Manchester City 3 Hull City 1
This was the calm after the storm, and the calm before the storm too. We showed resilience in beating West Ham, whereas shimmering excellence was on show in the dismissal of hapless Middlesbrough and, looking ahead to the five games that begin with the visit to Stoke next Saturday, expect plenty of thrills and combat as we confront opponents with which we can realistically compete. There was none of this frenetic joy on display yesterday. We were well beaten in East Manchester, sternly subdued by a palpably superior home side. Mr Silva has moulded his players in a way that has on occasion come close to bridging the gap that opens between the rich six and the rest, but in this match the billions dominated.
It was, in truth, a bit mundane.
A glorious bright Spring day and, still blighted by injury and suspension, City card:
Elmo Dawson Rannochia Robertson
Marković Clucas N’Diaye Grosicki
Doesn’t really look strong enough, does it? It wasn’t.
John Stones, the future of English football, succeeded in running down the tunnel without banging his head on it and was promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract, and the game was underway. Yaya Touré, David Silva, Leroy Sané and Jesus Navas … you would imagine we are not going to see a lot of the football, and so it proves. Midfield is theirs. Even the presence of second rater Fabian Delph, a delicate-looking physique in his Leeds and Aston Villa days who now looks to have been spending a lot of quality time in the company of his pharmacist, yields little to our hopes.
Meanwhile John Stones, the future of English football, saunters across the grass without tripping over his own feet and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.
The Jak has saved impressively from willowy Sané after just three minutes and, a brief Grosicki adventure notwithstanding, the pattern of the play in the first quarter an hour is plain. Manchester City have the ball, cascade forward. We hang on. Grimly. And yet, as their collapse to Monaco in the European Cup demonstrated, Guardiola’s side is a great deal more impressive on the front foot than the back, and we glimpse a couple of chances. Robertson surges forward thunderously on 16, but a slack touch by the Scot brakes the momentum in a promising attacking position. Then, a minute later, Grosicki gains a good position to deliver a cross, but he too is let down by a sloppy touch.
Are we getting into this game? A bit. Possession will come only in crumbs, but that is wholly foreseen. As the half hour mark approaches, and our formation, founded mainly on the hard running and commitment of Clucas and Evandro in the centre of the park, looks relatively secure, there is room to nurture a sniff of optimism.
Which is brutally trampled underfoot.
On 28 a vicious free-kick from Touré is tipped over by the Jak, but two minutes later our gallant netman is beaten. It is a routine move down the right, a hopeful high ball towards the back post by Navas, and Elmo, serving up his all-too-familiar dopiness under pressure, simply allows the ball to cannon into him and back into the net. Sigh. The man is just not a full-back. How we’ve missed, how we miss, Moses Odubajo.
The home side’s goal celebration is slightly sheepish, but John Stones, the future of English football, makes an imaginative contribution to it and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.
A response is immediate, and we almost crash through the sky blue defence courtesy of an intricate passing move, but it’s blocked, and play is whipped at frightening speed up to the other end. David Silva blasts a shot over the bar, but in fact the football is transferred via Silva more often than not. In a team of high-class skilful ballplayers he stands high above all his team-mates – hugely gifted, but always aware of the play around him, never dwelling on the ball, always moving, always thinking. This generation of Spanish midfielders has given us so much to admire. It is not possible to be better than Iniesta, nor can you improve on Xavi, but it is in that exalted company that David Silva belongs.
One added minute, and the clock ticks down to half time.
John Stones, the future of English football, pours the tea with an elegant flick of his chiselled wrist and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.
The second half is just the ninety seconds old before Man City score again, and place the game far beyond our reach. Raheem Sterling races aggressively down the right, penetrates deep inside the box, crosses low and hard. Jakupović pushes the ball out but it trundles loose to Agűero at the back post, who has time for a touch before he forces it over the line from six yards out. Flailing defensive limbs are to no avail. There is not a trace of glee from the scorer. Agűero stalks sullenly away, looking as if he had the winner of the Grand National but has lost the betting slip. Did poor diddums get dropped by the nasty manager? Boo hoo.
Sterling has lately been the subject of an industrial strength campaign in the printed media designed to persuade that he is not in fact the spoiled sneering brat of popular imagination, but in truth a fast maturing young man of dignity and respect. It almost seems like a carefully engineered plot to induce plutocrat sponsors and advertisers to court him with immediate effect. The modern game! I hate it. There are, however, few things in football more thrilling than an exocet-paced winger stripping a full back bare and supplying crosses to his strikers, and Sterling showed enough ability in that vein during this game to explain just why so much cash is shovelled in his direction.
‘I can do that too’, thinks John Stones, the future of English football, as he displays international-class languor in taking a quick swig from a water bottle, and he is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.
Sterling rips clear down the right once again and squares to Sané, whose shot is saved by the Jak’s legs. Tough going now. We are struggling even to get a touch.
Clucas and Evandro, both surely leg weary after an afternoon chasing the ball and rarely finding it, are subbed, replaced by Henriksen and Hernandez, as we switch to a more orthodox 4-4-2. But damage limitation is the target now, and damage there certainly is that needs limiting. Decent preparatory work from Sterling again pulls our defence out of shape, and Delph is given an inviting amount of time to pick his spot and drive a shot across the Jak and inside the far corner of the rippling net.
John Stones, the future of English football, runs up breathlessly and tells his team-mates ‘That’s three goals we’ve scored now, I can count lads, I did it at school and once I did some sums with crayons as well’ and is promptly rewarded with a new and improved contract.
Curse me for over-praising the ghastly Delph – or for praising him at all – but there was an echo in his thumping strike of Falcao’s goal in the Brazil v Italy game in 1982, albeit that Delph was left side of the box, whereas Falcao was right side when he smites the cross-shot. (Highlights here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3th82ZfFsUg – but find the whole match if you have some time to spare, there has never been a better one).
With half an hour left we are staring in dismay not only at defeat but also at malevolent harm to our goal difference. But Man City kindly remove David Silva, and immediately the pace of the game drops several notches. Should we stay up, level on points but a goal or two better off than Swansea, then this is the moment it was secured. So, thank you Pep. You are by no means the only top six manager who looks like a close cousin of the Addams Family, but here you showed us welcome mercy.
So the game drifts towards its conclusion in suitably half-paced style. And yet, what’s this, we’ve scored! It is at the far end from the cheerful City support, but it’s deft stuff: Grosicki down the left finds Maloney, on for Niasse, and his cut-back is rolled first-time beyond Bravo by Ranocchia.
3-1. Five minutes left, plus added time. Now, if we could somehow nick another goal Mr Guardiola will be urgently flicking through the rulebook to find a way to get Silva back on the pitch. A mask perhaps: ‘no ref, honest, it’s Vincent Kompany coming on, he’s lost a lot of weight, err vertical weight’. I would suppose that John Stones, the future of English football, would be the man to come off, and in my view the talent so evident in the way he waves to the crowd should lead to the prompt reward of a new and improved contract. However, as it turns out, there is no need for panic measures. We are not able to damage the home side again, and, with three minutes added at the end, the game cruises serenely to its conclusion.
So it goes. We never seriously expected this fixture to offer a route to salvation from relegation, and in the event it never seriously looked like doing so. More manageable tests await us now, beginning next week with the trip to the Potteries. Happily, all being well, we will be able to welcome back Tom Huddlestone from suspension and Harry Maguire from injury. Harry Maguire! A considerably better young English centre back than some I could mention.
Steve Weatherill (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)