the life of the city," Gary Neville wrote last year.

City have grand ideas for how the players from the academy will provide the foundation for the side in coming years and they have tried to build a club with certain values.

Last December, the club's academy was formally opened. Reports stated that it cost up to €270m, but some things were too much, even for City. The club "even looked at sealing the indoor pitch so they could replicate conditions in Moscow in winter or Melbourne on pre-season tour 'but the cost was prohibitive'," one report stated.

All has changed. When Sheikh Mansour arrived, he found a husk of a Premier League club. "One of the big surprises was how amateurish it was," Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the City chairman told David Conn in Conn's book Richer than God. "I'll be frank, I expected it to be more structured and developed from a business and corporate perspective. I found it shocking in the famous Premier League, to be without such basic functions."

A very different club faces Barcelona on Tuesday night. They have a manager who is restrained, considered and uncontroversial. They have players like Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Vincent Kompany and James Milner who are modest and represent the values that City like to promote. City have done everything right and yet there is something missing.

This is not the relentless need for more that all great teams possess. Instead it is something stagnant as witnessed in their limp title defence.

When the draw was made for the last 16, there was enough uncertainty at Barcelona for City to be hopeful. They were also in the middle of a nine-game winning run that included a victory in Rome which had taken them into the knockout stages.

With Yaya Toure at the Cup of Nations, City faltered in January, losing at home to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup and, more significantly, to Arsenal in the Premier League. They also brought very little to the game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and drew at home with Hull City two weeks ago.

Perhaps Yaya Toure's absence was the key and all will be well but it may be that City suffer from a more abstract problem. Their cause is a noble and respectable one but, as HL Mencken said, great artists are seldom respectable.

Few dressing rooms have united behind a rallying cry that they were fighting for long-term self-sustainability and a prudent business model.

City lack the paranoia provided by Mourinho or the obsessive demand for excellence that a Guardiola would bring. Roberto Mancini was sacked in part because he was not a team player but his individualism might have worked if it hadn't been so counter-productive. While some players can be marginalised under Mourinho, only at Real Madrid has he encountered mass resistance.

The players at City were said to have grown weary of him but, as Mancini pointed out after he left, the players he brought in are the players the club still depends on. Some like Jesus Navas and Stefan Jovetic have been disappointments for different reasons while FFP has held City back as well.

The signing of Wilfried Bony resulted in Jovetic being left out of City's Champions League squad and if the title is lost and there is no progress in Europe then there may be further reviews.

The club, famously, pursued 'an holistic approach' once Mancini left and Begiristain and Soriano were central to that. They would also provide something of the Barcelona way but that way has changed in the years since Guardiola left.

Luis Enrique's side lost to Real Sociedad in the first game of 2015 but they then won 11 in a row until yesterday's shock defeat at home to Malaga.

If Tata Martino experimented with a more direct style, Enrique's side look to play on the counter-attack and depend more on the frontline of Messi, Suarez and Neymar than on the midfield.

Of course the midfield is not the same. It is no longer dependent on Xavi to create the mood music for the rest of the side, even for a genius like Messi, but the force is now also in those players who surround him, even as Suarez tentatively progresses.

Enrique, too, is said to have developed but he rejected Messi's claims last week that a "change in attitude" was responsible for their transformation. Enrique, according to one observer, "has learned to count to ten" but he insisted that a "continual process" was the reason for the winning run.

Under Manuel Pellegrini, City hoped for something similar. Perhaps this year will be the year they find it. Their first two seasons in the Champions League were calamitous as they failed to progress beyond the group stage so last season could be said to be a welcome development.

Maybe they will find a cause this week but it may be that they need an elemental force to bring things to life. Even a club that has everything sometimes needs to find a reason to believe.

Sunday Indo Sport

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