March 2016 - Reports
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Manchester City 0  Manchester United 1     Mugged by the Rags
Sunday 20th March 2016 : GYKO at the Etihad

There has not been too much material for Manchester United’s highlights reel this season but amid all the disappointments, the lost points and fervent debate about Louis van Gaal’s suitability for the job, they chose a good moment to remember some of their qualities from the days when these kind of joys were the norm rather than the exception.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid – and, admittedly, it is a backhanded one – is that they played as though affronted by the suspicion that Van Gaal has put together the most undistinguished team to emanate from Old Trafford for almost 30 years. They have unearthed another gem in Marcus Rashford, scorer of the game’s decisive goal, and on this evidence, it is perfectly plausible to think they can overhaul a fading Manchester City side to take the fourth Champions League place.

For City, that represents a considerable embarrassment given the various ordeals that Van Gaal has encountered this season and the deception of Manuel Pellegrini’s team starting the season with five straight wins. Their deterioration since then is bordering on a full-on slump, with 36 points out of a possible 75, and the latest ordeal was so harrowing for Martín Demichelis it would be no surprise if this was his last appearance in City’s colours.

Demichelis suffered such a torrid time he was substituted seven minutes into the second half with Pellegrini later explaining a defender of vast experience “felt nervous” in the company of Rashford and Anthony Martial.

Those butterflies made Demichelis a danger to his own team. He was badly at fault for the goal, fortunate not to give away a penalty and partly responsible for Joe Hart injuring himself when he underhit a backpass to City’s goalkeeper with his first touch of the second half. It was a tragicomedy that could usher Demichelis into retirement though, in fairness, he was not the only player to suffer. City look like a team in need of reinvention and their crowd must be longing for Pep Guardiola’s restorative powers.

United, in stark contrast, can be greatly encouraged and Rashford’s contribution certainly justified Van Gaal’s decision to keep him in the team after a few peripheral performances. Rashford has provided some of United’s more illuminating moments since the turn of the year and his latest one was his most outstanding piece of centre-forward play to date.

Yet his performance was best summed up by the little cameo in stoppage time, with United desperately needing a break, when the 18-year-old spun away from Eliaquim Mangala, surged away, performed a couple of step-overs and won a corner. “He had cramp,” Van Gaal said, almost disbelievingly, “and yet still he could run, even with cramp … I have never seen that.”

The goal was a beauty, too – starting with the soft-touch control to lure Demichelis into the challenge, then the speed at which the teenager spun away and the absence of nerves in front of England’s goalkeeper. It all happened in a blur and Rashford took the chance expertly, adjusting his body shape to improve his angle and placing his shot past Hart. “Rashford is very quick and Demichelis looks like the years are catching up with him,” Van Gaal said unsympathetically of his former player. “He was a very good defender, my centre-back at Bayern [Munich] but that is the life of football.”

Van Gaal was certainly entitled to be aggrieved that the referee, Michael Oliver, did not award his team a penalty late in the first half when Demichelis, again, was behind play, arriving late and turning his side into Rashford to knock the teenager over. It was a clear penalty despite some amateur dramatics from the guilty party, trying to create the illusion that Rashford had manufactured his own fall.

City’s supporters like to sing how their team “fight to the end” and the goal came early enough, on 16 minutes, to leave plenty of time to recover. For the rest of the first half, however, it was a fitful display. The home side lost Raheem Sterling, who injured a groin in a challenge with Juan Mata, and even when they pinned back their opponents for periods of the second half it was a lot of huff and puff without too much guile. Sergio Agüero worked hard and headed one chance against a post but David Silva, City’s most creative force, is off form and, for the most part, David de Gea was well protected.

The defeat means City have lost 17 out of the last 18 occasions they have trailed at half-time in a league match. They have gone 22 games without recording back-to-back wins and, even more startlingly, managed only two victories in 14 matches against top-half teams. City’s total of 51 points is down from 61, 67, 62 and 70 at the corresponding stage of the previous four seasons and, keeping the seat warm for another man, there was nothing but a fit of pique from Pellegrini when he was asked to explain the decline.

For United, the team looked much more rounded without Marouane Fellaini cluttering up the place. Jesse Lingard might not be a natural No 10 but the tactic worked much better here than it had done against Liverpool last Thursday. Mata was prominently involved and Martial always looked dangerous, panicking Demichelis into the pass that led to Hart’s calf injury.

As for Rashford, it seemed distinctly unjust that the man-of-the-match champagne went to Chris Smalling, who could conceivably have been sent off for a foul on Agüero after already being booked for tripping the same player. Rashford was the only Mancunian on the pitch – a boy from a Wythenshawe estate – and perhaps they were not entirely sure he was old enough to drink.

Manchester City: Hart (Caballero 50), Clichy, Demichelis (Bony 53), Mangala, Sagna, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, Silva, Sterling (Fernando 26), Navas, Aguero        Unused subs: Zabaleta, Kolarov, M Garcia, Iheanacho        Bookings: Mangala

Manchester United: De Gea, Rojo (Valencia 62), Smalling, Blind, Darmian (Fosu-Mensah 84), Schneiderlin, Carrick, Lingard, Mata (Schweinsteiger 70), Martial, Rashford      Unused subs:Romero, Fellaini, Januzaj, Depay,        Bookings: Smalling

Referee: Michael Oliver                 Att:54,557

Manchester City 0  Dynamo Kyiv 0   Champions League Bore Draw
Tuesday 15th March 2016 : GYKO at the Etihad

For a team taking their first tentative steps into the Champions League quarter-finals there was not a great deal of jubilation inside Manchester City’s stadium. Their work had been done in the Olimpiyskiy three weeks earlier and the lingering image will be the passage of play early on that culminated with Vincent Kompany limping off and an unhappy piece of deja vu that threatens serious repercussions for the remainder of their season. Otherwise it was a stress-free night for City, protecting a 3-1 lead from the first leg in Kiev and facing a plodding, unadventurous side who seemed unaware their opponents can be susceptible against teams that attack with pace and movement.

Manuel Pellegrini was entitled to praise his team but a better gauge of their ability will come if they are drawn against one of the tournament favourites because they certainly got lucky being paired against a side with Dynamo’s limitations.

The draw takes place on Friday and in the meantime City will await the latest prognosis on Kompany’s fitness and what will plainly be another lengthy spell of rehabilitation.

Kompany’s injuries have become a recurring theme and his latest one came only five minutes into the evening before he had even a single scuff on his kit. He will be missing for at least a month and it is probably understandable if the crowd went home reflecting on a bittersweet occasion because, without wishing to be melodramatic, there have to be serious concerns about whether Kompany will ever get out of this demoralising cycle.

Perhaps an argument could be made that Pellegrini has asked too much of his captain recently – this being his sixth start in 20 days – and did not have to risk him when City had such a commanding first-leg lead. Yet the bottom line is that Kompany, approaching his 30th birthday, is too susceptible and City’s supporters have become wearily accustomed to those seemingly innocuous moments when he stretches for the ball, feels the flash of tell-tale pain, then his hand goes up and his expression darkens.

It is his 14th injury of this nature since he joined the club in 2008. In three separate spells this season he has missed four and a half months, including two seven-week lay-offs when he managed only nine minutes in between before the same problem flared up again. When a man is this fragile it is difficult to imagine him playing a significant part in City’s remaining games.

As if that were not galling enough for City, Nicolás Otamendi was also injured in the first half and has to be a doubt for the Manchester derby on Sunday. In little over a quarter of an hour City had lost both centre-halves and, with Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis on the pitch, they were fortunate their opponents did not seem to understand that, if they attacked with more adventure, they might get some joy.

Kompany has had accident-prone spells and Otamendi’s flaws have been conspicuous far too often this season but the presence of Mangala and Demichelis can be unnerving for City’s crowd given the frequency of their mistakes. Dynamo really ought to have done more to examine this part of the opposition defence.

Against that backdrop it was a strange mood inside the stadium, with little sense that the occasion should be remembered with any real fondness. At one point in the first half Yaya Touré became embroiled in an argument with Joe Hart, apparently because of a misdirected goal-kick.
Manchester City’s gang of four sense this could be their defining year

City’s commercial staff had branded it “Breakthrough Night” but the ground was not full and many supporters have clearly become weary of Jesús Navas’s inability to have a greater influence. When one attack broke down because Navas had overhit a simple pass to the overlapping Sergio Agüero there was an exasperated response from the crowd.

Dynamo were moderate opponents but, apart from some driving runs from Touré, City seemed caught in two minds about whether they should protect their lead or play their normal, attack-minded game. It is a common problem for teams who have won the away leg first and it was unusual to see them create so little.

David Silva contributed one of the outstanding moments with a little drag-back to take out two opponents but the Spaniard was unusually subdued. The same applied to Agüero and it was understandable if the crowd wanted more from Navas even if, to give him his due, he provided one moment of fleeting excitement by cracking a shot against a post.

An hour had passed at that stage and Hart, for the most part, was untroubled until a late flurry when Dynamo threatened a stoppage-time goal that would largely have been an irrelevance. Sergei Rebrov’s side had plenty of the ball but there has been only one occasion in the history of the European Cup when a team has lost 3-1 at home in the first leg and still gone through. That was Ajax in 1969, at the expense of Benfica, but that side had Johan Cruyff driving them forward. Dynamo were a different proposition altogether and City will know there are tougher assignments to come.

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany (Mangala 8), Otamendi (Demichelis 23), Clichy, Fernando, Toure, Fernandinho, Navas, Silva (Sterling 79), Aguero      Unused subs:Caballero, Kolarov, M.Garcia, Bony     Bookings: Otamendi

Dynamo Kyiv: Shovkovskiy, Antunes, Dragovic, Vida, Khacheridi, Miguel Veloso, Garmash (Sydorchuk 64), Gusev (Yakovenko 61), Buyalskiy, Yarmolenko, Teodorczyk (Gonzalez 46)       Unused subs: Rudko, Danilo Silva, Makarenko, Korzun    Bookings:Antunes, Garmash

Referee: Ovidiu Hategan         Att:43,630

Norwich City 0 Manchester City 0    Canaries Singing The Blues
Saturday 12th March 2016 : Harry English for GYKO at Carrow Road

Manchester City edged a point closer to Leicester City at the top of the Premier League table but this result surely represents ground lost by them in the title race. Rather than increase the pressure on the leaders, Manuel Pellegrini’s side performed like men who should worry about being overtaken by West Ham or Manchester United in the top four. The would-be champions have not won back-to-back league games for five months and have a difficult run-in on top of a Champions League campaign that they aim to extend by seeing off Dynamo Kyiv in midweek.

Norwich, meanwhile, can take heart from a point won with a spirited performance and their first clean sheet in more than two months. It could prove a springboard to survival.

Manchester City have grown accustomed to beating Norwich heavily in recent seasons, including a 3-0 win here in the FA Cup in January, but this time, when only victory would have fuelled belief that they can topple the league leaders, they lacked creativity and sharpness. Norwich initially seemed there for the taking but emerged as deserving recipients of a point.

The hosts’ jitters, caused by a 10-match winless streak, served as an invitation to the visitors to make themselves at home again. Pellegrini’s team hogged the ball but did not have the ingenuity to do much with it and were at times expensively sluggish.

When Russell Martin headed an attempted clearance on to Sergio Agüero in the fifth minute, the Argentina striker gave him enough time to recover and block the ensuing shot. And when Fernandinho produced a rare incisive pass in the 21st minute to put Gaël Clichy clean through, the left-back miscontrolled and let the ball run out of play. By that stage, all that the home goalkeeper, John Ruddy, had done was awkwardly push a 20-yard free-kick by Agüero over the bar. Not until the 29th minute did Ruddy have to excel, plunging quickly to his right to tip away a low drive from Agüero with one hand. City could not make him perform such a feat again.

That shot came against the run of play because Norwich, encouraged by the visitors’ impotence, had started to apply pressure at the other end. With Martin Olsson supplying regular crosses from the left, the Carrow Road crowd began to belt out hopeful chants. Patrick Bamford nearly brought ecstatic roars in the 39th minute when he outwitted Nicolás Otamendi and hit a half-volley over Joe Hart from 30 yards. There were exasperated yelps all round when the ball cannoned out off the crossbar.

By first-half stoppage time, when Matt Jarvis shot just wide from 16 yards, the title-chasers were a slovenly bunch. David Silva flitted about purposefully but lacked zest and too few of his team-mates were on his wavelength in the first half. Wilfried Bony, again picked ahead of Kelechi Iheanacho, exerted no influence before being replaced by Raheem Sterling in the 58th minute. In the middle, there was a Yaya Touré-shaped hole. The Ivorian has his flaws but boasts a creative menace that none of his team-mates provided in his absence.

Manchester City started the second half with renewed urgency. That made Norwich defend with renewed nervousness, but no less commitment. Gary O’Neil and Jonny Howson were tirelessly vigilant in front of the back four.

The visitors failed to penetrate. Just after the hour Silva, playing more centrally following Sterling’s introduction, spotted a run by Fernandinho and rewarded it with a beautiful pass. But the Brazilian eschewed a straightforward shot and offloaded to Agüero, who bumbled before his shot was blocked. Agüero sought to make amends moments later with a jagged run towards the box. Timm Klose took him down just outside, and the free-kick yielded nothing.

“We had a very good attitude and very good possession but we couldn’t create the space that we needed in the last third,” said Pellegrini, who insisted his team could still be champions. “If you mathematically have a chance to do it, you must always think you can do it.”

Neil remains convinced that Norwich will get out of trouble. “The amount of effort the players are putting in to stay in the league can’t be questioned and our game management and our decision making was better than in recent weeks,” said the Scot, whose team will soon host the two sides closest to them in the table, Sunderland and a Newcastle United side whose illustrious new manager holds no fear for Neil. “Rafael Benítez isn’t going to win the game for them, it’s all about the players,” said the Scotsman.

Norwich City: Ruddy, Martin, Bennett, Klose, Olsson; Howson, O'Neil, Redmond (Dorrans 44), Hoolahan (Mbokani 67), Jarvis, Bamford (Jerome 67)   Unused subs:Rudd, Bassong, Mulumbu, Pinto      Bookings: Bennett, O'Neil, Howson

Manchester City:Hart, Sagna (Zabaleta 85), Kompany, Otamendi, Clichy, Fernando, Fernandinho, Navas (Iheanacho 77), Silva, Aguero, Bony (Sterling 58)      Unused subs:Caballero, Demichelis, Kolarov, M.Garcia       Bookings: Otamendi

Referee: Jon Moss

Manchester City 4 Aston Villa 0        Hapless Villa
Saturday 5th March 2016 : GYKO at the Etihad

Manuel Pellegrini asked Manchester City for nine more wins to secure the title and here was the first of them, in the end a predictably comfortable goalfest against a stricken Aston Villa.

Beating a dispirited side nailed to the bottom of the table is no guarantee a further eight games will be won, much less that the title will be heading their way, but, after three straight league defeats, City needed to stop the rot and begin consolidating their position in the top four.

Their supporters will forgive Pellegrini for dreaming of a second title as long as City win enough matches to stay ahead of West Ham and Manchester United, whose form has raised the embarrassing possibility of welcoming Pep Guardiola to the club with Europa League football.

Not that the home side looked like a Champions League one for all of this game. Granted, it is unusual to face opponents of such limited ambition and content to play almost all of the game in their own half, but all City had to do was find a way past Rémi Garde’s flat back five and, for 45 frustrating minutes, they could not manage it. The first half was like a training ground exercise, and about as much fun to watch, although City were quite inventive in finding a number of different ways to threaten. Once Brad Guzan set the tone in the 11th minute, by keeping out a Sergio Agüero shot after the striker had shown magnificent control in bringing down Fernandinho’s pass, the crowd became gradually more restless and attempts on goal became progressively more rushed.

Wilfried Bony was guilty of a bad miss after Gaël Clichy’s cross picked him out in a perfect position on the six yard line, shooting first time but putting the ball wide from right in front of goal. Agüero saw a shot on the turn palmed away by Guzan, then put his next effort just past the post after an interchange with Bony, who ended the first half with a tame header from the edge of the area that summed up City’s lack of actual penetration.

Watching from his technical area, Garde seemed satisfied enough with the way the game was going, though on one of their rare forays upfield Villa missed a wonderful chance to take an interval lead. While Joe Hart did well to get down to Jordan Ayew’s shot after almost half an hour of inaction, with half the City defence having stopped in anticipation of a free-kick that never came it was a better opportunity than the striker perhaps realised.

Villa were left to rue their inability to spring a surprise when City opened the second half with the sort of goal that made you wonder why they had taken so long. For once their three most effective attackers combined in unanswerable fashion, Agüero driving to the goal line before turning the ball back for David Silva, who moved the ball across for Yaya Touré to stroke languidly home from near the penalty spot. Against Villa that was probably always going to be enough but, as if to emphasise the gulf between the sides, City went two up within two minutes. There was a touch of good fortune about their second, with Micah Richards’ attempted clearance bouncing back off Agüero’s shin and into an empty net, though no question that Villa had been opened up again through Silva and Bony, the latter making up for his lacklustre finishing with a measured through ball.

When Agüero added a third after a trademark surge into the area from Silva’s return pass the contest was clearly over, so much so that Pellegrini introduced Raheem Sterling for the last half hour. There has been some debate of late over whether the substitute’s up-and-down season has represented a reasonable return on an outlay of £49m, and this was another indifferent display, though a goal with one of his first touches will have done the player’s confidence no harm. In truth he could hardly have missed, and watching the almost comical ineptitude Joleon Lescott and Alan Hutton demonstrated in failing to cut out a Jesús Navas cross to leave Sterling with a tap-in, the withdrawn Bony must have been highly unamused.

The rout could have been worse but Agüero struck a post with a penalty after Ciaran Clark had brought down Kelechi Iheanacho. It will not do the goalkeeper or his side a tiny bit of good but Guzan deserved a break.

Manchester City: Hart, Sagna, Kompany, Otamendi, Clichy, Navas, Toure (M Garcia 79), Fernandinho, Silva (Iheanacho 70), Bony (Sterling 63), Aguero           Unused subs: Caballero, Mangala, Zabaleta, Kolarov

Aston Villa: Guzan, Hutton, Richards, Lescott, Clark, Cissokho, Veretout (Bacuna 73, Westwood, Gana, Agbonlahor (Gestede 70), Ayew (Sinclair 80)     Unused subs:Okore, Gil, Bunn, Lyden     Bookings: Veretout (42)

Referee: Lee Mason

Liverpool 3 Manchester City 0     Wembley Revenge
Wednesday 2nd March 2016 : Barry Briggs for GYKO at Anfield

What might have been was the question on everyone’s lips at Anfield. For Liverpool it was the thought of what could have transpired in the Capital One Cup final as Jürgen Klopp’s side exacted swift revenge on Manchester City with a commanding Premier League display. For City it stemmed from the relief that Manuel Pellegrini’s departure was not announced earlier.

A team with designs on the title were beaten comprehensively. Adam Lallana inspired Liverpool to a Premier League double over their Wembley conquerors and, somewhere in Leicester, Claudio Ranieri had another reason to toast his point against West Bromwich Albion 24 hours earlier. It is one win and three consecutive defeats in the league for City since Pep Guardiola was confirmed as Pellegrini’s replacement on 1 February. Their endeavour has declined markedly and they were second best in every department as Liverpool won with something to spare courtesy of goals from the man of the match Lallana, James Milner and Roberto Firmino. Forget the title, Guardiola will not inherit a team in the Champions League on this form – unless City win the competition this season.

Pellegrini, who made three changes to Sunday’s starting lineup compared with Klopp’s five, said: “I am not thinking about the title and not thinking about qualifying for the Champions League. The most important thing is to recover our performance in the next Premier League game because we have lost the last three. Of course we cannot play in the way we did today. We conceded three goals and did not shoot once at the Liverpool goal.

“But it was because we were not fresh. From the beginning I could see we were not fresh. Liverpool had more energy and played at a higher pace. They could make more changes. We didn’t have any midfielders to change without Yaya Touré. We had just defenders or one striker to make the change.”

That argument did not sit comfortably with Klopp, whose team also played 120 minutes on Sunday and had a European game last midweek. “Being tired at this moment of the season is absolutely nothing to talk about because everybody could be,” he said. Liverpool’s reaction to defeat in the Capital One Cup final, however, left their manager enthralled. “I am too old to say: ‘Yes, we will play like this all the time’ – but you saw what is possible. Everyone who loves Liverpool could watch this game and forget for 93 minutes that we lost on Sunday.”

The excellent Jon Flanagan, making his first league start since May 2014, set the tone for a fast, aggressive display from Liverpool inside the first minute when he sent his former team-mate Raheem Sterling flying with a challenge from the hard but fair manual. Sterling was made aware of Flanagan’s presence when barged over in front of the Kop 10 minutes later. The £49m winger wilted and was withdrawn at half-time with Anfield revelling in the ignominy.

Following an incident-free opening Liverpool took the lead with a goal that was greeted with a second’s silence as the crowd, and Klopp, computed what had unfolded. Milner released Lallana into space inside the City half and, with no defender closing him down, the midfielder accepted the invitation to shoot from distance. Lallana’s effort lacked pace but it had accuracy. It also found in Joe Hart a goalkeeper struggling to move his feet and the ball had nestled inside the near post before Anfield erupted. “My only surprise was that he shot,” Klopp said.

The second was immediately acclaimed for the fine team goal it was. Lallana was again involved, back-heeling Flanagan’s pass down the right inside to Firmino who opened the City defence with a first-time pass. The former City midfielder Milner was first to the ball and, before Pablo Zabaleta could intervene, Hart’s goal had been pierced in the same place for a second time.

Pellegrini introduced the strikers Wilfried Bony and Kelechi Iheanacho but City’s threat remained non-existent. Liverpool worked tirelessly to protect Simon Mignolet on his 100th league appearance for the club while working in packs to unnerve City’s defence. Milner, Lallana and Firmino provided constant support to the industrious Divock Origi and City were shredded for a third time before the hour.

Lallana was instrumental again but Nicolás Otamendi’s role could not be ignored. The defender yielded possession to Jordan Henderson with a woeful touch and, despite Gaël Clichy’s attempt to cut out the Liverpool captain’s pass, Lallana reacted quickest, rode two half-hearted challenges and released Firmino for a convincing finish beyond the furious Hart.

Liverpool:  Mignolet, Clyne, Toure, Lovren, Flanagan, Henderson, Can, Milner (Ibe 87), Lallana, Firmino (Allen 75), Origi (Benteke 69)
Unused subs: Ward, Skrtel, Moreno, Coutinho

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Clichy (Kolarov 74), Kompany, Otamendi, Fernando, Fernandinho (Iheanacho 55), Navas, Silva, Sterling (Bony 46), Aguero       Unused subs: Caballero, Sagna, Demichelis, Mangala        Bookings: Navas  

Referee:Martin Atkinson

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