February  2015 - Reports
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Manchester City 1  Barcelona 2         A Football Masterclass
Tuesday 24th February 2015 : GYKO at the Etihad

Perhaps the most dispiriting part for Manchester City came from that unmistakable feeling that, if anything, the gulf has widened. They have suffered plenty of times in this competition but has there ever been a time when the imbalance of talent has felt so extreme and they have been so grateful to be spared an even more harrowing ordeal?

Barcelona did not just out play them, they emphatically put them in their place during that opening 45 minutes when Luis Suárez scored twice, Dani Alves struck the crossbar, Lionel Messi nutmegged David Silva and Manuel Pellegrini’s team stumbled to the interval like a side in need of smelling salts rather than half-time oranges.

Sergio Agüero’s goal midway through the second half does change the complexion slightly before the sides renew acquaintances in this Champions League last 16 fixture on 18 March but City’s momentum was quickly lost after Gaël Clichy’s second yellow card and the return leg would have felt like a formality had Messi put away that penalty in the third minute of stoppage time.

11-v-11, Barça had frequently toyed with City; 11-against-10, the game had descended into damage-limitation mode for City by the time Pablo Zabaleta’s trip on Messi left the four-times Ballon d’Or winner with the chance to give the score a more accurate reflection. Joe Hart kept out the shot and Barça’s tormentor-in-chief headed the rebound wide of an exposed goal.

Yet it was not easy, on the balance of play, to be convinced by Pellegrini and his defeated players that the reprieve might somehow be a defining moment over the two legs. It will need the most exhilarating performance City have put together since the money started to pour in and the overwhelming evidence is that it looks wholly beyond them.

Pellegrini’s decision to operate with both Edin Dzeko and Agüero in attack certainly looks misjudged bearing in mind that the first way to stop Barcelona is usually to try to crowd midfield and restrict space. Yet it would be wrong to lump all the blame on the manager’s tactics. Once again, some of his more accomplished footballers appeared to be afflicted by an inferiority complex.

It has become the recurring theme of their Champions League story and the harsh reality after four seasons at this level is that their owners could probably be forgiven for expecting more. Pellegrini’s take on the first half was that his team couldn’t put three passes together. Samir Nasri was removed just after the hour and few of his colleagues distinguished themselves.

What happened here was all the more demoralising given that this is not even the greatest Barcelona team we have seen. Luis Enrique’s side shimmered with menace. Messi’s flashes of brilliance seemed designed to remind City of what constitutes true greatness. Suárez took his goals with great expertise and, though it always feels slightly strange seeing Barcelona having this much fun without Xavi Hernández, there was another reminder of Andrés Iniesta’s enduring class and Ivan Rakitic’s considerable gifts.

When the opposition is this refined, the only way to survive is to play with the highest levels of concentrations and try to eliminate mistakes. Unfortunately for City, it quickly became apparent that they were vulnerable. Vincent Kompany’s part in Suárez’s first goal was another sign of his regression.

The Manchester City captain had made the crowd hold its breath, with a skewed clearance that threatened an own goal, after barely a minute. Shortly afterwards, Fernando’s lapse allowed Suárez to run free. The striker could not take advantage but it was the carelessness that preceded it that must have alarmed Pellegrini.

For long, awkward spells, City looked out of their depth. Dani Alves and Jordi Alba attacked like whippets from the full-back positions. Neymar had the beating of Zabaleta and, Suárez being Suárez, everyone just knew how determined he was to leave his fingerprints all over the occasion.

For City, Yaya Touré was badly missed but it would be stretching the truth to presume his absence greatly influenced the outcome. City’s shortcomings ran through the entire team and Messi looked absolutely determined to expose them, slaloming between players, dancing past challenges and illuminating the pitch to the point that even the home supporters started to applaud him.

That little nutmeg on Silva early on felt like a man marking out his territory. It said one thing: you might be good, but we are considerably better. All that was missing was a pat of Silva’s head as he glided by.

Did City panic? They certainly froze. After 16 minutes, Messi had three players around him but not one of them closing him down. He clipped in a cross and Kompany went to head it away under pressure from Suárez. The ball fell between them and Suárez finished with a brilliant left-foot shot into the far corner.

By half-time, it was almost a surprise that the away side had restricted themselves to only one more goal. Messi, again, was prominently involved, darting past Fernando and then Zabaleta. Alba crossed from the left and Suárez had anticipated where the ball was heading, dashing into the six-yard area to get in front of Martín Demichelis and nudge his shot past Hart.

Perhaps a little bit of complacency crept in from Barcelona after the interval but, to give City their due, they did at least remind themselves they were meant to be the home side. Dzeko had a good chance three minutes into the second half and when they did score in the 69th minute it emanated from Messi, of all people, being slow to react and Clichy taking the ball off his toe. Silva’s flick, from Fernando’s pass, was beautifully weighted and Agüero swept his shot past Marc-André ter Stegen.

Briefly, there was the sense City might fancy an extraordinary feat of escapology. Instead, Clichy was silly to rush into a clumsy challenge on Alves, having already been booked, and the 10 men were ultimately grateful that Messi, with four misses from his last seven penalties, reminded us he is human, after all.

Teams
Manchester City:Hart, Zabaleta, Clichy, Demichelis, Kompany, Fernando, Milner, Nasri (Fernandinho 62), Silva (Sagna 78), Dzeko (Bony 68), Aguero     Unused subsCaballero, Mangala, Navas, Lampard    Bookings:Fernandinho, Clichy (sent-off)

FC Barcelona:Stegen, Alba, Pique, Mascherano, Alves (Adriano 75), Rakitic (Mathieu 71), Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Suarez, Neymar (Pedro 80)      Unused subs:Bravo, Xavi, Rafinha, Roberto     Bookings:Alves, Rakitic, Adriano


Referee:Felix Brych (GER)          Att:45,300

Manchester City 5  Newcastle United 0    Geordies Gubbed
Saturday 21st February 2015 : Paul Robinson for GYKO at the Etihad

Manchester City’s demolition of Newcastle United was followed by Vincent Kompany sending a bullish message to Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suárez before Tuesday’s Champions League encounter with Barcelona.

The Catalan club knocked City out of the competition at the same last-16 stage last year but the captain shrugged when asked about Barça’s three world-class forwards.

“Fear? We don’t fear them. You don’t go in at this level fearing strikers. We want to play against them. It’s the fourth time in a year now,” Kompany said as the squad prepare for the first leg at the Etihad Stadium. “There’s nothing new to worry us, it’s a case of having the whole team at a very high level. They’re a special team with special players, of course.”

The defender went further, claiming that Stoke City, who City beat 4-1 in their last away trip, can be more difficult opponents. “Their [Barcelona’s] ability is not about hurting you all game – you can have tougher games when you go to Stoke City. It’s about the fact they can decide a game within a second. They have more players than anyone else in the world who can finish games with a touch of magic.”

Last season City went down 4-1 on aggregate to Barca, losing the opening leg at the Etihad 2-0. Of what that result may mean, Kompany said: “You play top teams every season and it’s unpredictable. You hope that on your day you can beat them but I think it’s the same for us as it is for them.”

City are yet to defeat a continental heavyweight club in the Champions League when the opponents needed victory. Asked if there is a determination to prove they can do so, Kompany said: “Our team has been proving our determination in recent years. That’s one thing when you look back on this team in the future you will never be able to say we did not have. We’ve always come back.

“We’re putting in a fight again for the Premier League – you saw that [against Newcastle]. And we’ll put in a fight for the Champions League too. The history of this club tells you that in the past six years we always keep progressing.”

Within two minutes of kick-off it appeared set to be the longest of days for John Carver’s side in a contest that had Yaya Touré, back from Africa Cup of Nations duty, running proceedings.

Edin Dzeko won a penalty following Vurnon Anita’s clumsy challenge which Sergio Agüero coolly slotted and they were coasting. Goals from Samir Nasri and Dzeko – his first since 27 September – had City leading 3-0 at the interval. David Silva’s double early in the second half meant the Spaniard could be removed on 59 minutes and after Wilfried Bony, the £25m signing, came on for his debut the failure to finish when through on Tim Krul’s goal hardly mattered.

Carver, refreshingly, pointed the finger at his team for their weak effort. “It’s frustrating but you can only show them and talk about what they will do. I cannot get on the pitch and do anything about it,” he said. “I’m going to take lots of responsibility for what’s happened and players have to take it. Some of the players have taken that responsibility.”

With Barcelona losing 1-0 to Málaga, top-of-the-table Chelsea drawing with Burnley, and Manchester United losing at Swansea, this was a perfect day for the champions. Now, they hope Tuesday will be the perfect evening.

Teams

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Kompany, Mangala, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Nasri (Lampard 70), Silva (Navas 60), Dzeko, Aguero (Bony 60)    Unused subs:Caballero, Clichy, Demichelis, Fernando    Bookings:Kompany, Toure, Dzeko

Newcastle United:Krul, Coloccini, Janmaat (R Taylor 71), Williamson, Gouffran (Obertan 86), Sissoko, Perez, Haidara, Colback, Anita (Abeid 46), Cisse     Unused subs:Woodman, Armstrong, Taylor, Obertan, Sammy Ameobi, Riviere    Bookings:Anita, Colback

Referee:Chris Foy      Att:45,605

Stoke City 1 Manchester City 4       Potters Punished
Wednesday 11th February 2015 : Stuart Kitchen for GYKO at the Britania

This ended as an emphatic victory, a first triumph in the Premier League since New Year’s Day and at this venue for Manchester City, though the scoreline does not tell how the champions wobbled until pulling away when the underrated James Milner scored 10 minutes into the second half.

City knew they must win to ensure no further ground was ceded to Chelsea. And with the leaders defeating Everton the champions closed the evening having maintained a deficit of seven points to at least let José Mourinho’s men know the title race is not yet a formality.

On the same day of last season City had notched 21 goals more than the 47 accrued in the Premier League before the start of this game. While they had played one match more then than the current term’s 24, this striking deficit offered a big clue as to why Manuel Pellegrini’s men are struggling.

An embodiment of this was shown early on. David Silva was clear and squared the ball to Sergio Agüero. The striker scuffed the shot and missed a chance to break a drought that stretched back to 3 December when the last two of his 19 strikes were registered.

Having turned the champions over 1-0 at the Etihad in the reverse league fixture, Stoke had no doubt they could repeat the feat tonight. Mark Hughes could hardly wait to mention how the club would be “gunning for our first double” in his pre-game notes, shoehorning this into the opening paragraph and the way his side pinned City back suggested this might be a matter of time only.

Joe Hart had one of those moments he seems capable of, spilling a fierce Victor Moses shot nearly straight into his goal. Instead it went for a corner and from this Peter Crouch had a free header and Stoke appeared to have a good shout for a penalty as James Milner’s arm connected with the ball.

If Lee Mason, the referee, was unsure, it was clearer still how City were continuing the poor form of Saturday’s draw with Hull City. Throughout this patchy period the visiting support sang, “We know what we are, we’re the champions of England” and, finally, their team performed like so.

Agüero cast off the doubt that was hampering him when he took possession near Stoke’s goal. With a shoulder-drop the striker made space, then drilled a sweet finish beyond Asmir Begovic.

This felt unfair to Stoke and justice was about to be served. Marko Arnautovic, the classy Austrian playmaker Hughes deploys on the right, swung in a menacing cross and Crouch again could head unmarked, this time to beat Hart.

City had the look of an outfit fighting a relegation battle, not defending the Premier League crown. On the stroke of half-time Agüero might have had a second with a finish into the open goal but his hand touched the ball, the strike was disallowed, and the 26-year-old was booked.

It summed City up so far. Fernandinho offered flashes of quality in the opening 45 minutes and another came at the second half’s start. The Brazilian’s clever pass split Stoke and allowed Kolarov to run at Begovic, but there was no finish. The problem was Fernandinho followed this with a clumsy ball that handed possession to Stoke in midfield to again illustrate City’s hesitancy. There was the sense that a match they had to win might slip away.

But Milner, the saviour with the late equaliser against Hull, stepped up. The midfielder’s emphatic header from a Samir Nasri delivery his fifth of the season.

City’s third came when Geoff Cameron fouled Silva in the area and from the penalty Agüero converted. Better came as Nasri belted home a peach of a finish from 20 yards.

Teams

Stoke City:
Begovic, Cameron, Wollscheid, Muniesa, Bardsley, Arnautovic, Nzonzi (Shenton 90+4), Whelan (Adam 85), Moses (Sidwell 80), Diouf, Crouch       Unused subs: Butland, Palacios, Teixeira, Wilkinson      Bookings:Arnautovic

Manchester City:Hart, Zabaleta, Mangala, Kompany, Kolarov, Fernando, Fernandinho, Milner, Silva (Lampard 80), Nasri (Navas 86), Aguero (Dzeko 73_        Unused subs:Caballero, Sagna, Demichelis, Jovetic      Bookings:Aguero, Milner
 
Referee:
Lee Mason             Att:26,000

Manchester City 1 Hull City 1    Absolute Dross
Saturday 7th February 2015 : GYKO at the Etihad

Eighty-five years had passed since Hull last defeated Manchester City away. That sequence continues but only just as Manuel Pellegrini’s team came mightily close to a third home loss on the bounce, a result that would have left their title defence hanging by a thread.

Pellegrini was stalking the technical area hoping for a late equaliser or better during the closing minutes. Despite a fine Sergio Agüero attempt that hit the bar, it appeared it would never come. But then, two minutes into added time, James Milner, a substitute, drilled a 20-yard free-kick beyond Allan McGregor and the hosts had snatched a draw.

With their win at Aston Villa, it meant Chelsea extended their lead to seven but it could easily have been nine.

However, City’s most recent league win remains the 3-2 victory over Sunderland on New Year’s Day. Since then, the champions have drawn 1-1 at Everton, lost 2-0 to Arsenal at home and shared a goalless draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
There was also the embarrassment of being knocked out of the FA Cup by Middlesbrough here and so with this result City must hope to finally secure a league victory again at Stoke on Wednesday.

However much the manager denies it, the champions continue to miss Yaya Touré, whose Ivory Coast take on Ghana in Sunday’sAfrica Cup of Nations final. This was the fifth match without the midfielder. “We have no doubt about how important a player Yaya is. But we play other games without Yaya and we could win,” Pellegrini said.

The first half was a contender for their poorest this season. By the close City were 1-0 down and being booed off by some of their fans, a sentiment the players could hardly argue with. Passes had gone awry, first touches were clumsy and their play was simply too slow. City had sleepwalked through the half and if the manager put a proverbial flea in each of his players’ ears at the break, the sight of Edin Dzeko being caught in possession soon after the referee, Jonathan Moss, blew to start the second half must surely have angered him.

David Meyler’s opener, his first goal since April’s FA Cup semi-final win over Sheffield United, was a gift following a calamitous series of errors from the home defence.

The chief culprit was Martín Demichelis, the central defender again preferred to the £40m Eliaquiam Mangala, who was a substitute.

Before the mistake that initiated Meyler’s strike, Demichelis had over-hit a back-pass at Joe Hart. This caused the goalkeeper to miscue a hack away, sending the ball up in the air and when Demichelis tried to clean up the mess he had created the Argentinian contrived only to connect a boot with air.

The episode was an unwanted augury. Moments later Hart could have collected the ball but this time Demichelis intervened to kick it away from his keeper’s hands.

Then disaster struck. A Jake Livermore shot was superbly saved by Hart, but from the rebound Gaston Ramírez’s effort beat the keeper, struck his left post, and, following up, Meyler smashed home from close range.

Thirty-five minutes had been played but the goal had been coming all half. Earlier, a Robbie Brady cross from the left was headed against the bar by Ahmed Elmohamady after he too easily beat Gaël Clichy.

Time and space were constantly available to Hull, something no champion-elect side should allow. Five minutes before the interval Sone Aluko could have doubled the visitors’ advantage but instead blasted over from close range.

City had only a weak Dzeko header that was aimed at McGregor and a sweet surge from Vincent Kompany that ended with him dinking a pass into Agüero’s path to show before the players turned around.

What followed was a far brighter effort, the least that was expected following a dismal opening half. David Silva may have been right to be angered when Moss denied him a penalty after Alex Bruce bundled him over in the area but the problem was that despite more huffing and puffing City still suffered a sharpness deficit.

Kompany summed up the day his side were having when he blocked a shot from Silva and as the final 10 minutes arrived. Fernando, Dzeko and the Spaniard had all been pulled from the starting XI as Pellegrini desperately tried to avert a devastating reverse. In the end the Chilean did. But there must be concern.

Teams
Manchester City:
Hart, Clichy, Demichelis, Kompany, Zabaleta, Fernando (Navas, 45), Fernandinho, Silva (Jovetic, 74), Dzeko (Milner, 65), Aguero, Nasri      Unused subs:Caballero Mangala, Kolarov, Lampard   Bookings:Nasri, Fernandinho

Hull City:McGregor, Bruce, Meyler, Huddlestone, Brady (Quinn, 91), Livermore, McShane, Dawson, Aluko (Robertson, 65), Ramirez (N’Doye, 76), Elmohamady     Unused subs:Harper, Davies, Hernandez, Jelavic      Bookings: Elmohamady, Dawson, Livermore, N’Doye

Referee: Jon Moss

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