Monday 19 August 2019

Sterling encore gives City the edge in curtain-raiser

 

Raheem Sterling lifts the trophy after his side’s Community Shield victory. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Raheem Sterling lifts the trophy after his side’s Community Shield victory. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Jim White

Manchester City turned up at Wembley for the Community Shield wearing the nicest kit you will see this season. It was a lovely, simple, sky blue throwback number, bereft of sponsors' logo not because they had switched affiliation to a shouty Irish bookmaker, but as commemoration of the club's 125th anniversary. This was a nostalgic reminder of the days of Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee, of Malcolm Allison's fedora.

It was a reminder too of the days when the English football season started as the cricket was winding down, when it used to begin just as name tags were being sewn on to jumpers ahead of the return to school, when the Charity Shield shared a weekend with the Gillette Cup semi-finals. Not any more.

With the Community Shield taking place as an Ashes series has barely got under way, this was further evidence of football's relentless march to colonise the entire British sporting calendar. Never mind a rest and break, here was the game back again seemingly moments after last season was completed.

If 2018's staging of the fixture on August 5 seemed absurdly premature, here they were in action a day earlier. At this rate of advance, it will not be long before the season curtain-raiser is taking place the day before the Champions League final.

Indeed the return seemed to have caught some fans by surprise. At first glance there seemed to be many more Liverpool supporters in attendance at Wembley. But then it became clear the swathes of red above the City end were in fact due to the empty seats in the upper tier. Maybe the fans were keeping their financial powder dry, waiting for more significant away days to come.

Certainly, as they paced the touchline in a state of perpetual agitation, the managers looked as if they were still on their break.

Pep Guardiola was dressed as if heading to the beach, in T-shirt, chinos and dazzling white box-fresh trainers. While Jurgen Klopp, in jogging bottoms, T-shirt and peaked cap, looked as if he were about to spend a day off clearing out his garage.

Mind, if football is going to return long before the buckets and spades have been put back in the cupboard, then, it quickly became clear, this is the sort of confrontation you want to be watching. Only the most determined curmudgeon could fail to be excited by this.

The intricate passing patterns, the smart athleticism, the defensive scrambles, the managerial meltdowns, the goal-line bicycle kick clearances, the relentless, never-say-die spirit: forget the date, it was a treat watching these two sides back in opposition.

Right down to the last kick of the penalty shoot-out, so close was the competition it remained impossible to thread a cigarette paper between them. Because from the moment the whistle restarted the season, they picked up where they had left off last.

This was superb entertainment, driven by a determined sense of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do- better competitiveness. Mo Salah's dribbles, Andy Robertson's surges, the ritual booing of Raheem Sterling every time he touched the ball: it was as if the break had never happened.

Not least in the form of Sterling himself. Last season's footballer of the year looks ready to progress to even greater heights this.

Driven by a manager who appeared to be constantly angst-ridden that perfection had yet to be reached, he was simply magnificent here. Full of deception, trickery and intelligence: even in a feast of footballing endeavour, he stood out.

And while Sterling was back on song, for the fans too it was business as usual.

Those central tenets of the supporting life - the absolute conviction that every refereeing decision is part of a high-level conspiracy to do your club down and that anyone in opposition colours who goes down injured is feigning - were in full working order. For the true believer, summer is no softener.

Irrelevance So it is that the Liverpool supporters will quickly dismiss defeat here as an irrelevance.

For the City fans heading back up the motorway, doubtless it will be cast as the first stage in the pursuit of another domestic quadruple.

As for City's shirts: well even as the players strode up to the royal box on the familiar path to picking up yet more silverware, they looked great.

Sadly their appearance at Wembley was a one-off; these were ceremonial numbers only.

The shirts might have been a throwback but for the relentless trophy accumulating version of the club that now exists, it's probably about the only time this season that they will look back. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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