Thursday 5 December 2019

Civilised City deserve to win the Premier League

Manuel Pellegrini's side realistically need only a point against West Ham to clinch the title on Sunday
Manuel Pellegrini's side realistically need only a point against West Ham to clinch the title on Sunday


The Premier League could have positioned Richard Scudamore at Birchwood Services, revving a motorbike, the trophy in a pannier, waiting to be scrambled east or west along the M62 at 4.50pm on Sunday.

Leaving nothing to chance, the Premier League sends a replica trophy, a set of winners’ medals and party pack of dignitaries to both Anfield and the Etihad. Scudamore, tellingly, attends the game at Manchester City.

The presence of the Premier League’s most powerful figure at the Etihad is no surprise really. Everyone expects City to be crowned champions after a mesmerising, twisting title race.

A point against West Ham United suffices for City given their goal difference being 13 better than that of Liverpool, who host Newcastle United. The word from the dressing room is City want to finish with a flourish. “We want to win – and make sure the cup comes back home,’’ said David Silva.

Many neutrals would probably prefer Liverpool to prevail, citing the 24 years since they last won the league, Brendan Rodgers’s exciting, innovative approach and the presence of young English talent in Raheem Sterling, Jon Flanagan, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge at a time when the nation frets over home-grown products acquiring game-time.

Rodgers has done so much with a smaller squad and budget to City’s.

Yet City will be worthy winners. Their manager, Manuel Pellegrini, is a civilised and enlightened addition to Premier League dugouts. His team have timed their run to the tape adeptly. They have attacked and attacked without forgetting that defence is important too. On balance, City deserve it.

Comparing teams from differing generations is an inexact science but City fans feel this is their most exhilarating side. The greatest rival to such an accolade would surely be the 1967-68 champions, whose lustre was embodied in what fans hailed as the “ballet on ice” against Spurs on Dec 9, 1967, when their players, with studs tweaked, glided across a frozen surface.

“They were brilliant,’’ said Bill Nicholson after Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee, Tony Coleman and Neil Young scored in a 4-1 victory also graced by Franny Lee. City supporters argue the current team is superior.

“This has to be the most attacking and entertaining football I’ve witnessed,’’ said Andy Savage of MCFCForum. “People talk about Colin Bell being our best ever player but I’d have to disagree because David Silva is the best I’ve witnessed and most City fans I’ve had the same conversation with agree. The whole team is an oiled machine and although I think this is the best team I’ve witnessed I think it can get better.”

David Silva has an ankle injury

Silva agreed with the sentiment of the team having yet to reach their zenith. “This is a squad that will get better,’’ observed the Spaniard, who gives much credit to Pellegrini for their development. “He’s brought a joy and happiness around the place – also to our style of play. You see that in the way we play, attack-minded, lots of goals.

“His calmness has been obvious and it really helps us at difficult moments. It’s nice to have that calm attitude around you when things get tough. That has suited us. So has the style of play he’s brought with him.

"He likes us to have possession, create chances and score lots of goals. Having Manuel here has helped me personally. My style of play is more suited to an attacking style. He's helped me develop as a player.’’

The player nicknamed 'Merlin' revealed that he is “still feeling” his ankle problem and has been “playing through the pain” (although he emphasised he “will be fine for the World Cup”).

City have shown strong character and persistence in periods of adversity, always responding, demonstrating individual class and the sense of unity, picking up the gauntlet laid down by Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.

City were eighth after being beaten at the Stadium of Light on Nov 10 yet rose to first by Dec 28. They lost at home to Chelsea and drew at Norwich at the start of February to slip to third. In mid-April, City succumbed at Anfield, were held at home by Sunderland, and their title dream was “in tatters” according to most verdicts.

They never gave up against Sunderland just as they never gave up this season. That 88th-minute Samir Nasri strike past Vito Mannone looks even more significant now. It salvaged a point and brought belief and momentum. City have won all four since.

Edin Dzeko has been a major force during the run-in, scoring key goals against Crystal Palace, Everton and Aston Villa. Dzeko is known at Carrington as a slightly shy individual, a professional whose confidence was affected by the threat of banishment under Roberto Mancini. He has responded to Pellegrini’s show of faith, scoring 16 times in the league.

Dzeko has been important with Sergio Agüero injured. “Agüero missed 15 games in the Premier League,’’ said Pellegrini. “You take Suárez out of 15 games for Liverpool or Hazard from Chelsea or Cazorla from Arsenal. All the teams have injured players through the year. I can talk about Kompany [being absent], about a lot of players.’’ He could also talk about his huge squad, a reality that will bring sanctions from Uefa for breaking FFP rules.

Pellegrini preferred to talk about the huge strength of mind of his players, praising the “personality, the character of the team”. Yaya Touré has delivered consistently, scoring 20 times in the league. “He is now in the best moment [of his career] with more experience but still young [30] with a lot of qualities,’’ said Pellegrini of Touré. “A midfielder doesn't normally score so many goals. But Yaya has the quality and power to do it.” City staff also admire Touré for his humility off the pitch, his politeness.

These are good Citizens. Pablo Zabaleta’s commitment to the club has never been in doubt; the Argentine has even acquired an English accent as well as near fluency in the English language. Earlier in the season, a young mascot marched into the press-room, sat down in Pellegrini’s chair and sang the fans’ Zabaleta chant into the microphones.

Zabaleta’s passion for City is not seen through any badge-kissing, simply through the amount of sweat left on his shirt at full-time.

These are honest pros. Joe Hart’s response to being dropped has been impeccable. Hart encouraged his replacement Costel Pantilimon, worked hard in training, was put back in by Pellegrini and been superb. Those two saves against Steven Naismith and Gerard Deulofeu at Goodison helped ensure last weekend’s victory.

The FA would doubtless like City to start more English players but Hart travels to the World Cup in form as does James Milner, another positive character, another player clearly trusted by Pellegrini.

Such men as Milner, Hart, Touré, Zabaleta, Silva and Kompany played and delivered under Mancini but City seems a more peaceful place now. The club’s five-strong “player care” team helps newcomers settle in, sorting schools for kids, as well as assisting established players.

Agüero and Samir Nasri have been spotted at times during the season standing by the tunnel, supporting the team when injured. In previous years, some injured players might have stayed at home; there is no contractual obligation to report on match-days when injured. There ares the unsung heroes, the likes of kitman Les Chapman, who add to the camaraderie.

The place seems a more stable environment after the occasional volatility of the headline-filled Mancini-Balotelli-Tevez years. There are not the cliques as a while ago, the Robinho-Elano axis.

Dzeko-Kolarov-Jovetic spend time together but mix with others. There are no divisions. The circus has left town. The party comes into town on Sunday.


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