Hart shines, Messi sparkles, Suarez bites back [18/3/15]
Barcelona 1-0 Manchester City [Champions League Round of 16 second leg, Camp Nou]
When we last checked in with him, Luis Suarez was still shrugging off the ignominy of that racially-charged rumpus with Patrice Evra, back in 2011/12. He’d shaken hands, at long last, with his accuser, his punishment had been sat out and served, a sense of closure had been sought by the clubs involved, and finally, at the end of all that, Luisito had been able to put his head down, and move on, and attempt to resume his career.
The season which followed (2012/13) saw a re-booted striker go from strength to strength on the football field. His gloomy heart gladdened, no doubt, upon receipt of a generous pay hike just in time for the new campaign, his abundant smarts were now let loose in free expression like never before, and the spectacle he served up on Merseyside that term was, whatever your allegiance, joyous. The skills sparkled, the goals flowed. There were rousing hat tricks, cunning assists, Man of the Match plaudits, goal of the season contenders…30 goals in all from 44 appearances in all competitions, as new manager Brendan Rodgers enkindled a revivified life force in his wayward front man and the fans took him enchantedly to their hearts. As the end of season drew near there came shortlisting for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award: after all the misery, things seemed to be well, now; his talents recognised, his contribution valued.
That all changed on April 21, 2013, when he caused the mother of all stinks during a Premiership game versus Chelsea at Anfield.
It was the 66th minute of a tense, tight encounter, and Suarez had just picked up a through-ball from Daniel Sturridge in the box, when Blues defender Branislav Ivanovic stepped up to poke the ball away from under his feet. As a defensive ploy this appeared perfectly unthreatening – there was little contact, no provocative follow-through – but for some reason Suarez snapped. Apparently enraged by the intervention – and with Sky’s cameras beaming the action live across the nation – the Uruguayan was seen to seize his opponent by the arm, momentarily wrestle with him, and then – just like that – put his jaws around the unwitting Serb’s shoulder and sink his teeth into the softness thereon. Just like that. A real chow down, it looked, too. Not a nibble. Not a nip. A dental assault. An aggravated chew. A grievous bodily bite.
Ivanovic sank to the floor, half-stunned, mummering towards the referee a stupefied recreation of what had just been perpetrated against his person. In pundit-land, once the replay had been pulled up and properly scrutinised, blood was sanctimoniously spit. Tuts were tutted. Heads were shook. Fingers were wagged in concert at this latest display of barbarism from the feral foreigner.
And so was the latest Luis Suarez scandal born.
Within hours, the whole nation was having its say – and the tone was revulsion. ‘Disgrace!’ thundered the Daily Star, the following morning. ‘The Kop Cannibal!’ blasted the Daily Mirror. ‘Liverpool Shamed!’ fulminated the Times. ‘Chewy Luis and the Blues’ chimed the Huffington Post, online, in a bid to cut the choler with a dose of levity. Even David Cameron chipped in, as the media storm raged, and the scandal reached all the way to No.10. “As a Dad and as a human being,” mused the PM. “Do I think we should have tough penalties when football players behave like this? Yes! I have a seven-year-old son who loves football…it sets the most appalling example to young people in our country.”
Three days later the FA handed Suarez a ten match ban – his second lengthy sanction at the hands of the beaks in the space of 16 months. It meant that he was forced to miss the opening six weeks of the 2013/14 season: a pariah, now; a whipping boy, a figure of fun. Racist and bestial. A pantomime villain from terrace to tabloid newspaper to television panel show.
Suarez’s response, upon his return to the game in September 2013 (after his request to be transferred out of his personal hell had been denied) was to put in a season so garlanded with goals, so graced with acts of genius, so glutted with gasp-inducing skills and audacious feats of wonder, that by the end of it he was being hailed as one of the greatest players on the planet: to be ranked third behind Messi and Ronaldo, no less, in the estimation of some. Now we got the full picture – the complete, unabridged showcase of his repertoire. The sublime touches, the glue-like close control, the ghostly, wing-footed movement on and off the ball. And above all, that unique ability, bestowed on so few players, to write a fairy-tale script, week-in, week-out, through his deeds on the field of play: ferocious, implausible volleys; smart-ass lobs from the half way line; rapacious four goal hauls…his cute telepathy with Sturridge in the Liverpool attack, beside whom he purveyed an un-markable, free-ranging menace, saw the pair bag 52 goals between them in the Premiership alone, that season. 31 of those goals went to Suarez, from just 33 starts; the partnership drove the Merseysiders to the very top of the Premiership table, before capitulation to City, at the final reckoning, by two thin points. For Suarez, though, it was a personal triumph: Players’ Player of the Year, Football Writers’ Player of the Year…somehow, he had pulled off the unlikely feat, yet again, of rehabilitating himself in the face of teetering, towering odds.
The 2014 World Cup, then, should have proved a worthy stage for the Earthwide exposition of his greatness.
Unfortunately for Luisito, it didn’t quite go that way.
On June 24 Uruguay were playing Italy at the Estadio das Dunas, Natal, in north-eastern Brazil, when with the score at 0-0 in the 78th minute, the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini pulled up alongside Suarez in anticipation of a ball coming in from the flank. There appeared to be no apparent catalyst for conflict when, for reasons which may only ever be known to himself, if known by anyone at all, Suarez was once more overpowered by his demons: leaning across his adversary with diabolical intent, he fixed those famous choppers around the shoulder of his prey and – CHOMP! – he did it again!
Chiellini went down like a palooka, baring his shoulder, probing the wound. Suarez followed him ground-wards, where, as millions watched, he was seen to sit up and reach quite plaintively into his mouth, as though he’d been cudgelled there by some vicious swipe of Chiellini’s shoulder blade. His precious canines! His lovely teeth! What was it with those big, bucked-out ivories anyway, that made him look so much like Freddie-Mercury? It was like he had the white cliffs of Dover in there!
This time, of course, the crime had been perpetrated on the biggest stage of all, before the whole wide gaping world. Everyone saw it, sooner or later, if not in real time then in the replays later on. And so a garrulous fuss broke out, across five continents, this time, in which Suarez’s disgrace was picked up and pored over everywhere from the Gazzetta dello Sport to the Gabon d’Aujourd’hui. “Suarez incident breaks Twitter, memes everywhere…” was how CBS Sports put it, as the merry-go-round spun brightly around the knavishly-toothsome malefactor. As the world waited for the outcome of a FIFA investigation, opinion was farmed, far and wide, as to the appropriate extent of the forfeiture this time around. On June 26 came the verdict, and it was a tough one: Suarez was thrown out of the tournament with immediate effect, banned from all football-related activities for four months, disqualified from nine international matches even beyond that, and fined a total of £66 000. So stringent was the sanction, it was stressed, he wasn’t even to be allowed to train with his teammates or enter a football stadium for the duration of the ban.
As the Suarez soap opera swirled ever more giddily, his employers back home looked on in increasing, abject horror. It was Liverpool football club, of course, who were set to bear the brunt of their errant striker’s misdeeds. Phone calls were placed across the Atlantic between Chief Executive Ian Ayre and the club’s American owner, John W Henry. The board had much to chew over as it sought to weigh the ramifications of the crisis in full. You could just imagine. “Gentlemen, let’s not delude ourselves, we have a madman on the payroll.” Dutifully, they must have examined their problem from every angle, pondered every implication, every outcome, every slant: the club’s brand besmirched and its name dragged through the gutter (once again); the months ahead during which the first team would have to grub for every point without their all-important, designated goal-getter (once again); plus of course the millions in wages set to be flushed right down the swanee (again) for the sake of a striker not even allowed beyond the Shankly Gates.
You could see their problem. How could they, as the responsible body, allow themselves to be accountable in the event that he did something like this a third time? Correction, fourth time: they’d only been able to buy him in the first place because he’d bitten some Moroccan in the Dutch league and fallen out with his club.
Who knew when he would next go off into a rage and take a bolus out of some passing centre-back? And what if he surpassed himself, the next time? What if he bit a referee? A visiting dignitary? A tea lady? A policeman? A supporter? A pensioner? A baby?
Children! That was the thing! What if there was an outbreak of copycat gnashings? What if, on the playing fields of Merseyside – from Huyton to Hoylake, Southport to Eastham Rake – impressionable young Scousers began laying down the tusk on each other like riled-up, rabid chihuahuas…and all in the name of the ‘Anfield Fang Artist’, the ‘Kop Cannibal’, and Liverpool football club?
And what if it spread?
Already, concerned citizens were ringing phone-in shows to demand that the laws of the game be changed to accommodate this new manifestation of depravity, as if the existing rules – devised in a more innocent time, before the twisted likes of Suarez came along – with their vague, catch-all notions of ‘violent conduct’, and with the generic, open-ended sanctions they offered to referees and officiating parties by way of response…as if those rules failed to adequately address this deplorable, dark development now threatening the beautiful game.
No…what Liverpool football club had here, it quickly decided, was a no-brainer. The suits came to judgement, and within days – and with the enthusiastic concurrence of the player, it might be added – Suarez was put up for sale. And no one, by that stage, was very surprised.
Barcelona came in, and the two clubs sat down to talk business.
Liverpool got £75 million for him.
By all accounts, Luisito had had a quiet start to his career at Barca. Having profited so handsomely in that free-wheeling role beside Sturridge in the Liverpool front line, he now was tasked to follow a more disciplined job spec as the spearhead of a three man attack. In fact, it had taken him a month to notch up his first goal for his new employers – following his return from his ban in September – since when a couple of further strikes had just about kept the more skeptical critics at bay. The first leg of this Champions League round of 16 tie against City proved something of a boost for him, then. If Lionel Messi was the general who orchestrated Barca’s emphatic triumph over the course of the two games played – the 2-1 victory at the Camp Nou on February 24, followed by tonight’s 1-0 win at the Etihad – it was Suarez who breached the ramparts. The man who, not 10 months previously, had shed tears as Liverpool let the Premiership title slip from their grasp and into the hands of City, exacted his revenge over the Manchester club with the two clinical strikes he produced within the opening half hour of that first encounter. After that, Pellegrini’s men were left with a mountain to climb, and they never recovered.
Barca had disposed of City at the same stage of the competition the year before – a reverse which elicited criticism of the Blues manager for his uncharacteristically negative tactics in the opening (home) leg. Opting to field a conservative 4-5-1 formation, he on that occasion stationed a left-back (Kolarov) in left-midfield in front of his regular left-back (Clichy), apparently to counter the marauding potential of Dani Alves on the flank. It didn’t work. His side never got to grips with the tie and went down disappointingly, 4-1 on aggregate, with goals from Messi, and indeed Alves, in each leg.
This year, however, Pellegrini made a miscalculation in the first game that seemed definitive of his season as a whole: back came the attacking 4-4-2, with Dzeko and Aguero up top; Nasri and Silva on the wings; Fernando and Milner in the middle; and a back line of Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis and Clichy. The wisdom of pitting a two man midfield against the world class central trio of Barca’s 4-3-3 (Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta) was being called into question even before opening whistle blew. Once it did, the Catalans passed the ball around – behind, in and beyond their opponents – at will, for the duration of the 90 minutes that followed. The defensive shortcomings of City’s two talented wide players (Silva and Nasri), however prepossessing they were in attack, comprised another issue that was to be picked over in the aftermath of their defeat, as the Blues reinforced their growing reputation as a team of some talent who didn’t work hard enough when not in possession.
Then there was Kompany’s continued haplessness. The Belgian was faulted for both Barca’s goals: his fluffed clearance gifting Suarez the chance to to lash home for the first; his neither-mickling-nor-muckling positioning allowing Luisito to steal in and slice home the second. Barca had looked home and dry at that point: 2-0 up away from home within half an hour of the opening leg. If Aguero hadn’t pulled one back with a typically ruthless finish twenty minutes from time – and Hart hadn’t beaten out Messi’s penalty in the dying seconds of the game – then undoubtedly the English champions would have gone into the second match without a prayer.
If the experience of that first leg offered a lesson to Pellegrini, then he didn’t heed it. Five days later (March 1) he sent out another 4-4-2 to face-off with stiff opposition: this time Toure and Fernandinho were the men to lose the midfield battle, out-manouevred by a resurgent Liverpool side, who, following a poor start to the season (the replacement of Suarez with a woefully under-motivated Mario Balotelli, of all people, had been a disaster for them) were on an upward curve. Of particular concern, now, was Toure, whose lack of regard for the action in behind him was seeing him regularly slaughtered in the press. Against Liverpool, and not for the first time, this negligence led Kompany to stray forward out of position in the attempt to put out fires, only to mess up sorely: the captain’s air-kick, from Fernandinho’s lay-off, allowed Philippe Coutinho to pilfer the ball and steal through, there to set up Jordan Henderson’s exquisite, curling opener. Having seized the initiative, Liverpool went on to seal the game 2-1, maintaining an edge in the middle of the park, while their pacey three man forward line caused problems for City’s defences all afternoon.
Even relegation-threatened Burnley, on March 14, were able to cash in, running out 1-0 winners against the tide after their flair player, George Boyd, walloped home a headed clearance from Kompany on the hour mark. To be fair, this defeat owed less to the match-up in midfield than to the continued misfiring of the Dzeko-Aguero partnership up front, as City failed to convert chances into goals. Having recently brought to an end the unprecedented misery of a 15 match barren spell – the Bosnian had finally found the net in the Liverpool match – Dzeko still boasted only four strikes in the present campaign. This struggle for form raised inevitable doubts about the level of synergy he enjoyed alongside his more illustrious strike partner, and led one, moreover, to wonder if it was really worth sacrificing a man in midfield just to have him partner Aguero up top. Perhaps this was Pellegrini’s thinking, too, now: by the time tonight’s return leg of the Champions League tie with Barca came around, the manager had evidently changed his outlook. This time he fielded a 4-2-3-1, with Dzeko dropped; Kompany and Demichelis at the back; Fernandinho and Toure holding; and Milner, Silva and Nasri in behind Aguero, the lone striker. Sagna and Kolarov took the full back roles with Hart in goal.
Whether the inclusion of that extra man in the middle – the somewhat defensively lightweight Silva, positioned centrally behind the striker in the expectation that he would also work back to track Javier Mascherano – made much of a difference on this occasion was open to debate.
Barca kept to their familiar 4-3-3 shape, with Messi, Suarez and Neymar forming the attacking trident; Iniesta, Mascherano and Rakitic in midfield; and the back four consisting of of Alves, Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba. The young German, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, was kept on in goal in preference to Barca’s regular first choice stopper, Claudio Bravo. Though these men tonight secured passage to the next round with just a single, simply-worked strike – Rakitic, on 31 minutes, lifting the ball over Hart after collecting a dream of a cross from Messi, to deliver the contest to the Catalans, 3-1 on aggregate – the scoreline scarcely told the whole, sorry story. For this was a rout, a humbling for Pellegrini’s team, which, if it hadn’t been for Hart – and indeed the woodwork – the visitors would have lost by a cricket score, as Barca, time and again, got in behind the defence: Neymar finding the inside of the near post, early in the first half, after being put through by Alves; Suarez dinking onto the far post on the stroke of half time; and then Suarez, again, rattling the crossbar towards the end, after Demichelis, without knowing much about it, blocked Messi’s shot. There was a disallowed goal, too, for the Catalans’, on 70 minutes, after Alba slid home from Hart’s parry following another of those fiendish in-swingers from Messi. The goalkeeper managed somehow to keep out everything else, as Barca broke quickly, improvised elegantly, and tested his mettle unremittingly with hostile fire.
For City, Aguero missed a penalty 13 minutes from time – sailing over Pique’s kneecap to earn the spot kick himself before driving it firmly left of centre, though not sufficiently wide, into the path of ter Stegen’s anticipating dive (an unlikely fail from the spot, then, for each side’s Argentine superstar, amidst the breathless narrative of two dramatic legs). Other than that, though, it was slim pickings for the Manchester side, if arguably more venturesome after the break, and the opportunities eked out were few and far between: Milner unable to convert Toure’s cut-back, under pressure from Alves, in the first half; Navas failing to find a blue shirt after wriggling his way into the six yard box, just past the hour…the latter incursion gave rise to a whammied drive from Kolarov when the loose ball finally reached him at the edge of the area; there was a trice of pinball in the box as the shot was blocked, and then the frustrated efforts of Milner to dig the ball out from under his feet after Navas slipped it back to him in the centre. The shot was weak, though, and easily blocked, and a momentary spike of resistance ebbed away.
That was the extent of the pulse-quickening as far as City were concerned, as they spent most of the night on the back foot, while Barca carved them open, seemingly at will: short, quick passes as the midfields faced off; longer, reaching diagonals when they hit with alacrity on the break: swift passing chains, these were, like sword-slashes – this way, that way – through the City lines, or plundering, cross-board bishop moves in a game of chess, or winning tic-tac-toe lines dashed off dizzily across the surface of the pitch. Mascherano, tonight, the point man and instigator in front of the defence; Iniesta the unerring gyroscope tilting the action this way and that; Messi, Suarez and Neymar dreaming up one-twos and lay-offs and little balls in behind. Always, at the culmination of these quick-fire stratagems, there seemed to be a through-ball for someone to run on to, beyond the defensive line. When the shot came in, there was Hart to bail City out.
Quickly, the stress points in the Blues’ operation began to reveal themselves: Kompany dispossessed, yet again, on the edge of his own penalty area; Kolarov wrung out by the wiles of Messi, a situation scarcely alleviated when Milner stepped in to double up; Toure, typically now, allowing Rakitic to melt away as the cross came in for the goal; Sagna lured inside repeatedly by Neymar, as though on a promise to see some puppies; Navas finding the goalkeeper, and not Aguero, as a rare ball was pitched into the box from wide on the right; Aguero himself, starved of space around the penalty area, his supply lines choked and compromised by the capitulation going on behind him, struggling to get a toe-hold in the game. As the frustration built, there was a slew of yellow cards: Nasri, in particular, was lucky to stay on the field after cynically chopping down Neymar when the Brazlian skipped felicitously past (Pellegrini withdrew the Frenchman at half time, an otherwise anonymous contributor). Demichelis, Fernandinho, Silva and Kolarov all joined him in the referee’s notebook – each of them, with the exception of Demichelis, cautioned before half time. In Kolarov’s case, a mere twenty minutes in the orbit of Messi was sufficient to provoke the Serb into slamming his tormentor into the turf as the little one shaped once more to slip away.
The second period may have seen a little more possession in the Barca half, but – that one fleeting scramble in the area aside – City were unable to conjure anything by way of a goal threat. Fernandinho headed waywardly from Navas’s cross; there were speculative strikes from range from the likes of Kolarov, Milner and substitute Wilfried Bony (on for Toure). The problem was that every time they did get forward Barca punished them savagely on the break. And the more they did so, the more it became the Messi and Hart show – to the exclusion, so it seemed, of the remaining dramatis personae.
What a display we were treated to by the little man, so roundly hailed as the greatest artist ever to pull on a football shirt. Better than Pele, better than Maradona, better than Best…that’s what they said. Having won the world player award, FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, four years running (2009/10/11/12) from the age of 22, Messi had somewhat surprisingly relinquished the title to Cristiano Ronaldo in the two years that followed (2013/14), having forged – by his own otherworldly standards – a marginally quieter narrative than the one which defined those early, awe-inspiring years (this just as Ronaldo took his own preening circus act to new all-conquering, record-breaking heights). The history books told their own story, of course: Barca’s all time top scorer by the age of 24, he had notched his 400th senior strike for club and country in September 2014, aged just 27. Weeks later he became the all time top scorer in La Liga history (an astonishing 253 goals from just 250 starts, to surpass the Athletic Bilbao legend Telmo Zarra) and then the all time leading scorer in the UEFA Champions League (his tally before tonight’s match stood at 74 from 93 games, having since November been caught by Ronaldo, with 75 from 111). So far this season, he had scored 41 goals from 32 appearances in all competitions, including 5 hat tricks, and had in February broken Luis Figo’s record for the most number of assists in the Spanish top flight. Quiet spell? On the evidence of this run of form – and indeed performances such as tonight’s – Messi was very much back to the peak of his destructive powers.
There was something about the sight of him in possession of the ball, as he engaged an opposing defender. You could see it in the build-up to Rakitic’s goal, as he bore down on Kolarov, before checking back to his left to deliver the cross. As with Maradona, much was often made of his reliance on that omnipotent left foot of his – yet the disguise he effected was nothing less than horrifying. As he approached his luckless adversary, his weight would begin to shift from foot to foot – fluidly, back and forth, with increasing rapidity – and with it the perception of which of the two would next address the ball. It was a subtle, terrible thing…not a Garrincha-like stagger so much as a ghostly flexing in the musculature, a preternatural demonstration of balance, like seeing a man with the gift of being able to stand up in a dinghy, the difference being that, through some demonic power of transference, it was the beholder, and not the balancer, who would become rapidly seasick, disordered, tipped over, undone, in the effort to anticipate the progress of the ball.
Armed with this supernatural gift, it seemed as though Messi could go wherever he liked on the field of play, unopposed, to whatever end he desired, there to dispense his other magic powers. There were the barrelling bursts of speed, the incursive shuttle runs he produced with surprising juice and clout for one so short (5’6’’). There was the instinctive gaming with his fellow forwards, Suarez and Neymar, the rakish schemes, the give-and-goes, the short balls in and beyond the defensive line. There were those parabolic crosses to the far post, which, with their unnerving accuracy and malicious arc – an effect he applied to the ball in the manner of a craftsman planing a bevel across its surface – seemed tonight to tear the stitches of the City back line every time they were launched, as though he hadn’t just plied the same ball moments earlier to equal, panic-inducing consequence. There were those shell-like strikes of improbable venom, discharged from the edge of the box with the power of a canon, yet generated with a back-lift no greater than a pistol recoil. For the sake of diversion there were the swirling, swooping free kicks which tonight he slung at Joe Hart’s pregnable goal-frame to send the ‘keeper scrambling worriedly along his line. And then – for fun – there were the moments of showmanship, the comic interludes, the ludic asides, in the form of the nutmegs he produced at the expense of his opponents’ dignity: first Fernandinho and then Milner were made to look like naifs as the ball passed slapstickally between their legs – each of them evidently fortunate that their shorts didn’t simultaneously come down – to be collected on the other side by this boyishly impudent prankster (indeed it was a night of such mischief: Neymar also got in on the act, impishly, and at the expense, also, of Fernandinho; City must have thought at times that the evening was never going to end).
With his secondary-modern mien and irresistible feats he was like a child who wouldn’t meet your eye, yet who harboured an immense, satanic prepotency. How he didn’t end up on the score-sheet wasn’t easy, in the afterglow, to rationalise – though it had much to do with the man-alone stand taken by the evening’s other grand scene-stealer, Hart.
Since being acclaimed as the bedrock of Mancini’s 2011/12 title-winning side, Hart’s reputation had waxed and waned in the period that followed in line with his fluctuating fortunes on the pitch. It had been a precocious rise for the lemon-haired, 6’5’’ Shropshire lad: the subs’ bench at home town club Shrewsbury Town at 15. The first team at 17. On to City and the Premiership at 19. Attention-grabbing loan spells in the Championship and League One at 20, leading to first choice status on return to the Etihad. England at 21. Plaudits aplenty. And then an unrivalled hold on the national side’s No.1 shirt following the shakedown from the World Cup in 2010, when he was just 23. A sharp, instinctive shot-stopper – strong, physically-adaptable, technically eye-catching (his strong suit) – his performances for the Blues in his first two full seasons brought Golden Glove awards in each for Premiership clean sheets kept, and the envy of managers far and wide. Here, in an era of relative decline for the great English goalkeeper – the days of Banks, Shilton and Seaman long since gone – was an undoubted find.
The first dissenting note came with the claim that he was “cocky”. Andrea Pirlo said as much after Italy knocked out England, via a penalty shootout, at Euro 2012, citing it as the reason he deployed a slow-gear, chipped-down-the-middle ‘Panenka’ kick against him: in order to “bring him down a peg or two”. Then Roy Keane, the abiding contrarian, piped up, to expand on the criticism. Keane also invoked the ‘c’ word. “He relaxes a bit and takes his eye off the ball,” the Irishman averred. “I think he needs a bit more competition around him.”
Certainly, it was around that time that his mistakes began to be examined, in contrast to what had been seen previously as a near-flawless game. His distribution, a little slow and sometimes wayward, had been the one Achilles heel, thus far, but now there were other ricks to consider: a vulnerability at the near post (his poor positioning exposed by a long range strike from former teammate Adam Johnson at Sunderland on Boxing Day, 2012); a tendency to distraction and uncertainty under crosses (typified by his almighty flap at a corner at Cardiff City in August 2013, which allowed Fraizer Campbell to head home in a game the Bluebirds went on to win); the flubbing of savable shots (exemplified by the Rickie Lambert effort he offered up for Steven Davis to finish off as Southampton took the points at St Mary’s in February 2013); plus inexplicable movement as he set himself to respond to incoming strikes, slowing down his reaction time and preventing him from getting down quickly to low or dipping balls (the pre-emptive bunny-hop he performed just as Ronaldo pulled the trigger on his last minute winner for Real Madrid at the Bernebeu in 2012 was cited). Pellegrini’s arrival had seen him dropped for several weeks after a mix-up with Matija Nastasic gifted Fernando Torres a last-minute winner at Stamford Bridge in October 2013; the acquisition of Willy Caballero at the start of the present season, however – the Argentine was preferred to Hart for a handful of games, early on – seemed to have had the desired effect on his form. Hart was one of the few City players who was said to be having a strong campaign, this term.
Tonight, he was nothing short of sensational, an impassable gatekeeper fortified with with magic and mandate, he could have been Cerberus himself guarding the entrance to Hades, policing the eternal Mexican stand-off between the living and the dead (albeit with hair wax and large, pimpled gloves). If that indomitable penalty save from the first leg wasn’t enough (low and to the left, giving rise to the slightly comical spectacle of Messi attempting to convert the rebound via a knee-high, full-stretch, parallel-to-the-ground diving header which rebounded obliquely from his spearing pate) Hart tonight made no less than ten dramatic interventions to prevent the Catalans adding to their tally – a record in the competition, this season, and indeed a record for any English goalkeeper since the dawn of the Champions League era.
Here was an all-action demi-mortal at the top of his game, giving his most breath-taking performance in City colours, throwing himself about with untiring abandon and somehow coming up smiling on each occasion: game as a stag film starlet, fearless as a stunt man, supple as a gymnast, alive and intuitive as a cold-reading mentalist. No tics or fumbles here…instead, the undistracted authority to pluck the ball from the air at the very summit of his leap; the unconscious footwork of a prize-fighter allowing him the mobility to get down low to left or right at the flip of a synapse; the unfailing instinct to respond with either top hand or lower arm as circumstance required – when to touch, parry or deflect, without undue elaboration or needless movement; the fearless stare-down of incoming danger in whichever manifestation it presented itself. And when it did so – memorably – when a forward broke through to bear down on his goal – that wide, imposing shape he assumed when closing down his man…crouching, legs splayed, hips tilted, arms out-flung, low and wide, as he stooped like a vampire about to enfold his latest victim within the span of a broad, all-enveloping cape.
It was the reflex stops that registered the most as, relentlessly, he beat away the best that Barca could throw at him: denying Messi with his legs, early on, as the Argentine fired low from a narrow angle; then again with the gate, early in the second half, after Alba was put clean through beyond the defensive line; a palm-stung paddle to the left, as Messi unloaded with malice from the edge of the box; then a spoiling job on the little man, forcing him out wide just as he threatened to jink around him and slip the ball home.
The closing moments saw an onslaught as City threw men forward only to leave their ‘keeper prone to serial, surging counter-strikes: an instinctive left arm flung out to foil Suarez as the Uruguayan closed in from the right to attack the near post; a thrilling recovery to star-jump Messi, point blank, just as the net beckoned invitingly to the Argentine; and then finally, with the whistle about to blow, a two-handed parry to the right to repel Neymar’s incoming trajectile, as the home team inevitably wondered what exactly they needed to do to muster a kill from a thoroughgoing turkey shoot.
After the match, Messi called him “a phenomenon” and tonight that’s unquestionably what he was. Without him, City would have lost by many more.
Four years on from their epochal dismantling of United in the 2011 final, Barca now conjured a determinedly different spectacle to the one served up by Pep Guardiola’s men on that famous May night at Wembley. Of tonight’s starters, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Iniesta and Messi survived from that seminal match; Busquets played in the first leg at the Etihad Stadium. Guardiola, however, was gone. After four astonishing seasons at the Camp Nou (2008-12), during which he won three La Ligas and two Champions Leagues among fourteen major honours in all, and saw his side reimagine football at the highest level, he had resigned from the club exhausted, taken a year’s sabbatical, then assumed the top job at Bayern Munich in 2013.
At Barca, his successor was his former right hand man, Tito Villanova, who ran away with the domestic title in the single season he was in charge (2012/13), proudly keeping alive the flame of the ‘tiki-taka’ style he had done so much to develop, before throat cancer forced him to give up the job, and eventually claimed his life. The man who followed Villanova, Argentine Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, was more adaptable, mixing up the passing party with some longer balls and more direct attacking ploys. This proved unsuccessful, though, and his reign lasted only a year (2013/14).
Since taking over at the beginning of the present season, new manager Luis Enrique had dispensed with the ‘tiki-taka’ style completely, and in so doing finally broken with the past (this despite being an insider who had previously both played for and indeed coached at the club). As we’d seen tonight, the passing was still swift, and the movement quick, but the Catalans were no longer the zealous extremists, the arch fundamentalists, who had set jaws agape with their infernal triangles at the height of that golden period. Now, they dropped off, rather than pushing that distinctive high defensive line. They worked the ball up quickly to their front men, with fewer passes – counter-attacking, storming the wings sometimes – where previously they’d pursued that endless trigonometry through the thirds. They didn’t press as high, or with such relentless fervour. And they had a regular centre forward, now – Suarez – a traditional number 9 up top, as opposed to that floating, rotating, ever-shifting midfield harbouring a submerged, rapidly-surfacing ‘false 9’ – Messi – in his famous former role. Messi had returned to his former role, the one he started his career with, coming in from wide on the right.
So far, it was proving a barnstorming success: Barca led La Liga, while their performances in the Champions League had seen them installed as favourites over holders Madrid and Guardiola’s Bayern. So was tiki-taka dead? This was much-debated now, in the light of Enrique’s new order and the Spanish national team’s system breakdown at last year’s World Cup. To some, these things suggested that tiki-taka had been less a footballing movement than the personal vision of one man, a bespoke schemata for a unique crop of talents who had graduated together from Barca’s La Masia academy, before going on to dominate the game for club and country: a happenstance of time and place for a select few uncommonly gifted individuals. Certainly, whatever remained of tiki-taka now rested with Guardiola in southern Bavaria (it was no secret in Manchester that City coveted his services). Barca, by contrast, had moved on. With their lightning football, and with the most fearsome forward line on the planet, and with the best player in the history of the game among their ranks, they had destroyed City, 3-1 on aggregate, over the two legs of this round of 16 tie. Bold, bestirring and technically magisterial, they remained at the vanguard of European football. To put it bluntly, as the dust settled on their dashing, belittling victory: they were exactly where Manchester City wanted to be.
Wanted to be – or ought to be? For a club with near-limitless resources which had, since the Mansour takeover seven years before, made it its mission statement to rise to dominance in both domestic and European football, City were falling forlornly short on either front. At home, despite the two Premiership crowns – with that home straight charge to nose the tape, last time out – they had spent just 22 days at the summit of the league table since that heady coronation – almost three years ago, now – in May 2012. In the Champions League, meanwhile, they had crashed out early in each of the four seasons they had qualified, without evidence of progress overall (at the group stage in 2011/12 and 2012/13; and then from the round of 16 in 2013/14 and 2014/15, each time at the hands of Barca). Given the Abu Dhabi Group’s £1bn plus investment, the wholesale restructuring of the club, the Middle Eastern sponsorship deals, the shimmering new campus site, the global vision, the dream of empire, the money-no-object recruitment policy for players, coaches and executives…well, this really wasn’t good enough, was it? What was wrong with City, then, after all that? Why couldn’t the first team cut it, at the highest level, on the pitch?
There was the system, for sure. Pellegrini’s robust, cultivated, swashbuckling take on 4-4-2 had bucked the 4-2-3-1 trend, the season before, to deliver a goal-laden Premiership title – but this had been in the face, arguably, of half-cocked opposition (from a jejune, soft-bellied Liverpool and a wonkish work-in-progress at Chelsea). This term, however, that lack of a third body in midfield had proved a weakness, as a consequence of a widely-identified problem: to put it acutely, the reason that that 4-4-2 didn’t cut it in Europe, or against the better teams in the Premiership, or on an off-day even against more run-of-the-mill opposition, was because Pellegrini’s playing staff appeared now to have become too old, too mediocre, too self-satisfied, and in short too damn lazy to make it work for him. (In fact, even the three man midfield looked lacking, now, at the highest level). This, after all, was essentially the same side that had won the title under Mancini…the same spine, at least: Hart, Kompany, Toure, Silva, Aguero. In the seasons that had followed that dramatic watershed the team had never been adequately overhauled. Players past their peak had not been shipped on; those brought in had conspicuously failed to cut the mustard. There was a lot of dead wood being carried; the situation had begun to tell.
You could break it down into subsets. On the credit side of the ledger were the dwindling band of world class performers still steadfastly earning their corn: essentially Aguero, who remained a brawnily-bountiful source of testosterone-charged goals (if a little injury prone this season); and Silva, the wily witch’s familiar still plying his sorcery between the lines. These two would walk into almost any major European team (and indeed you wondered if, in the quest for Champions League glory before the autumn of their careers was upon them, there wasn’t just a creeping desire in them to break free and do just that?) To that list of two you could contentiously add Hart, who, while not the greatest goalkeeper in the world (that was undoubtedly Bayern’s Manuel Neuer) or even perhaps the best in the Premiership (De Gea had a claim on that honour, this season, with Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois also strong) had nevertheless restored himself to top rank status with his performances over the preceding twelve months.
So much for the positives. When it came to the debit side of the accounts, there were a variety of ways you could prioritise the list. As good a place to start as any, perhaps, was with the lazy ones – the flair players flattering to deceive, who were dragging the first team down with their listless defending. Arguably, Silva could be included in this group, too – though his talents redeemed him – along with Nasri, Navas and Toure, who offered less to excuse them. The grand folly – it had been argued – the luckless trifecta, was to play Silva and Nasri on the flanks, with Toure in the middle in front of the defence: however attractive an option this looked on paper, going forward, it simply wasn’t hard working enough when tracking back. Toure, in particular, now, was enduring a hail of criticism over his attitude; his merits, in terms of the forward impetus he carried, and the goal-threat he provided, were now seen to be outweighed by the liability he posed through his neglect of the spaces in behind him. Ornery, fractious, frustrated, throwing his arms up and chewing the ears off of underperforming teammates, the Ivorian seemed a reduced figure on the pitch, now, for such a former titan; his billeting in front of the back four seemed certain, soon, to be at an end.
Next: there was a subset of stars whose form had simply deserted them, of whom the most notable pair were Kompany and Dzeko. Kompany, especially, was increasingly gaffe-prone, looking like he had lost some of his previous sharpness, and with it his anticipation, his positional sense and his confidence in his powers to recover rather than wreak rough justice on any striker who looked set to get the better of him. His ill-fated efforts to cover for Toure were merely compounding his errant displays. Readjustment, and a return to previous heights, were impatiently sought from the Belgian. Dzeko, on the other hand, had endured lean spells before. Not having the quickest feet to put at the service of his manager, his place in the side had seemed always to be vulnerable; his goal return this season (4 from 18 appearances in the league; no goals from 6 in Europe), and the fact that his chalk-and-cheese partnership with Aguero still sputtered to convince, meant that, once again, there was a question mark over his future at the club. A dip in form for Zabaleta, meanwhile, following two outstanding seasons at right back, perhaps merited the inclusion of the alopecic Argentine in this category, if one was pursuing a hard line with these long-established heroes.
Then what of this age problem? City, it had been recently revealed, boasted the oldest squad in the Premiership, and indeed with an average age of 28.8, the most venerable of any major club in Europe. This, it was said, was beginning to show. Under scrutiny, it wasn’t so much the coterie of thirtysomethings on the books – Lampard (36); Demichelis (34); Sagna (32); Toure (31); Zabaleta (30) – that gave pause, so much as the coach-load of pros catching their breath on the threshold of that damniong, discriminating milestone: Kompany, Milner, Dzeko, Kolarov, Silva, Clichy, Fernandinho, Navas…each and every one of them 29 years old and in sight of their inevitable decline. Young legs were, of course, a requirement in football, an essential part of the blend in any successful team; the evidence showed that the Blues were lacking in this regard.
To refresh the ranks the club had signed a slew of new players, each summer, since that initial Mancini title win, but it had become axiomatic that few (if any) of them were of sufficient quality as to elevate the team to the new levels demanded by expectation. Since his arrival in October 2012, the shopping sprees overseen by director of football Txiki Begiristain had made free with the credit card – to the extent that the new FFP rules allowed – yet had seen a puzzling band of make-do’s move in. Midfielder Jack Rodwell had come and gone, making just 16 first team appearances between his arrival in 2012 and his departure in 2014. Winger Scott Sinclair, signed at the same time as Rodwell, was still on the books, having played for the first team just 13 times, before being loaned out to West Brom and Aston Villa. Javi Garcia, signed to replace Nigel de Jong, had been deemed a disappointment; Matija Nastasic was an early hit before picking up a long-term injury the doctors couldn’t understand; while Maicon never threatened to dislodge Zabaleta from the right-back role he’d made his own. Alvaro Negredo shone briefly at the start of his single season inn the first team (2013/14) before injury and loss of form led Pellegrini to lose faith and ship him overseas on loan to Valencia. Stevan Jovetic, meanwhile – the other versatile forward signed in the summer of 2013 in the wake of Carlos Tevez’s departure – had similarly failed to inspire his manager on the occasions he was fit, and was publicly dismayed to find himself omitted from Pellegrini’s Champions League squad following the arrival of Wilfried Bony – also yet to distinguish himself – this January last.
The total cost of these seven players – who by no means comprised the complete list of ill-starred recruits Begiristain had procured, merely the ones who had failed to hold down a place in the team: £94.2m plus Stefan Savic, who was part-exed for Nastasic.
Of the other recent acquisitions, by contrast, three had been conspicuous by their presence in this season’s side: Fernando, the deep-lying midfield destroyer tasked to sit in front of the defence, had earned himself the nickname ‘The Octopus’ after somehow keeping both Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo quiet during a Champions League appearance for Porto back in 2009. His performances in a City shirt had been much more insipid, however (less an octopus, in fact, more of a damp squid). He’d plainly struggled to adapt to the pace and intensity of English football following his £12m switch at the start of the season – and if his comments on the local conditions were to be weighted he sounded more than a little bit nesh. Jesus Navas, the right-winger, meanwhile, had found his prodigious pace under-utilised in a side who played possession football and rarely hit on the break. In the two years since his £15m arrival from Sevilla, his back-tackling had dropped off, while his crossing looked increasingly wayward; whatever guile he possessed seemed readable and blunted-edged.
It was the new signing at the heart of the defence, however – this year’s centre-back – who had this season come to emblemise the misguided, myopic judgement calls that were dogging the club’s ventures in the transfer market. At an eye-watering £42m, 23-year-old Frenchman Eliaquim Mangala had become the most expensive defender in British footballing history, upon his arrival – also from Porto – the previous summer. His season, though, had been a critical disaster. Brawny, and occasionally brutish, he was not without talent, but his rawness had been writ large by the press and punditocracy: his lack of composure on the ball; his tendency to be drawn easily out of position; a questionable capacity for intuition and decision-making. Not knowing “when to jockey and when to commit” was how one ex pro put it, and he was far from alone. A nightmare early outing against Hull City, on September 27, saw him head into his own net under little pressure, before conceding a penalty with a high-booted challenge on striker Abel Hernandez. The following month, he strayed forward to let CSKA Moscow forward Ahmed Musa in behind him, and was punished again, as the Russians fought back from 2-0 down to earn a draw. After the Blues went down, 2-1, away to West Ham United on October 25 – striker Enner Valencia shrugging off the attentions of the young Frenchman en route to teeing up Morgan Amalfitano’s opener – Hammers boss Sam Allardyce admitted publicly that City’s expensive new defender had been targeted. After that, his form scarcely recovered. He could improve over time, of course, one might have argued, just as rookies in that role often did. But right now he seemed a long way off…and anyway, given the price tag, wasn’t it the full, finished article that was expected?
Only Fernandinho, the artfully-energetic midfield carrier acquired for £34m from Shakhtar Donetsk two years ago, and Martin Demichelis, picked up for £4.2m from Malaga the same summer – a centre-back who had improved following a shaky start at the club – had seemed to justify the outlay expended on them: and that clearly was not remotely good enough. This was a club that aspired to rule Europe, after all! Where were the Bales, the Pogbas, the Hummels, the Neymars, the Lahms? Where was the vision to build a team to realise the dream?
When they got it right, City, they remained a potent, attacking force who played attractive, progressive football and scored lots of goals. For all the loss of form they were still outscoring Chelsea in the Premiership; still, they held the edge over United, down in fourth; whatever else, they remained in line to qualify for next year’s Champions League. The title, though…well, that was slipping away from them. Tonight’s defeat was their fourth in five matches; since joining the west Londoners at the top of the table on January 1 they had won three, drawn three and lost three of their nine subsequent fixtures in the Premier League. 12 points from a possible 27 was hardly championship-winning form and they now lay 6 points adrift of the leaders, having played a game more.
There was talk of a clear-out, come the summer. Pellegrini’s job was said to be on the line. Would 4-4-2 prove to be the undoing of the man – this quiet svengali, this calculating entertainer – they called ‘The Engineer’? Would Txiki Begiristain be held accountable for all the dead wood in the squad? Come next season, after the almost-inevitable relinquishing of the title to Mourinho’s southern spoilers, would things look very different, hereabouts?
New faces? New strategies? Fresh start? Clean slate? Who knew? The cards were turning, and the centre of gravity shifting back to London. Maybe conservatism would have its moment? Maybe City would come again? The fates were pending…maybe even Luis Suarez would become free again?