Doesn’t it feel like 2008 again? That giddy feeling is back: the goals are flowing, the points tally is hurtling up and suddenly we fear no-one.
And if that sounds like getting carried away, well, let’s get carried away. It’s been a while since life in the Premier League felt like this, we know it may not last, so we should endeavour to wring the maximum satisfaction from the two days separating a thrilling victory over Everton to a daunting trip to Manchester.
Let’s crack straight on with the game, for this is much to discuss, and much to marvel over too. Rumours spread during the day that Jimmy Bullard was to be rested, and however sensible the reasoning behind it (a stiff knee, we hear), the decision to withdraw the inspiration behind our sudden burst of form could only elicit groans.
There was no return for Myhill, while Mendy was banned following Saturday’s red card. The newly-becalmed Phil Brown opted to send out the following XI: Duke; McShane, Gardner (c), Zayatte, Dawson; Garcia, Boateng, Marney, Hunt; Geovanni, Altidore.
Everton were without a raft of major players, yet still fielded a side replete with quality – and it was the visitors who had the best of an encouragingly bright opening to the match. No real alarms were caused, but in the first few minutes of the game their slick passing and movement looked set to present a worryingly tough evening.
Then City scored. It took just nine minutes, and was started and finished by Stephen Hunt. He sent in a cross from the left that struck a defender and looped towards Altidore, about eight yards from goal. He showed admirable strength to hold off his marker and whack a shot at goal – Tim Howard smartly parried it, but Stephen Hunt tore in to smack the ball goalwards with the outside of his left boot. The ball whistled into the top corner, City led and the Circle danced with merriment.
It was all City at this stage, the visitors’ promising beginning a faded memory. Geovanni tested Howard from distance, and halfway through the first forty-five, we doubled the lead. It came in circumstances that wouldn’t impress you as victims – referee Martin Atkinson awarded the Tigers a free-kick for a supposed infringement that looked, well, a bit soft. A bit like our penalty on Saturday, really. Cosmic realignment for Turf Moor, maybe?
Thirty yards still separated ball from goal, but that distance was easily covered when Andy Dawson curled a quite magnificent free-kick over the wall and past Howard’s flailing paws. Gorgeous. Beautiful. We hugged ourselves with glee.
Everton went straight up the other end and nearly replied when Distin headed a corner narrowly over – then City scored again. Hunt’s initial cross on right was blocked, but he retrieved the ball, tried again and saw his second effort only half-cleared to Marney. He hit a low left-footed shot that took a huge deflection and span past the wrong-footed Howard.
Marney raced away with what seemed genuine emotion at notching his first Premier League goal for the Tigers – the East Stand crowed “mauled by the Tigers” at the utterly silent Everton fans. Sensational. Ludicrous. Brilliant.
The madness nearly reached epic proportions before the interval when Zayatte came within inches of fastening onto a venomous Hunt free-kick – had he connected, Howard would have stood little chance. There was still time for Altidore to almost make it four when his superb turn and shot from the edge of the area flew a yard over – but 3-0 at the break was more than ample, and the half-time refreshments were particularly satisfying.
All City now had to do was keep it quiet, try to draw the pace out of the game, counter the imminent squall that a Moyes half-time rant was certain to provoke…
So naturally Everton took less than five minutes to score. Luckily, but fortune had favoured us thus far. A cross from the left should have been easy for Zayatte to belt clear, but he wildly hacked at the ball and it skidded off his boot to loop over Duke and into the corner of the goal. Ugh.
The Everton fans took this as their signal to sing for the first time during the entire game – this is genuinely no exaggeration, and nerves were beginning to show. However, the Tigers rode it out, the game settled and once more the points looked to be heading our way.
That’s what’d happen with other football clubs, anyway. But we seem to take special pride in doing things the hard way. Electricity flowing within a circuit may choose the path of least resistance, as indeed anything, sentient or otherwise, would do; City seem to actively search for the hardest route. It was 3-2 on 65 minutes when Zayatte felled Saha in the box, a clear penalty, and it was put away coolly by Saha. Gah.
The recently-soothed nerves were clanging wildly by this stage. On the other side of the stadium Phil Brown looked reasonably composed, and to be fair there was little obvious panic among the players. The next chance was ours, Garcia having a shot easily caught by Howard, but the Tigers’ understudy netminder Duke caused concern when he dropped a cross from the right and only regained possession at the third attempt.
Time to change things. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink came on Altidore, who’d put in what some pundits like to call “a real shift”. He calls to mind an early-career Emile Heskey – sometimes great, sometimes frustrating, an obvious work in progress but possessing both strength, skill and a creditable workrate. His development will be interesting to chart. On days like this, he’s a real asset.
Nick Barmby replaced Garcia with a dozen minutes left on the clock, the Australian so tired he could barely raise a trot from the field. In fact, he’d looked shattered with fifteen minutes gone. Curious.
Even more puzzling was the time. Suddenly, there were only five minutes remaining. How did that happen? Far from being an extended torment, much of the second half had whizzed by. The City fans urged the side on. The side responded. Nearly there.
Kevin Kilbane came on for Geovanni, Mr Atkinson (rightly) decided four minutes was to be added – and then Everton got a free-kick about 22 yards from goal. The correct decision, but what a sickening feeling. As Everton had done with Dawson’s effort, no men were stationed on the posts, and why is it that when other teams prepare to assault your goal with a set-piece, your keeper always seems out of position, the target area looks enormous, and Leighton Baines is a good free-kick taker…
He blatted the ball into the wall, City hoofed it clear with relish, and Mr Atkinson waited no more than another thirty seconds before concluding matters. A throaty cry of triumph greeted the final whistle, and players walked from the pitch with what almost looked like a spring in their step.
City now lie 15th in the table, four points clear of the bottom three. It’s a position of almost untold promise in the aftermath of Burnley, when Phil Brown seemed certain for the sack and we were in desperate relegation trouble. We remain in a fight, but all of sudden the manager’s position looks secure (and we’re actually glad of that) and the team looks committed and together.
There were some big performances last night. Stephen Hunt was ubiquitous in harrying the Everton players, his finish was great and his workrate was a constant menace. Jozy Altidore’s muscular efforts up front provided both a release and a platform on which to build, while at the back Anthony Gardner looked Whittlesque (seriously – he’s that good). Dawson has not had a good season but had a good game and scored a free kick that’ll live long in the memory, while McShane’s tenacity made our right flank much tighter than it has been.
In midfield, Marney got the goal his unstinting efforts merited. Alongside him, Boateng was ideally suited to this sort of game – credit to him for an unfussy display that bolted the side together, credit Phil Brown too for a surprising but inspired decision. Suddenly the manager’s getting little things like this right again.
And so, to Manchester City on Saturday. Little is realistically expected other than an improvement on last season’s scoreline. It’s not the sort of game that shapes a season. The last three were. And while the seven points have been precious, arguably even more important has been the transformation of our collective mood.
After Burnley, all seemed lost. Now it’s all to play for. The team are up for it, the manager is up for it, and we too are hungry for battle. Well played, City.