Dan Burke’s View from Melbourne: Roma 2-2 Manchester City (4-5 on pens)

Whenever anyone condescendingly asks me what the three stars on City’s crest are supposed to signify I always say, for a laugh, that they’re commemorations of the three consecutive Thomas Cook Trophies won by the club between 2003 and 2006.

Those golden days may seem like a distant memory now, but it really was less than a decade ago that the closest we’d get to watching City go head to head with a continental heavyweight, never mind win a trophy, was in prestige pre-season friendlies like those memorable Thomas Cook Trophy finals against the likes of Barcelona, Lazio and Yaya Toure’s Olympiakos (I say “memorable” because I remember every single Thomas Cook Trophy final vividly yet all of the other rounds appear to have completely slipped my mind).

Of course, nowadays the club is forever jetting off to some far-flung corner of the globe on some pre-season or post-season tour or other and prestige friendlies against continental heavyweights are as commonplace as match-ups against the likes of Oldham and Rochdale used to be. Pre-season is no longer just an opportunity for the players to get in some much needed match practice ahead of the new season but a marketing exercise in which the club is paraded in front of whichever nation of football fanatics a team of market researchers has deemed to be the next great untapped demographic.

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That’s not to say, however, that the importance of these marketing exercises should be understated in a sport where cash increasingly rules everything around us, nor that football supporters in said far-flung reaches of the world aren’t deserving of opportunities to see their heroes in the flesh every once in a while. As a current resident of Melbourne, I was as happy as anyone when I heard the club I’d supported all my life would be rocking up on my doorstep, even if it was just for a glorified kick-around in a cricket stadium.

After beginning the tour of Australia with two friendlies against local opposition and some warm weather training on the Gold Coast last week, City arrived in chilly Melbourne this week for two more friendlies against Roma and Real Madrid in a tournament rather brazenly named the International Champions Cup despite the fact none of the teams participating in it were champions of anything in particular last season.

City are already a reasonably well-known phenomenon in this part of the world thanks in large part to the association with Melbourne City FC and though the cavernous 100,000-seater Melbourne Cricket Ground was less than half full on Tuesday night, it was no surprise to see the “Man City Active Area” behind the goal packed to the rafters with Australian blues, Mancunian ex-pats and a fair share of people who will literally go and watch City anywhere. I may well be 10,000 miles away, but when I walked into the MCG and was greeted by a load of blokes in bucket hats and parkas singing songs about “Pablo Zabaletoh” and steadfastly refusing to sit in their seats despite the insistence of several stewards, I felt right at home.

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With the new Premier League season getting underway in just short of three weeks, Manuel Pellegrini took the opportunity to give several of his established senior players some much needed game time against Roma with Bacary Sagna, Eliaquim Mangala, David Silva, Kelechi Iheanacho and £49 million signing Raheem Sterling all making their first appearances of pre-season from the start.

All eyes were on the debutant right from the off and one could perhaps be forgiven for wondering whether England’s most expensive player might have been a tad overpriced when his first act in a City shirt was to trip over the ball and fall flat on his face. Thankfully those fears were allayed moments later when Sterling raced onto a through ball from Iheanacho (with whom he appeared to have formed a decent understanding early on) and cooly slotted the ball past the keeper for his first goal in a blue shirt.

City were the dominant side of much of the first quarter of the game with David Silva at the centre of everything and young Manu Garcia putting in another impressive performance but it didn’t take long for Roma to draw level when an unstoppable strike from Miralem Pjanic flew past Willy Caballero and into the top corner of the net.

The Blues were denied the chance to retake the lead from the penalty spot in the 23rd minute when Sterling’s quick feet saw him hauled down in the box for what was surely a stonewall spot-kick but the referee waved play on, leaving those watching the game live to wonder how exactly a professional referee could assess that incident from yards away and decide not to award a penalty. That question was answered emphatically when Mark Clattenburg’s face appeared on the stadium jumbotron not long later.

As is customary in pre-season friendlies, Pellegrini sent out an almost entirely different eleven for the second half with Joe Hart, James Horsfield, Jason Denayer, Aleksander Kolarov, Yaya Toure, Marcos Lopes, Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas and Brandon Barker all entering the fray. However it was Iheanacho, one of the survivors of the half-time cull, who gave City the lead again just after the restart when he latched on to a hilariously misjudged back-pass from a Roma defender and finished confidently when one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

Some delightful link-up play between Brandon Barker and Marcos Lopes aside, the rest of the second half was largely a non-event and City looked to be strolling towards victory until Yaya Toure conceded a free-kick on the edge of his own penalty area in the 86th minute and saw it converted with aplomb by Roma’s Adam Ljajic. Toure then missed a chance to win it for his team in injury time meaning the match would have to be decided by a penalty shoot-out.

The shoot-out got off to a good start for City when Toure stroked his spot-kick down the middle but things began to look ominous when Kolarov, usually so reliable in dead ball situations, struck his high and wide. Roma looked to be on the verge of winning the shoot-out and the International Champions Cup (three points are awarded for a win in normal time, whereas two points are awarded for a win on penalties – Roma already had two points to their name after a shoot-out victory over Real Madrid at the weekend) when, with the scores level at 4-4, Joe Hart somewhat bizarrely stepped up to take City’s fifth penalty but England’s number one did the same thing he’s done on more than one occasion during his career to date and slammed the ball into the top corner as if it were a goal kick and he was kicking straight into touch.

The task of converting what would have been the winning spot-kick fell to Roma’s new signing Seydou Doumbia, who City fans will remember as being a right pain in the backside during his time at CSKA Moscow, but a cheeky attempt at a Panenka penalty came back to bite the Ivorian on his rear end when Hart clawed the ball off the line and the game went into sudden death.

Hazel Grove’s very own James Horsfield, a makeshift right-back for the evening, was next to step up for City and he kept his nerve with a finish low to the keeper’s right. The unenviable task of having to score past a cocksure Joe Hart then fell to Seydou Keita and it appeared the keeper’s Australian cricket team-esque sledging got the better of the ex-Barcelona man as his weak penalty was comfortably saved, the match was decided and the two points were City’s.

So, with another pre-season friendly over and done with and some precious minutes under the belts of most of the key players, City can now look forward to the final game of the Australian tour when they face Real Madrid in front of a sell-out crowd at the MCG on Friday night.

I’m not getting ahead of myself or anything, but if City win that one (in normal time or otherwise) it might just be time to start thinking about getting another star embroidered on that badge of ours.

Written by Dan Burke

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