Friday 24 November 2017

Maturing Man City are in control of Premier League universe – until rest can match their strength

Manchester City's players celebrate winning the Barclays Premier League at the Etihad Stadium
Manchester City's players celebrate winning the Barclays Premier League at the Etihad Stadium

Paul Hayward

Two years ago they were an underachieving club who had struck the financial jackpot and overturned 44 years of history. This time there was a deeper kind of power on display. Manchester City are in control of English football until the rest can prove otherwise.

Beaten up by Uefa, with their £50m fine for Financial Fair Play breaches – and Greg Dyke, the Football Association chairman, who said it would be "depressing" if they won the league with so few English players – City closed the doors on a hostile word to celebrate a second championship win in three summers, their fourth in all.

Manchester United's "20 times" anthem remains a remote target, but the depth of this City squad (and the scale of the owner's commitment) suggests the red enemy will struggle to regain control of this metropolis, never mind the country.

The same goes for Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur. On this turf in 2012, City lurched to a fraught, exhausting last-minute title win.

This time they crossed the line two points clear and with 102 goals after comfortable wins against Aston Villa and West Ham United, who watched super-expensive players jog off the bench to complete the job. In the place of Roberto Mancini, the martinet, stood Manuel Pellegrini, a very civil engineer, whose disappointing record in three of four Champions League fixtures against Bayern Munich and Barcelona is offset by two trophies in his first campaign. The League Cup back in March was nice. But this Premier League win was potentially seismic.

As City's players returned to the pitch to receive the pot they were draped in a United Nations of flags: Brazilian, Serbian, Belgian. Their manager is a Chilean born to Italian parents. The owner, Sheikh Mansour, is an Abu Dhabi plutocrat who threw £1bn at the second club in Manchester. Joe Hart was the only English starter against West Ham: a fact that will not be reversed by sending Premier League B-teams to the bottom of the football pyramid to face sides who lack the skills to help prepare them for a career among the elite.

Pellegrini is the first South American to win an English title. He did so without cliques, training ground fights or quotable press conferences. He was awarded the job last May because he was the opposite of Mancini: a facilitator in place of a firebrand. But his belief in attacking football also reflects a commercial reality. No tycoon, with the possible exception of Roman Abramovich with Jose Mourinho, is inclined to invest a billion pounds without the promise of entertainment: not for the owner's pleasure, but to help him sell the name around the world.

Pellegrini fulfilled that brief, without always proving that he is in the class of six or seven managers who can make the right decisions to win the biggest games. Bayern Munch and Chelsea at home and Barcelona home and away are examples. Pellegrini, though, is not on trial. He faced down a resurgent Liverpool and put the truculent Mourinho in his place. He managed a large squad of reputations and egos with great diplomacy. In this final instalment he spoke sharply to Sergio Aguero to change position and admonished Samir Nasri for dribbling when he should have passed. He is no quiet yes-man to household names.

For City fans as much as the team, this was a crossroads. Many are still not used to expecting success. On the morning of this game they were queasy, edgy. Enough of the old Maine Road culture remains to foster insecurity.

When the game kicked off, though, they were boisterous and confident. When it ended, they staged a retro pitch invasion, complete with goalpost climbing. In the mayhem after the final whistle, two City players were almost taken hostage by the revellers. "Don't get giddy in the goalmouths," the stadium announcer implored. "It's not big and it's not clever."

While Uefa builds its barricades against new money, and the FA tries to hide its own responsibility for the shallowness of Roy Hodgson's talent pool with a proposal to invade the Football League with B-teams, the club game advances inexorably in the direction of money and cosmopolitanism. Did any City fan care that only Hart and James Milner saw action for the home-born contingent?

The week will start with City deciding how hard to fight Uefa's fine and Champions League squad reduction. But the 2013-14 Premier League season ended with them united, stronger than ever, committed to attack, secure in their power and hard to dislodge as England's foremost club.

Now they must pursue the next part: dominate at home for a decade and cause Europe to fear them. Their back four lacks the iron resolution of the 2012 side and there are players who might need upgrading. Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott have either slipped from the manager's reckoning or, in Garcia's case, fallen marginally short. Dyke, of course, will think it "depressing" that three of that quartet are English.

If Liverpool's Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho gave them a run in the "aesthetics" stakes, the consistent sweeping menace of Aguero, Nasri, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Edin Dzeko, Fernandinho and Alvaro Negredo was an unstoppable combination, though it was December 28 before they struck the front. After the 3-2 defeat at Liverpool, City were seven points behind with six games to go, but the sheer depth of their talent helped them through the 2-2 draw at home to Sunderland after the Anfield loss.

Defending champions in the 2012-13 campaign, City relaxed on that triumph and allowed United to return to prominence after a season of bust-ups and unhappiness in the sky blue sector. That error is unlikely to be repeated. (© Daily Telegraph, Liverpool)

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