On 89 minutes, a free kick at the far end to us was sumptuously curled over the wall and past both the dive of McGregor and the retreating Elmohamady. That put City 2-0 down with no hope of recovery, and if you glean your information purely from scorelines, you may conclude “comfortable home win”, possibly amended to “comfortable home win, eventually” if you additionally investigate the times of the goals.
And that may seem like that. But to those in attendance, those watching live or even those with the chance to view the highlights, that’s not really how it went. Allow us to explain…
City began the day as overwhelming favourites to leave the Etihad pointless, with 1/6 being quoted on a win for our hosts. The Premier League is many things, but like most top European leagues, it’s deeply unequal. So when faced with a prospect as daunting as tackling one of the country’s best teams, what do you do?
Well, there are a few options that various managers will have war-gamed over the years. You can pick a defensive side, realistically hoping to keep the score down or maybe squeak a nil-nil draw. That seems to be the most popular approach, and understandably so – even if it fails to grab a point, it should keep things sensible.
Or you can take the Mick McCarthy approach and play the reserves, as Wolves did at Old Trafford in 2010. That’s a pretty grim policy, risking both League sanctions and a butchering on goal difference while insulting supporters and defiling whatever dignity football still possesses.
Or just do what City did yesterday – pick a moderately attacking side and have a go.
Steve Bruce had a go, and while the outcome was perhaps no different to had we gone 4-5-1 and tried to throttle the game, the feeling of pride and satisfaction gained will sustain us through the hard weeks to come.
4-4-2 then, assembled thus: McGregor; Elmohamady, Davies, Chester, Figueroa; Koren, Livermore, Huddlestone, Brady; Aluko, Graham. Sagbo was banned and most of those who laboured so badly at Leyton Orient were, unsurprisingly, not considered. On the bench were Harper, McShane, Bruce, Rosenior, Meyler, Quinn and Boyd – a somewhat more circumspect septet.
The goals of our hosts are so starkly different they can barely be conceived. Enough money has been spent to gather together a team studded with world class players. A title challenge is inevitable. Progress to the latter reaches of both cups will only be interrupted by a shock or a bad draw. They may not be ready for European honours, but they’re not far off.
They were jolted by a 3-2 loss at Cardiff last week, and new manager Manuel Pellegrini made a couple of changes, bringing in Matija Nastasić and Aleksandar Kolarov for Clichy and Garcia.
At Chelsea, City lost the game in the opening minutes, being completely submerged beneath a blue tide. That didn’t happen here, partly because Chelsea play at a higher tempo and are a tougher side to quell when in the mood, but mostly because City positively asserted themselves from the off.
That was principally because possession was retained superbly, with Huddlestone as the pivot, his assured influence visibly elevating his teammates. It wasn’t just the midfield however, everyone was harrying and hassling, and after just eight minutes the best chance of the entire half fell our way. A flowing move in midfield was half-smothered but the ball fell to Aluko…he cleanly shimmed past Lescott and was clear on goal. Hart raced from his line, Aluko shot with his left foot on the edge of the area – and the ball trickled a foot wide from his mis-hit effort.
This took place at the far end to where the couple of thousand City fans were stood (not, pleasingly, sat) – and the next chance of a breathless opening came our way too. Aluko found space in midfield, turned and spread play wide to Brady. His deep cross evaded every sky blue shirt but found Graham, who expertly steered the ball past Hart. Just as pandemonium began to erupt in the away end, we saw a raised flag spoiling the fun…Graham had been adjudged offside, and no-one seemed to contest the decision. If we can take one thing from it, it was that Graham – goalless since January – struck the ball very smartly.
The home fans quite rightly had a bit of sport at our expense, for there are few more embarrassing things than celebrating a “goal” that instantly gets chalked off. It was about the first time we’d heard them, mind – 12.45pm kick-offs aren’t conducive to a good atmosphere anyway, opponents you expect to beat rarely quicken the pulse, and when they dominate the start, well, you can understand why the ground was quiet.
The home team had always looked dangerous in the air, with a Jesús Navas chance having earlier been batted away by McGregor. A more serious threat arrived when Joleon Lescott meatily met a cross from the City right that the Tigers’ keeper did well to tip over. Back we came, and Zabaleta was lucky to avoid a caution for a foul on Brady on the left wing about forty yards from goal.
Huddlestone swung the ball in and it was half-cleared to the edge of the area, where Robert Koren had been rather carelessly left unattended. His left-footed volley was beautifully struck and it flew just a yard wide with Hart seemingly beaten.
Frenetic stuff, and this was all with under 20 minutes on the clock. Perhaps inevitably the pace slackened a little as our hosts rallied, maybe smarting a little from the start the upstarts had made and recognising they were a shade fortunate not to be behind. Yellow cards were issued to Figueroa and Ferdinandinho as the match degenerated a little.
On 27 minutes, controversy. Except there wasn’t, and there really ought to have been. Sergio Agüero had already attracted the ire of the City fans for combining both the best and worst in Argentine footballers, namely a shimmering talent and a propensity for, shall we say, demonstrating a lack of robustness in challenges. However he did nothing wrong when ghosting through some slightly clumsy City tackles on the edge of the area, making it to the goalline and chipping the ball back into McGregor’s hands, only to be wiped out by Livermore.
A more obvious foul you could not wish to see, but for some reason they’re never given, never even asked for, when a player is in the act of shooting or crossing. Agüero reacted as though the victim of an IRA kneecapping rather than an untidy lunge on a football field, but nonetheless, Phil Dowd ought to have given a penalty. Mind you, the newly trim Mr Dowd – ordinarily one of the game’s gutsier referees – spent an annoying afternoon seeking the path of least resistance at all times, which didn’t really help anyone.
As the half neared, we should have falled behind. A Manchester corner from the left found Yaya Touré unmarked…his header was about eight yards eight, and went a much greater distance wide.
A let-off, but a deserved one. To have trailed at the break having played so well would have been desperately unjust. The players made it to half-time and left to thunderous acclaim from the away end; the home stands were rather more muted.
Lovely concourses at the Etihad Stadium, you know. Shame about the bar staff, whose slothful service made the East Stand dispensers at home seem like whirligigs of hyperactivity by comparison.
To the football! Pellegrini hooked the ineffective Džeko for Alvara Negredo, and sagely intonations of “keep ‘em out for ten minutes” abounded. City duly kept ‘em out for ten minutes – though Negredo ought to have scored with a header he screwed wide.
The pattern of the game was firmly against the Tigers now, with Graham an isolated figure and City’s midfield devoting increasing energy to firefighting than creating. That’s not to suggest there was a feeling of grave panic, for the favourites’ methodical approach was easy on the eye, but did allow for constant reorganisation to keep them out.
Danny Graham, then. What do we make of him? He toils tolerably well, showed a glimpse of promise with his first-half goal and when the going got tough in the second half, he didn’t sulk about having to play almost completely alone and with his back to goal. He already looks as though he’ll divide opinions a bit. For this observer, he did a hard job well yesterday, and he was the closest anyone came to scoring for City in the second half when he turned on the edge of the area and flashed a shot a yard over. That’s the mark of a player who hasn’t lost all of his confidence – indeed, this outing will hopefully improve his sense of wellbeing.
With the game three quarters old and the prospect of taking something other than just satisfaction at a good performance, suddenly our aspirations were drastically scaled back for us. It was a good goal too, in fairness. A tidy move on the City left rather cut us open, leaving Zabaleta to cross to Negredo – he’d found a pocket of space on his own in the area and headed down past McGregor. Clever running or poor marking? Both, probably. Either way, City trailed.
It didn’t deflate the City support, hope being seamlessly swapped for defiance. In truth, we’d already got something from the day, and sometimes you have to accept that the class that enormous sums of money can buy will, eventually, prevail. That’s life.
Nasri came on for Silva, then Aluko limped off a few minutes later holding his leg and looked decidedly pained – on came Stephen Quinn for this first appearance of the season. The match went a little quiet, and you sensed that Steve Bruce’s charges didn’t really feel an equaliser was too likely. The home team kept at bay our attempts at restoring parity with consummate ease.
The match drifted, maybe even died a little. Boyd replaced Koren for the Tigers, then Agüero’s regrettable and hopefully curable balance problem was rewarded with a questioning of his legitimacy combined with a reminder as to the unaltered political status of the Falklands archipelago. He went off for James Milner on 76.
Chances had reduced almost to zero and 1-0 seemed inevitable, but there was an unhappy twist at the end for City. Nasri made a preposterously theatrical tumble over Chester that Mr Dowd punished with almost indecent haste. Touré took it, 20 yards out and central – and it was a lovely strike, curling over the wall and beyond the brace of Tigers trying to keep it out.
2-0, match even more over, and reflections of “what if?” At the end, the City players came over to receive the applause of the Tiger Nation, and genuine applause it was too. Manchester City are one of the best teams in England and are backed by inconceivable riches – to even take them close is something, to have bested them for sizeable periods of play is something that Steve Bruce will hopefully be spending the coming days reminding into his side.
The challenge now is to produce that sort of play against the sides against whom we’re competing – because if that happens, and the goals come, we’ll stay up with a bit to spare.