Manchester City: The Review of February 2016

February was an up and down month for Manchester City. As usual, Ciaran Murray and Rob Toole have got together to review the month. On the agenda this time are the League Cup Final success, Manuel Pellegrini, the Champions League and much more…

Rob Toole: February was a month of stark contrasts. Despite starting with a win at Sunderland, three consecutive defeats, two in the league and one in the FA Cup, have left City’s title hopes hanging by a thread. Two victories at the end of the month have put one foot in the Champions League quarter final and earned the first silverware of the season with the dramatic win on penalties against Liverpool in the League Cup Final. There is only one place to start in my mind. Talk us through your experience of the final. 

Ciaran Murray: I’m absolutely over the moon we won, you’ll not be surprised to learn! I really didn’t see it happening – pretty much since it looked as though beating the two Merseyside teams was the only route to the trophy. So to squander a series of excellent chances, to have them equalise, see it go to penalties then actually WIN…it was a damn near miracle.

I really enjoyed the game. As you know I didn’t go to Wembley and watched it on my own in my flat like a rueful old hermit. A lot of people thought the first half was dull but I thought it was an engrossing, albeit scrappy and sloppy. I was delighted to see my fave guy Fernandinho get on the score sheet again. What a season that guy is having in terms of goals – aside from everything else he’s doing so right.

Raheem Sterling made me fall onto the table in my front room with that first outrageous miss. Bruise to prove it. You could hear nails being sharpened as headline writers got ready to get their claws into him. He was having such a good game but those misses deflated him a tad. It was inevitable Liverpool were going to score and it was inevitable that it’d be Coutinho. I couldn’t believe, with his scoring record against City and Caballero’s (then) reputation, that they took so long to register a shot on target in the second half. City’s defence, with Vincent Kompany at its core, is just a different prospect.

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And so to the penalties. I haven’t seen it said anywhere else but what a hero Jesus Navas is. After those awful early season open goal misses (against Palace and Bournemouth) a few people said he’d never score for City again. Well, he scored a crucial semi-final goal at Goodison to help us to Wembley and stepped up, having only just came back from injury in the same game, and nailed a spot kick under immense pressure. He’ll score against Villa – bet your house on it (DISCLAIMER: Don’t bet your house on it.)

Fair play to Yaya Toure as well, who had a great game on his favourite stomping ground. If this is his last season at City, it will be fitting that his last kick of a ball at Wembley for us was to secure yet another trophy. It was never really in doubt when he placed the ball on the spot. God I’ll miss that man when he goes. Adam Lallana won’t.

Willy Caballero, though. Another Wembley legacy created. Another story you feel could only happen at City. After the Chelsea game I saw KC tweet something along the lines of “Even when we were sh*t we had better goalkeepers than him.” He was atrocious in that Chelsea game. Atrocious. However, those three saves in the shootout and an overall impressive game has left us with a new hero in sky blue. Seeing him in tears and saying how hard the week had been made me feel terrible for him. Then he said how proud his family would be. I’m welling up again…

Liverpool v Manchester City - Capital One Cup Final

Nah but this silly little three handled, oddly shaped Capital One / Littlewoods / Rumbelows / Worthington / Milk Cup has once again brought so much pride and happiness to the ‘blue people’ as Willy called us. Hopefully that one piece of silverware can galvanise City and prepare us for title hunting season.

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February finished on a high note but began on one, too. The first day of the month saw the announcement that Pep Guardiola would be taking over as of next season. A LOT has been written about what he’ll bring to the table. How do you feel towards Manuel Pellegrini, though? He’s proved again he can win us pots so do you think he should feel aggrieved? What does Pep have that he doesn’t have?

Rob: My feelings towards Pellegrini aren’t particularly positive, to be honest. Like you say, he can win trophies and has done for us. The Premier League title win and two League Cups have been fantastic and provided some unforgettable moments. He has played a significant part in City’s history and that will never be forgotten. In all honesty, though, I suspect he won’t be fondly remembered by many supporters when he goes in the summer. 

It is impossible to ignore his shortcomings as they have steadily become more apparent with every passing season, month and game. When you consider the state of his side in his first season compared to now it is startling how much worse we are now. We have no defensive solidity, do not score that many goals and his record against the top teams is abysmal. Before his arrival we hardly ever got a real pasting but it seems a semi-regular occurrence these days. The defeats at home against Liverpool and Leicester as well as the away defeat at Spurs this season were truly awful. The less said about last year’s Manchester derby at Old Trafford the better.

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I don’t think Pellegrini has much reason to be aggrieved. If what I’ve heard/read is to be believed it seems as if he has been fully informed as to what the situation with Pep is and you can’t really ask for much more from your employer. If he is true to himself he will realise that City have underperformed under his stewardship and he will know as well as anyone else there is no room for sentiment in football so he can’t have been expected to be kept on. Quite frankly, if Pep wasn’t coming in the summer I reckon he may well have been sacked already.

I’ll admit, I don’t claim to be some kind of Pep expert but his record speaks for itself. Whilst Manuel is a good manager, and that is all he is, Pep is top of the range. Top shelf material. He is an elite manager who seems to galvanise a fantastic team spirit and gets the very best out of each individual. His bold tactical approach and attention to detail is something we’ve never really had so I’m really excited to see what he brings to the club. He has a hell of a job on his hands, though. City are pretty shambolic at the moment and I don’t necessarily think it will be all plain sailing from the word go. We will see.

After the away win at Sunderland at the beginning of the month, we had a great chance to go top of the league when Leicester came to town but were well and truly beaten. What did you make of that performance? It looks like Leicester have a real genuine chance of winning the league – how impressed were you with them?

Ciaran: When this season’s over it’ll be more difficult to rank the bad performances than it will be to rank the good. The performance at Leicester will certainly be up there, for me. City, perhaps, weren’t as dire as perhaps they have been at other times. But to let Leicester come to the Etihad and absolutely school us was an absolute disgrace. When every City fan – every football fan – knew how Leicester were going to set up and what their game plan was going to be, and to make no provision for that, was nothing short of disgraceful.

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Just like at home (and away actually) to West Ham and just like at home to Liverpool, City conceded an early goal and you really felt they’d never recover. I’m swearing to myself as I write this. Robert Huth scored a brace at the Etihad Stadium. Robert Huth. Scored a brace. At the Etihad Stadium. It was appalling. That Mahrez goal as well. He danced his way through the City defence like they were static cones on the training pitch. When Huth scored his second I looked at you and you were actually laughing. That resigned “Is this what it’s come to?” laugh that goes with the feeling of pure incredulity.

I don’t want Leicester to win the league because obviously I want City to. But City aren’t going to so I suppose Leicester would be better than Arsenal or Spurs. Maybe. I dunno. You have to say they deserve it out of everyone because they seem to want to win it whereas no one else does. It’d be a story I suppose. Still annoying, like. Mahrez is class. Raneiri seems ok. Vardy’s early season record was incredible. I really like Drinkwater. I could get over them winning it, I guess. I’m just not at all looking forward to the wage and fee comparisons being made between Leicester and us. So boring, that caper. Can’t wait to go to the Etihad and feel quietly comfortable and confident again, though, regardless of who wins the league.

City made headlines in February for all the wrong reasons due to their decision to field a youth heavy side against Chelsea in the FA Cup. There were two sides to the argument but the media, inevitably, focused solely on the negatives. One publication even splashed the headline ‘Cup Killers’. Where did you stand on the debate? Was Pellegrini right to kick up a fuss and to rest key players?

Rob: I can understand why Pellegrini did what he did for the Chelsea game. The scheduling meant that there wasn’t that much time between the Chelsea game, the Kiev trip and the League Cup final so I totally get why he would prioritise the games that he did. At the time he only had 13 fit senior players available so it makes sense. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of a stronger side than what was fielded because he kind of left the young players out to dry, they never stood a chance did they? That said, I was more annoyed with his comments about the game rather than the team selection itself.

The fact that he referred to it as not a “real game” was pretty insulting to the fans and can’t have motivated the players to perform, especially the young players. It is widely known that watching football is an expensive hobby. If it is not paying for TV subscriptions, it is extortionate ticket prices, or both. Those that follow their team away from home usually get the roughest deal: of course, the tickets are usually absurdly priced but then there is the costs of travelling the length and breadth of the country to get there, at often crazy times. With this is mind, I thought it was unacceptable for Pellegrini to speak about the match with such nonchalance and lack of care. A manager should never speak like that about a match and show such a blatant level of disregard for the fans that work their arses off to watch it. 

Chelsea v Manchester City - The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round

As for that whole issue of “Cup Killers” I didn’t pay too much attention to it but isn’t it such nonsense? If you believe everything you read one may think that City were the first team to ever field a weakened team in the cup. Remember when United chose not to participate in the FA Cup altogether when they were involved in the Club World Cup? If you want to talk about disrespecting the cup maybe get in touch with Fergie. I thought it was pretty cheap of the BBC to accuse Pellegrini of disrespecting the cup given that it was their scheduling which influenced the City boss to do what he did. It was entirely inevitable that they would but given that it was so clear it was going to happen you would think maybe they wouldn’t have, if that makes sense. Whatever, who cares anyway?

The win in Kiev was a rare highlight in the month. What did you make of the game? Surely, we have one foot in the quarter-finals of the Champion’s League for the first time…surely?

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Ciaran: It was a superb performance from City. It’s probably a mark of how poor we’ve been in Europe that we’re all surprised they could pull off such an impressive last 16 performance. It reminded me, and I’m sure a few others, of the Sevilla away game. Assured, commanding and playing how we should against teams like that with the squad we have.

That Kun Aguero, eh? So ruthless on his day and, for the first goal, the ball just sat up so nicely for a trademark powerful thwack from the Argentine’s right boot. Silva’s goal to put us two up was a tap in of sorts but the build up play and the movement to get there was a reminder of what City can do (and should be doing) when they’re fired up and it comes off.

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Here’s a betting tip for you. If Yaya Toure ever misses a sitter, lump a tenner on him to score the next goal. He seems to anger himself and then finds magic from somewhere to make amends for his earlier hiccup. He should have put that header away but I think I’ll settle for a left footed curler from the edge of the box. He can do things like that in the last minute of a Champions League game but some people want him gone. Defies belief.

You’d never put your house on it but yeah, City should be fairly confident going into the game on the 15th. I’m annoyed we let them score – I felt Otamendi’s header was a bad call but he was unlucky with the deflection. I reckon at the Etihad they’ll score again and it’ll be tight and tetchy but we’ll have enough to get over the line. You could see how fired up and willing to work the players were in the away leg; it’s just a pity they don’t do that in every single game (Anfield for example – more on that next month). It feels weird thinking we’re comfortably up after the first leg of a last 16 Champions League tie. Hopefully we wrap things up earlier in the second leg so we can start making plans for the visit of Pep…it’s nailed on we’ll draw Bayern Munich in the draw for the last 8!

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