March  2015 - Reports
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Manchester City 3 West Bromwich Albion 0    Baggies Boinged
Saturday 21st March 2015 : GYKO at the Etihad

After two consecutive defeats Manchester City are back to winning ways, but is it too late? Manuel Pellegrini, the champions’ manager, believes not as Chelsea, in his opinion, are not a “winning machine”. City must keep the pressure on.

This victory over West Bromwich Albion, who went down to 10 men inside two minutes with the wrong player sent off, was only a fourth in 13 games, yet the way City strolled around all afternoon monopolising ball and territory made it seem normal service had been resumed.

Chelsea are still the favourites and with only eight games remaining, Pellegrini was asked if the challenge now was to close the season with pride. “It’s not just to finish in a proud way. Football has a lot of difficult moments,” Pellegrini said. “You never know what will happen when you have 24 more points to play for. Last season we were nine points behind Chelsea with three games in hand but we were also eight behind Arsenal. Especially in this league that is so easy for every team to beat another team.”

Chelsea have a match in hand, too, but Pellegrini said: “I don’t think they are a winning machine all the time. I think you ask me maybe two or three weeks before I am sure [I said] from now until the end of the season every team will drop points so it’s important to return to our normal performance and win our games.

“After that we will see what happens with Chelsea. Maybe we can win all the games and maybe we can retain the title. The important thing is they must feel pressure. If you don’t win it’s easy for them. We depend just on these eight games at least to finish in the same position we are now.”

Frank Lampard, who made his first start since early January, recalled how Carlo Ancelotti was under pressure during the 2009-10 season when in charge at Chelsea. Then, fortunes changed. “Football is funny,” he said. “The year we won the double we got beaten by Inter in the Champions League and we were struggling in the Premier League and everyone was talking about him getting the sack and we went and won the double. So it shows you what can happen in football.

“I don’t think you can ever make too many calls or judgments at this stage of the season. Judgments will be made at the end of the season. At the moment I don’t think it is time to look at players, and ask whether this player or that player, or the manager, will be here next year. It is too early for that talk. That will take place in the summer.”

Goals from Wilfried Bony – his first for City – Fernando and David Silva confirmed three points that felt inevitable from the moment Neil Swarbrick sent off Gareth McAuley after 89 seconds.

It was Craig Dawson who should have walked for the foul on Bony just outside the area. Swarbrick, who later apologised, has joined Roger East last month and Andre Marriner last year in missing the real culprit when sending players off.

Tony Pulis, understandably, was not happy. “I mentioned it last week in my programme notes and I’ll say it again today – there are major decisions this year affecting games. And instead of moaning about it, how can we, as a profession, improve the situation?” said the West Bromwich manager, who wants a video review system put in place to help officials.

“We’ve got a great game and a great product that sells all over the world, and we’ve got to keep moving on. You can’t not move on. And that [managers having challenges] is one of the ways to improve it. As I say, even the clubs will make money. Because you can stick it up on the screen and for 30 seconds the main sponsors can get good advertising.”

West Bromwich remain on 33 points – Pulis said two wins and a draw will guarantee safety – and both teams now have a fortnight off because of the international break. City’s next game is a trip to Crystal Palace, for which Pellegrini hopes Yaya Touré, who has an achilles problem and will be assessed by the Ivory Coast medical department when he joins up with his country, can return. “We will see what happens with the national team during these two games. I hope he will have 10 days to recover,” he said.
 
Teams
Manchester City:
Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Clichy, Navas, Fernando, Lampard (Jovetic 65), Silva (Milner 82), Bony (Dzeko 78), Aguero        Unused subs:Caballero, Sagna, Demichelis, Fernandinho

West Brom:Myhill, Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Lescott, Baird, Morrison, Gardner, Fletcher, Sessegnon (Mulumbu 89), Berahino (Anichebe 85)
Unused subs:Rose, Wisdom, Davidson, Pocognoli, Nabi      Bookings:McAuley (sent off)

Referee:Neil Swarbrick

Barcelona 1 Manchester City      City fall short again
Wednesday 18th March 2015 : Craig Manners for GYKO at the Nou Camp

The phrase in Spanish is ganar sin despeinarse. It means to win without even having to mess your hair up and, though Manchester City did briefly threaten to make something implausible happen, they were powerless ultimately to prevent this being one of those occasions. They were outclassed for the most part and the only glimmer of consolation is that Barcelona, and Lionel Messi, on this form could leave even the most distinguished opponents on their knees.

Are Barça back to their exceptional best? They certainly gave that impression at times on a night when the number of chances Messi and his colleagues stacked up gave the narrow margin of victory a deceptive appearance.

Joe Hart put on one of the outstanding performances of his life to keep the score down and Messi must feel perplexed that he could decorate the game so elegantly yet be deprived of another goal for his personal collection. Messi brought the crowd to its feet, bewitched us with his footwork, found gaps that didn’t seem to exist and danced past opponents in a way that took the art of dribbling to its highest level. He did everything, in fact, apart from beat the opposition goalkeeper.

Hart’s brilliance earned him a long embrace at the final whistle from Luis Suárez and the Uruguayan’s face was one of wonder. Hart’s goalkeeping had prevented a rout and, amid that portfolio of second-half saves, it is just a pity from City’s perspective that Manuel Pellegrini’s other players could not be so inspired.

They had their chance in the 77th minute when Gerard Piqué brought down Sergio Agüero but Marc-André ter Stegen kept out the striker’s penalty and that save removed any lingering argument. Everyone knew from that point onwards that the quarter-finals would go ahead without a single English team.

City, unlike Arsenal and Chelsea, could not even claim they were particularly close at any stage. Barça’s football was dizzying at times, continuing where they had left off from the first leg. Messi looked absolutely determined to make up for that moment in Manchester when his stoppage-time penalty came back off Hart.

The four-times world player of the year was somewhere close to his exhilarating peaks and that, in football terms, is an exquisite form of bullying. James Milner made the mistake of diving in at one point. The nutmeg from Messi left him on his backside and, high in the stands, Pep Guardiola could be seen with his head in his hands, howling with laughter at the impudence of his former player. By that stage, Messi had already done the same to Fernandinho. Neymar, however, was the first. The nutmeg is football’s most patronising put-down; it happened to Fernandinho twice in a quarter of an hour during the first half. They were taking turns to humiliate him.

Neymar was bright, elusive and dangerous. Suárez was as busy as always. Mostly, though, it was a beautifully choreographed show from the little guy in the No10 shirt. At times Messi would just amble around but that slow walk was a deception. Suddenly he would be on the ball, picking up speed, causing mayhem. It was a masterclass.

Suárez and Neymar both struck a post during the first half. After the break, there was a disallowed goal from Jordi Alba and so many saves from Hart it was easy to lose count. City did at least start to play with a sense of adventure in that period. Their problem, nonetheless, was getting hold of the ball and not opening themselves to the swift, incisive counterattacking of Barça’s front three. Luis Enrique’s players kept the ball with so much more refinement than their opponents and when they did give up possession they hunted in a pack to get it back. Yaya Touré was on the game’s edges. Samir Nasri was removed at half-time, failing again on the big stage, and Vincent Kompany had another error-strewn night. City’s was a frequently panicked defence.

Pellegrini had at least abandoned the 4-4-2 system that played into Barça’s hands in the first leg but even a player with Silva’s qualities can look inferior in the presence of Andrés Iniesta. Pellegrini’s decision to play Bacary Sagna rather than Pablo Zabaleta made little difference and when the goal arrived, after 31 minutes, it was brilliantly constructed.

Messi, inevitably, was prominently involved and his curling pass, from right to left, to pick out Rakitic’s run was expertly delivered. Yet there was a lovely, deceptive touch, too, as he collected Alba’s pass and backed off Aleksandar Kolarov in one movement. Alba’s swift break out of defence had caught City on the break. Milner hurried back to double up on Messi with Kolarov but the little magician gives the impression sometimes he would not be fazed if there were half a dozen players trying to stop him. Messi simply kept advancing, floated the ball into Rakitic for the Croat to control the cross on his chest then clip his shot over City’s goalkeeper.

What followed from Hart was extraordinary, the highlight coming late on when he kept out Messi inside the six-yard area. Hart may never have played with greater authority but a club with City’s ambitions will not want to remember these occasions because of their goalkeeper’s heroics. Once again, they had come up short and the gap seems to be widening rather than getting any smaller.

Teams
FC Barcelona :
Ter Stegen, Alves (Adriano 90+1), Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Iniesta, Rakitic (Rafinha 84), Suárez, Mathieu, Messi, Neymar
Unused subs:Bravo, Xavi, Pedro, Bartra, Sergi Robert       Bookings:Alves

Manchester City:Hart, Sagna, Kompany, Demichelis. Kolarov, Fernandinho, Milner (Lampard 87), Yaya Toure (Bony 71), Silva, Nasri (Navas 46), Aguero    Unused subs:Caballero, Zabaleta, Dzeko, Fernando    Bookings:Fernandinho, Kolarov, Silva, Nasri, Demichelis

Referee: Gianluca Rocchi         Att:90,000

Burnley 1  Manchester City 0   Burnley Bash City
Saturday 14th March 2015 :  GYKO at Turf Moor

Only one thing can save Manchester City’s season now and alter the perception of Manuel Pellegrini as a dead man walking. Any hope of the Premier League title is gone, City face a fight to even finish second, but staying alive in the Champions League at Barcelona’s expense would see the confidence return and possibly convince the club’s owners that progress is being made.

When you are trailing 2-1 from the home leg sorting out your season at Camp Nou is a tall order, however, and Pellegrini’s demeanour suggests as much. He did not attempt to hide from the truth at Turf Moor, and just as commendably he did not rail against the referee for denying his side what might have been a face-saving late penalty when Ben Mee tripped Pablo Zabaleta. He simply accepted that with the players City had on the pitch and the amount of possession they enjoyed, the result should have been better.

“We are not doing well, we do not have the points we need,” Pellegrini said. “I don’t think it was the case that our minds were on the Barcelona game. There is always that danger with a big game ahead but we have been in similar situations before and won. It was not a problem of effort, the problem was creative. If you look at the stats we had 70% of possession, if you review the whole game I don’t think Burnley had any chances to score except the one they took, and that came from a free-kick on goal. We had enough creative players in the team, we created some chances, we did not deserve to lose but that sometimes happens in football.”

Logic would suggest a team that cannot win at Burnley is not a great bet for a win in Barcelona, but if City need a lesson in how to succeed as underdogs they need look no further than Sean Dyche’s spirited side, who have now taken four points from their illustrious near neighbours this season and are within a point of climbing out of the bottom three. George Boyd’s sweetly struck second-half goal was the difference between the two sides, and the former Hull winger said the Burnley preparations were based on the 2-2 draw achieved at the Etihad in December and Liverpool’s tactics at Anfield a fortnight ago.

“City have some great players, there’s no doubt about that,” Boyd said. “They can cut you open in a second but if you press them and get in their faces they don’t really like it. If you tackle them hard and play a few long balls you find they are not used to it. We just played to our strengths, and they are unfamiliar with that sort of game. You saw it recently at Liverpool, they don’t track back as well as they should and we knew we could exploit that. Liverpool got behind them quite easily.”

Boyd believes Burnley should have more points than they actually do – “We battered Manchester United a couple of weeks ago but went behind before half-time and ended up losing” – and argues the club is still well-placed to climb out of trouble. “A lot of people would have assumed we would have fallen away by now, but we haven’t,” he said. “We are still in touch, and we are in better form than some of the teams around us.

“We always knew we would be in a relegation fight, we are not under any extra pressure, but some of the teams just above us might not have been expecting to be sucked in. We seem to raise our games against the big teams, but if we can do that against some of the teams around us and pick up a few more wins we have a great chance of staying up.”

The notion of City rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into Barcelona in the manner of a Dyche team playing for Premier League survival is quite a fanciful one, though at least Yaya Touré is back from suspension and City have put in fighting performances this season in Munich and Rome.

Touré in particular will be hoping to have more influence on the Champions League game than he managed in East Lancashire, though it is possible, just, that he and other big names in the City side were saving themselves in order to maximise their chances in Spain. That was the most obvious explanation for a lethargic and underwhelming performance, though Pellegrini is no fool. He knows City have been unimpressive for some weeks now, and is too much of a realist to believe that even the night of their dreams on Wednesday would make everything all right. Arsenal are now just a point behind and playing better, and unless City can put some results together in the league they face coming third in a two-horse race.

“Even if we win in Barcelona that does not mean we can ignore the Premier League, we need to finish as near to the top of the table as we can,” Pellegrini said. “I would not say this is the most difficult period of my time at the club, but we must find a way to improve results. We were a little bit flat but the players are all experienced, and we are playing exactly the same way as we were a few months ago when we were winning.”

Teams
Burnley:
Heaton, Trippier, Shackell, Duff, Mee, Barnes, Arfield, Jones, Boyd; Ings (Reid 90+3), Vokes (Ward 87)   Unused subs:Gilks, Keane, Jutkiewicz, Wallace, Kightly       Bookings:Duff, Mee

Manchester City:Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy, Navas, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure (Lampard 81), Silva (Jovetic 74), Dzeko (Bony 63), Aguero    Unused subs:Caballero, Mangala, Sagna, Nasri    Bookings:Demichelis

Referee:Andre Marriner              Att:21,216

Manchester City 2 Leicester City 0    Win Ugly!
Saturday 4th March 2015 : GYKO at the Etihad

It was a scruffy performance at times, with the clear sense that something is still not right. Yet, for Manchester City, any win will do at the moment. This was only their fifth in a dozen matches since the turn of the year and it was unusual to see a team of their gifts make such hard work of it against a side propping up the rest of the Premier League.

Manuel Pellegrini’s side had to withstand some anxious moments before the substitute James Milner soothed any lingering nerves with his 88th-minute goal and it could conceivably have been a more chastening experience but for the fact this was another night for students of refereeing demonology to flick through their little black books.

David Silva had opened the scoring in first-half stoppage time and Leicester’s goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, was kept busy enough to demonstrate why he is still playing at this level at the age of 42. Yet that tells only part of the story on a night when Vincent Kompany was demoted because of his deterioration in form, Wilfried Bony had an undistinguished first start for his new club and Leicester had justifiable complaints they had been on the wrong end of some crucial refereeing errors.

Nigel Pearson finished the night demanding video technology and the Leicester manager needed all his restraint not to talk himself into trouble because of the decisions from the referee, Robert Madley, that went against his team.

Pearson thought there were three different occasions when Leicester should have been awarded penalties and that, perhaps, was doing a disservice to Joe Hart after taking the ball a split second before connecting with Andrej Kramaric for the second of them.

The two incidents sandwiching that moment, though, were more obvious injustices. Pearson was certainly entitled to be aggrieved about Bony taking down Jeff Schlupp midway through the first half and there was another let-off for the home side five minutes after the interval when Fernando fouled Kramaric and the free-kick was awarded just outside the penalty area. The replays confirmed Kramaric had been marginally inside and Pearson was simmering with anger.

Leicester will have to wonder whether the occasion might have panned out very differently had the correct decisions been made. This was certainly a good time potentially to face the champions, who were at least a couple of notches below their best and grateful, at 1-0, that Riyad Mahrez’s 74th-minute shot came back off the upright.

Kompany was watching from the back row of the dugout, hunched up in his overcoat, while Samir Nasri and Fernandinho did not even get on the bench and Pablo Zabaleta was also among the substitutes. Pellegrini will always defend his team but his selection here confirmed how alarmed he has been by their carelessness since the turn of the year. The home side’s shortcomings early on were epitomised when Paul Konchesky, Leicester’s nomadic left-back, slipped the ball through Jesús Navas’s legs for a perfectly executed nutmeg. The crowd was flat and, though Bony worked hard to enliven the occasion, his finishing was poor. The first half was meandering to its close before Silva spared his team-mates the possibility of heading to the tunnel amid a soundtrack of discontent.

Yaya Touré started the move with one of his driving runs through the centre. Silva knocked the ball out to Aleksandar Kolarov on the left and then continued his forward movement into the penalty area, anticipating where the cross would come. Bony went for it first but was under pressure from Robert Huth and when the ball squirted out to Silva, he scored at the second attempt after his first effort had come back off Wes Morgan.

Bony’s erratic finishing throughout the night could probably be put down to anxiety. Schwarzer saved one effort in the first half but another flew over the bar and Bony missed the target again when Silva picked him out in the penalty area early in the second half. Bony, to give him his due, looked keen to justify his selection but the £25m recruit from Swansea was replaced by Milner after 72 minutes and will not remember the occasion with great fondness.

Sergio Agüero was strangely subdued, too, and Navas’s cross for Milner’s goal only partially disguises the way he tends to flit in and out of matches. Eliaquim Mangala, taking over from Kompany alongside Martín Demichelis, had one of his better games. Yet it was strange to see the champions looking so dishevelled against such moderate opponents.

Touré tried a curler that was heading for the top corner until Schwarzer turned it away and Silva, as always, tried to lift his team, always wanting the ball and having that rare knack just about every time of doing the right thing with it.

Milner turned in Navas’s centre and the home side could relax but they will know there has to be an improvement if they are to stand any chance of making up the gap to Chelsea.

Teams
Manchester City:Hart, Sagna, Mangala, Demichelis, Kolarov, Fernando, Yaya Toure, Silva (Lampard 79), Navas, Bony (Milner 72), Aguero (Dzeko 86)            Unused subs:Caballero, Zabaleta, Kompany, Clichy

Leicester City:Schwarzer, Konchesky (Nugent 57), Upson, Morgan, Huth, Simpson, Schlupp, Mahrez (Ulloa 77), Cambiasso, James, Kramanc (Vardy 58)     
Unused subs: Hamer, King, Drinkwater, Wasilewski   

Referee: Robert Madley           Att:45,000

Liverpool 2  Manchester City 1        A Lesson at Anfield
Sunday 1st March 2015 : John Boyes for GYKO at Anfield

The only fatigue in evidence at Anfield lay in Manchester City’s defence of the Premier League title. Liverpool were supposed to be travel-weary following Europa League exertions in Istanbul yet were revitalised by Brazilian brilliance from Philippe Coutinho. Brendan Rodgers’ “young magician” may have conjured a Champions League ticket and the end of a title contest at a stroke.

Coutinho created one stunning goal for Jordan Henderson and scored another of his own to condemn Manuel Pellegrini’s champions to a second damaging 2-1 defeat in six days. City, for all their title-winning expertise and the incentive of closing the gap on Chelsea to two points, could not match the vibrancy or potency of the 22-year-old from Rio de Janeiro or the intensity of Liverpool’s overall performance.

Sergio Agüero and David Silva offered hope in flashes for the visitors but, with the exception of their stellar talents, City were fresh out of ideas.

The recent failure to sign players with the pedigree of Silva, Agüero and Yaya Touré, anonymous here until a late surging run into the Liverpool area, combined with Vincent Kompany’s regression in the heart of defence has added to Pellegrini’s problems in attempting to keep pace with Chelsea.

Liverpool extended City’s wait for a first win at Anfield since 2003 with a result that will change their own perceptions of what is achievable in the league this season.

Rodgers did all he could to minimise the impact of Thursday’s 120-minute outing against Besiktas and his decision to rest the mesmerising Coutinho in Turkey paid dividends. The opening suggested his concerns at Friday’s 4.19am return had substance as City controlled possession but they imploded during an error-strewn five-minute spell that energised Liverpool and a previously flat atmosphere.

Central to the shift were Coutinho and Kompany. The first chance of the game set a template for much that followed as Coutinho played Adam Lallana into a gaping hole in the City defence created by Kompany’s and Eliaquim Mangala’s decision to track Raheem Sterling. Lallana shot tamely at Joe Hart, and also had two goals disallowed for offside, but more City mistakes ensured the reprieve was short-lived.

Fernandinho, who replaced Fernando following the Brazilian’s ineffectual performance against Barcelona, sold his captain short with a careless pass on the halfway line. Kompany lost out in the challenge to the slight Coutinho who broke with speed and found Sterling. The 20-year-old squared to Henderson and Liverpool’s captain for the day cut in from the left to send an outstanding finish into the top corner from 20 yards. It was an exquisite breakthrough from a midfielder determined to take responsibility in the absence of the injured Steven Gerrard, but also a worrying sign for Pellegrini in terms of his own captain’s contribution.

Kompany had struggled in the Champions League on Tuesday and City’s centre defence was vulnerable again at Anfield. The Belgian has resorted to the creaking centre-half’s refuge of instinctively blocking a striker’s run by any means necessary, as he no longer backs his powers of recovery, yet Kompany was immune to a yellow card from the referee, Mark Clattenburg. Wilfried Bony also benefited from the referee’s leniency when he caught Lallana in the face with a raised arm but the substitute was only booked.

City almost levelled immediately when Agüero latched onto Silva’s ball over the top and sent a first time shot beyond Simon Mignolet but also against the foot of a post. The visitors gradually rediscovered their composure on the ball, in the final third at least, and demonstrated their ability to grind down opponents with fine team goal.

The equaliser originated from a loose pass by Coutinho of all people. Pablo Zabaleta intercepted a pass intended for Sterling, Touré picked out Silva, the Spaniard released Agüero into space in front of Liverpool’s back three and the striker picked out Edin Dzeko’s run in behind. Dzeko duly despatched a measured finish into Mignolet’s bottom corner.

Despite regaining a measure of control City’s defence repeatedly struggled against Liverpool’s fast-moving forward line and it was the home side who continued to create the clearer openings. Lallana swept a half-volley wide of the far post from Lazar Markovic’s chip into the box, Kompany blocked a Sterling shot and the winger scuffed an excellent chance wide from Lallana’s inviting cross shortly after the restart.

The second half developed into a scrappy, even affair in desperate need of a moment of class to lift it beyond the ordinary. Coutinho was the man to oblige. There were 15 minutes remaining when Sterling spun away from his marker and found Liverpool’s No10 lurking with intent to the left of the City area. Coutinho stepped inside Samir Nasri and, without needing to glance up, curled a superb shot over Hart’s despairing dive into the far corner. A goal worthy of winning any game and, quite possibly, flooring a title challenge in the process.

Teams

Liverpool:Mignolet, Can, Skrtel, Lovren, Henderson, Allen, Moreno (K Toure 83), Markovic (Sturridge 76), Lallana, Coutinho, Sterling 
Unused subs: Ward, Lambert, Borini, Balotelli, Williams   Bookings: Lallana

Manchester City:Hart, Zabaleta, Mangala, Kompany, Kolarov, Fernandinho (Bony 78), Yaya Toure, Silva, Nasri (Lampard 83), Dzeko (Milner 58), Aguero     Unused subs: Caballero, Demichelis, Clichy, Fernando        Bookings:Nasri, Milner, Bony

Referee:Mark Clatenburg               Att:44,000

 

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