Tag Archives: Manchester City

It’s Chelsea

2 Jan

A belated Merry Christmas to you all.  I trust Santa was suitably generous and got you that Starbucks gift card you’ve always wanted.  And a happy New Year too.  Warmest wishes for 2014 from The English Game.

The first day of the New Year is perhaps the most optimistic of them all.  A day when our outlook for the coming 12 months remains as yet unspoiled.  Daring to dream is still an option.  It was therefore chastening for my New Year optimism to be completely dashed by the stark realisation that Chelsea are going to win the league.

I’ve seen enough.  It’s happening.  Sorry to be the one to tread on your strawberries.  The West Londoners remain priced at a generous 7/2, so you can at least still more than triple your money on this now crushing inevitability.

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It wasn’t three wise men but two sets of festive league fixtures that crystallised what had been a nagging fear for some time.  The first of which was Liverpool’s consecutive games against Manchester City and then Chelsea.  Both scorelines finished identically (Liverpool lost both 2-1) but the manner of the two games was telling…

I spent Christmas at a Premier Inn near Luton.  This isn’t some sort of perverse festive tradition.  Rather, it was necessary for reasons of an expanding wider family and the usual constraints of space and beds that arise as a result.  They say that everything is premier except the price.  And they were right, too.  The room was lovely.  In fact, everything would have been completely fine were it not for the fact that, on arrival, my sister and her husband kindly passed on to me a weapons-grade stomach bug that they had been discretely harbouring.

As a result, I spent Christmas Day itself and Boxing Day in a purple-tinted hotel room with my head nestled deep into a toilet bowl.  I’m as weak as a baby now and still have haunting images of the picture of Lenny Henry on my dressing table guaranteeing me a good night’s sleep.  Believe you me, minor tea-making facilities and a shortbread biscuit provide little by way of comfort in the face of persistent and prompt bodily evacuations. 

In my feverish state, I just about managed to watch the Boxing Day clash of City versus Liverpool, although Lord knows it didn’t help matters.  The second half was almost as perilous for City as my own predicament.  Liverpool were moving through City’s defensive line quicker than the pigs in blankets were moving through me.  In noro virus terms, City’s careless defending was the equivalent of placing the vomit bucket in the diagonally opposite corner of the room to where I lay.  Foolhardy and likely to result in disaster.

This contrasted neatly with the manner in which Chelsea undertook the same task three days later.  The game couldn’t have started any worse for Chelsea, with Martin Skrtel firing Liverpool ahead from close range in under three minutes.  However, Chelsea’s response was urgent and professional.  Mourinho’s men were aggressive without being reckless and immediately asserted a businesslike control of the game.  Within 30 minutes of the initial hoo-ha, Chelsea had established a 2-1 lead and there was a certain accomplished inevitability of the result from that point on.

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The New Year’s Day fixtures provided further evidence to bulwark my sense of premier league foreboding.  Against Swansea, City again proved that if they want to win the league, they’re going to have to blast their way to the title.  At times, there are shades of Newcastle in 1996 about City’s on-pitch demeanour.  In a game they could and should have won easily, the scoreline finished 3-2.  There were full-backs regularly in the opposition penalty area.  Wide midfielders who didn’t provide any cover.  In the middle of the park, only Fernandinho seemed desperately keen to win the ball back when possession was lost.  It was unnecessarily risky stuff and the self-control seemed lacking. 

Chelsea, by comparison, put on another disciplined display against Southampton.  The lead took a while to establish but there was a care to their performance.  If the result was to go against them, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be because Mourinho’s well-drilled team were not following orders.

In short, Chelsea are starting to look rather like winners.  They are developing the aura of a team who not only know that they should win, but that they ought not to give even the impression that some other result is a possibility.  With Manchester City, there is always a feeling that the opposition has a puncher’s chance.  Just enough hubris is exhibited to leave the chin exposed to a lucky right-hander.  City will blow more teams off the park than Chelsea, certainly.  But they will also walk into a few more bear-traps along the way.  Especially when things get tight down the stretch and jangling nerves start to override raw talent.

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It’s turning into goals versus grit for the title this season and usually the latter triumphs.  There seems to be more fight about the Chelsea players.  A little extra in the way of pluck.  I love Ya Ya Toure more than life itself.  And, sure, it’s difficult to stop a man the size of a holiday home travelling at 25 miles an hour.  But he’s not a warrior.  Nor is David Silva. 

I’m also delighted to see Samir Nasri having a great season.  But we saw all we need to know about his resolve when he ducked in the wall against a Robin van Persie free-kick last year.  When you’re looking into a player’s eyes to see who has the fire within them to get the job done, it’s hard to eradicate the pitiful image of Nasri on the end of that wall, cowering like Dennis Bergkamp in a first class lounge. 

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In a close title race, having the best manager in the league is also going to be a huge help.  Mourinho is a winner, plain and simple.  A more irritating winner than he was in his first spell at Chelsea, admittedly.  But a winner nonetheless. Contrast this with the Manchester City helmsman.  In nine long years managing in La Liga, Manuel Pellegrini didn’t win a single thing.  Not a Spanish sausage.  For a manager who can include Real Madrid on his CV, that doesn’t make for good reading.  I’m not saying he’s a bad coach; he isn’t.  However, there is a critical, if subtle, distinction between being a good coach and being a winner; in much the same manner as how playing well and winning are not the same thing either.

I thought Mourinho had made a fatal mistake with the paucity of his strikers this year.  I struggled to see where the goals would come from.  It is quite something that no recognised Chelsea striker scored an away goal in the premier league for the entirety of 2013.  Crucially, though, they do have goals in the team.  Hazard, Oscar, Lampard, Ramires and Schürrle have all played their part in making sure the net ripples on a regular basis.  Chelsea may win the premier league with the least effective strike-force ever to do so but, ultimately, the back of net makes no enquiry as to the identity of the scorer.  If you have three or four midfielders all capable of getting well into double figures, the need for the Number 9 to do likewise diminishes.

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So, there you have it.  Chelsea – premier league winners 2013/14.  Sorry for ruining the ending.  About three minutes in to watching the film Titanic at the cinema, I distinctly remember someone very loudly shouting in from the vestibule “it sinks, he dies”.  I fear I may have just done something similar.  Like a botched surprise party, you’re just going to have to fake your reaction when the time comes.  No spoiling it for Juan Mata if you see him though, please.  It looks like he’s going to be forced to sit through it all as well.   

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

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All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

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The Blackwood Redemption

11 Oct

The celebrity version of the game show Pointless that aired this week gave us a beautiful glimpse into the most important aspect of any narrative.  Redemption.  Watching the protagonist rise again, having withered the storm. 

Few people have withered more storms than Richard Blackwood.  They say success is getting up one more time than you fall over, and nobody’s fallen over more times than Richard Blackwood.  From a critically and commercially unsuccessful pop career, to a critically and commercially unsuccessful acting career, by way of a critically and commercially unsuccessful comedy career.  Blackwood has stared into the abyss so many times they’re practically on first name terms with each other.  But he keeps coming back.  He won’t die. Every dog has his day.  Fittingly, Celebrity Pointless was to be his.

Blackwood was pitted against an absolute titan.  Only Tim chuffing Rice.  Only an Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy winner.  The doyenne of the west end musical.  That Tim Rice.  No boxing board in the world would have sanctioned this fight but, sadists that they are, the British Broadcasting Corporation not only filmed it, they beamed it to a daytime television-watching public.

Blackwood had clearly had an apparition just before the lights went on, though.  He’d seen a chance to win back some of that lost respect.  All that was between him and a second bite at B-list celebrity was Tim Rice’s jugular.  And, my word, he absolutely went for it.

Much like his 2000 hit “1-2-3-4 Get with the wicked”, RB ran the show.  Rice was floundering from the off as Blackwood pulled out an impressive “unaware” when asked for an obscure word ending in “-are”.  A follow-up teaser on the land-locked countries of South America left Blackwood, the picture of concentration, unphased.  “Paraguay” put Rice into further trouble.  By the time a question on So Solid Crew came around, the Legend of the Musical knew he was on the ropes.  Of course Blackwood knew the bloody answer.  21 Seconds (To Go) was meat and drink to the big lad.

There’s something wonderful when, against all odds, the underdog stands up and says “you know what, I’m not having this anymore, not today”. Blackwood was up on his hind legs throwing punches like his career depended on it.

This was a man who, in May 2003, appeared on Channel 5’s Celebrity Detox Camp and self-administered a coffee enema, which involved him being filmed pumping 18 litres of coffee solution into his stomach via a non-traditional entrance.  Without ever achieving fame yourself, it’s difficult to imagine how far a star must fall before they feel compelled to appear on Channel 5.  Clearly, Blackwood was not enjoying a halcyon. 

Yet here he was, going to toe-to-toe with Tim Rice – an artist so successful he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1999 and named a Disney Legend in 2002 – and besting him.  Allowing himself to dream for a minute, you could sense this critical moment would form the turning point in Blackwood’s as-yet-unwritten autobiography, “Blackwood Battling Back”.  The book could be ready for Christmas.  Britain’s answer to Will Smith on the cover, wearing that half-desperate, half-maniacal look of a man prepared to do anything, anything, to keep a career alive.

What Tim Rice made of being comprehensively beaten by a man wearing a skin-type muscle vest underneath a velvet blazer, we’ll never know.  All we know is he was helpless in the face of a Blackwood battering.

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I mention this warming tale because the big premiership teams are getting “Blackwood-ed” left, right and centre at the moment.  Davids everywhere are playing Goliaths off the park.  Not just a cheeky tweaking of the nose, either.  Some real whoopings.

West Ham United went to White Hart Lane on Sunday and pulled Tottenham’s trousers down.  They didn’t turn up and grab a plucky 0-1. They taught them a lesson.  While Spurs’ all-star cast and their gravel-voiced manager huffed and puffed, the team from the unfashionable end of London showed Tottenham  a clean pair of footballing heels.  Despite having not scored an away goal all season (nor having registered a win at the Lane in fourteen long years), the Irons put three past Spurs unanswered. 

And this is the point.  Upsets happen every year in football, but this season we are seeing unfancied sides also outplay their supposed superiors.  Everyone likes to watch an underdog prevail but it’s gratifying in the extreme when they do so in style.  West Ham were simply better than Tottenham.

Cardiff seemed to have Manchester City completely figured out when the teams met on Game Day 2.  They looked like they could soak up the pressure all day long and City continually over-exposed themselves trying to break the Bluebirds down.  As a result, getting caught repeatedly on the break led to corners being conceded and, consequently, goals scored. Pellegrini’s men looked like a ball of wool in the hands of a crafty Welsh kitten.

It was no better for Manchester United when West Brom came to visit. Having gone a goal down, United duly equalised and then a very strange thing happened – West Brom went back on the attack.  Rather than hang on to their precious point for dear life, as is customary for small teams at Old Trafford, the Baggies were having none of it.  They smelt blood in the water.  Here was a collection of rudderless yesterday’s men, they sensed, there for the taking.  West Brom duly took ’em.  It was as startling as it was heartening.

Before Arsenal became flavour of the month[1], Paul Lambert’s team of toddlers dismantled the Gunners 3-1 on the opening day of the season.  At the Emirates[2].  Gaby Agbonlohor tore them apart.  It was brutal enough for many members of the national press to start reading Arsene Wenger his last rites.

This was a Villa team whose courting of the drop-zone was last season’s biggest flirtation outside of Jose Mourinho’s unrequited ankle-flashing in the direction of the vacant Manchester United manager’s seat.  Yet, within six games of the new campaign, Villa had had already beaten Arsenal and followed it up with a victory against, you’ve guessed it, Manchester City. 

Scalps are going to be piled high this year and that’s a great thing.  Football thrives on its unpredictability, in both passages of play and results.  And it’s currently more unpredictable than it has been in quite some time.  Competition has replaced procession.  Big teams stumbling is not indicative of a league losing its talent; it means that the division is strong. 

Whisper it quietly, but this season we might even witness the majesty of a record low winning points total in the modern era[3].  Maybe it’s fanciful to conceive that Manchester United’s 75 point haul of 1996/97 will be “bettered”, but it’s pretty exciting to think we could dip below 80 – something that hasn’t yet happened this century.  The team that wins the league loses an average of 4½ games en route.  Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea have lost six between them already.

Diversity isn’t just a dance troupe.  It’s a concept, too.  One that is alive and well in the top flight of English football.  There’s strength and variety throughout the division.  We are all richer for it.

Blackers knows I’m just playin’.


[1] They’re now bookmaker’s 3rd favourites for the title, having leap-frogged Manchester United.

[2] It’s interesting to note that all three of the above-mentioned victories were masterminded by Scottish managers (Steve Clarke, Malky Mackay and Paul Lambert). 

[3] Since the inception of the Premiership in 1992/93.

Principles or pragmatism? The Lady Macbeth guide to sacking Mancini

16 May

I’m beginning to think this blog is cursed.  In a week when Wigan exposed Manchester City’s fleshy behind at Wembley, one would have assumed that this was embarrassment enough for the chaps from East Manchester.  Not so.  The footballing gods demanded further sacrifice. 

Despite guiding Manchester City to their first league title since before Sheikh Mansour was born, Roberto Mancini was invited in for a “meeting without coffee” with the City top brass and politely asked to pack his things.  Three trophies in three years.  Two cup finals.  Champions League football secured every single season.  It wasn’t good enough.  The mind boggles as much as the heart despairs.

People forget, but bookmakers had Manchester City at a mere 5 to 1 (17%) to win the 2011/12 premier league.  The year before that we scraped 3rd place thanks to a final day Chelsea capitulation, in a season spent mostly battling it out with Spurs for 4thThe scarf-toting Italian won the league ahead of schedule and is now being punished for it.

My official Too Good-branded cotton pyjamas have been wringing with nervous sweat following three sleepless post-Mancini nights.  The Premiership top-table feels like it is at a critical juncture.   With United and Chelsea both chopping and changing their managers, this was a rare opportunity for City to capitalise on comparative stability.  Instead, we have sportingly levelled the playing field by giving Bob the boot, too.  Our owners displaying a hitherto unseen sense of fair play.  We’ve joined the uncertainty and it doesn’t feel very nice.

There are two ways of looking at the Mancini sacking.  There is the “principled approach” and then there’s the “pragmatic approach”.  The “principled approach” says we should have stuck with him.  There is simply no way he deserved to be sacked.  Without any hint of exaggeration, he gave Manchester City fans what, for many of them, will be the greatest singular moment of their lives.  No team wins the Premiership every year, and City had every reason to expect to be right up there again next May.  Especially so, given the recent departure down the road.

Then there is the “pragmatic approach”.  Principle’s uglier sister.  Brace yourself readers; the pragmatic approach is a far more sinister affair.  However, there is a time for the blunt edge of pragmatism.  For in nature there are neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences.

The “pragmatic approach” says that if Mourinho agrees to come, then it’s worth getting rid of Mancini.  Not a nice thing to do, granted, but sometimes you’ve got to make a pact with the devil.  Nobody wanted to get rid of Lee Sharpe.  But if you’ve got a Ryan Giggs waiting in (/on) the wing, then it doesn’t matter.  Pontius Pilate knew better than most that, while there was a time to keep your hands clean in the first place, there was also a time to give them a good post-backstabbing scrub.

Here’s the thing, though.  The pragmatic approach has to be worth it.  Pragmatism is an ugly bedfellow and one ought not to take it home from the night-club all too often.  As the saying goes, you can shear a sheep many times; you can skin it only once.  If City were going to skin Mancini, there had to be a damn good reason.

Mourinho provides reason enough for the moral compromise.  He is the outstanding manager of his generation.  I was flabbergasted when it became clear he was not Manchester United’s first choice to replace Ferguson.  Mourinho to United was the Doomsday scenario for me.  Another 26 trophy-laden years of misery.  Thankfully, the power men at Old Trafford came to the conclusion that the defining factor in Ferguson’s success was his Scottishness rather than his managerial brilliance. 

Those who tar Mourinho with the trouble-maker brush miss the bigger picture.  Jose might be fond of a little “creative tension” but his record is exceptional.  Two European Cups in his first decade of management.  League titles wherever he has gone.  Remember the nine year unbeaten home league record?  The time for compromising your principles is when you think a Mourinho-sized fish might fancy a nibble.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t look like the new City manager will be Mourinho.  It looks like it’s going to be Manuel Pellegrini.  Pellegrini is a fine manager and may, if hired, prove to be a success at City.  But then so was Mancini.  Why take the risk?  Why go through the upheaval?  Simply put, Pellegrini is not worth wielding the pragmatic sword for. 

The other great fear now is a backlash against the new manager.  The analogy is clear between City and Chelsea.  Chelsea fans cannot bring themselves to complain about Roman Abramovic, even though the mad oligarch goes through managers like I do portions of potato dauphinoise.  So Chelsea fans direct their ire towards the new coach instead.  Let’s hope Mancini’s successor is not subject to any similar misplaced anger.  

One thing you can be quite sure of – you won’t see any mass demonstrations outside the Etihad calling for the billionaire oil men to take their money elsewhere, whoever they choose.  We know which side our bread’s buttered on.  And there’s an awful lot of butter on that bread.  Like a good trophy wife, we’ll keep our mouths shut.  After all, rich husbands are in short supply.

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“A pleasure to have you on board, Mr Mourinho.”