Advent Calendar – 9th December: Emile Mpenza

With Advent now under way and the countdown to Christmas now on, Typical City is looking at an incident, player or match specific to the club that corresponds with each date. In today’s edition, David Mooney remembers former number 9, Emile Mpenza…

Picture the scene. It’s January 2007 and the transfer window has just closed. City have been misfiring for some time and a run of good results over the Christmas period has eased relegation concerns a little, but there’s still a long way to go. Nevertheless, you’re still a bit p*ssed off that Stuart Pearce’s side failed to capture striker Mido from Tottenham.

Those were the days. Especially when the transfer period ended and the club clearly had no viable solution to the question, “but who the f*ck is going to put the ball in the net?” as Bernardo Corradi, Darius Vassell and Georgios Samaras had found it a near-impossible task that campaign. And there was only so much Joey Barton could do from midfield.

In 2006-07, the fans were resigned to one principle: If City conceded, the chances were they weren’t going to win the game. The best that they could have hoped for was a draw.

Premier League survival in that final year under Pearce was down largely to the impressiveness of Richard Dunne and Sylvain Distin in the back four, some crucial saves from Nicky Weaver and the arrival of a man who could put the ball in the net slightly more frequently than anyone else in the team. Emile Mpenza joined on Valentine’s Day, from Qatari side Al-Rayyan.

Fulham v Manchester City

“I am not finished and I will prove it in Manchester,” the Belgian told radio station Bel RTL. “I make this move as revenge, with respect for all those who criticised my decision to play in Qatar.” Many had previously thought he’d moved there for the money rather than to further himself as a footballer, and when he joined City he proved that he was able to cut it in the top flight of the English game.

He was slow to bed in with the Blues. He made his debut in the home defeat to Wigan, coming off the bench for Samaras at half time – though he did liven the match up, he wasn’t able to prevent the loss. He played the final nine minutes of the next match, a frankly toxic elimination from the FA Cup at Blackburn.

The fans were angry that day; they had seen a lifeless, limp and dour City performance in a competition that could have offered them some sort of hope in a season that had nothing. And the fury spilled out into chants of “you’re not fit to wear the shirt”. Few could argue they were wrong.

Mpenza made his first start against Chelsea in the following game, but was still yet to get off the mark. A Frank Lampard penalty saw the visitors take all three points in a match that offered the fans encouragement – even if it finished 1-0 to the champions.

But with the Easter period came the Belgian’s time to shine. City were slipping closer to trouble in the Premier League and Mpenza almost single-handedly kept them out of it. He secured the victory at Middlesbrough, adding a late strike to Sylvain Distin’s opener, before he won the game at Newcastle with a brilliantly finished one-on-one after Michael Johnson sent him clear with ten minutes to play.

Newcastle United v Manchester City

It moved City up to 13th in the table, after having been 17th following the defeat to Chelsea.

The Belgian scored once more for Pearce, grabbing a consolation at Tottenham with a header that was not too dissimilar to one that Edin Dzeko would score at the same ground in the club’s first Premier League title-winning season. As the ball was crossed in, Mpenza guided it into the corner past Paul Robinson, who was left standing, thanks to the angle at which the Beligan had made contact.

When Sven Goran Erikson took charge of the club after the takeover of Thaksin Shinawatra the next season, Mpenza played a small role in keeping the Blues in the top four of the table up to Christmas. He opened his account for the year with a lovely strike at Bristol City in the League Cup, before a header against Fulham at Craven Cottage put the Blues in front – though they’d eventually draw 3-3.

He wouldn’t have known it at the time, but his final goal for City came to put them in the lead in a home match with Newcastle. Seconds after the break, Martin Petrov powered down the left flank and chipped an inviting cross to the penalty spot where Mpenza was arriving late. He dived, flicking his head at the ball and buried it into the bottom corner, past the despairing dive of Shay Given.

Manchester City v Newcastle United

Despite seemingly being a solid option for the manager, Eriksson chopped and changed and the Belgian never got a run of games. There were rumours that any extra would have triggered an automatic contract renewal and the club weren’t prepared for him to stay beyond that campaign, though that was never confirmed by anyone involved.

He played his final game from the bench in a 3-1 loss at Birmingham’s St Andrews, memorable for referee Rob Styles awarding a ridiculous penalty for the home side when Gary McSheffrey fouled Sun Jihai – not the other way around.

While the fans respected what he’d done for the club, perhaps it was true that Mpenza wasn’t up to the standard of where the team wanted to be. He wasn’t given a chance by another Premier League club, despite being a free transfer and ended his career in England with Plymouth Argyle in the Championship.

He then had spells with FC Sion, Neftchi Baku and Eendracht Aalst before retiring in 2014.

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Written by David Mooney.

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