Pep makes City be­liev­ers

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPORTS -

ON THE one hand, it had been a long time com­ing. Eight years since the Sheikh show­ered his bil­lions on them and after play­ing al­most 500 ob­se­quious min­utes against the team they des­per­ately want to em­u­late, the club they dream of sur­pass­ing.

On the other hand, it was only 18 games into the en­light­ened and some­times left­field regime of Pep Guardi­ola.

The aim of the 2008 takeover was, ac­cord­ing to then CEO Garry Cook, “not just to be bet­ter than Manch­ester United, but to be bet­ter than Barcelona and Real Madrid”. Leav­ing the meringues aside, for a won­drous 45 min­utes on Tues­day night, Manch­ester City achieved their ob­jec­tive.

They out-Barcelona-d Barcelona. It was a slightly weak­ened Barca but take noth­ing away from City: they came from be­hind, they were de­nied a bla­tant early penalty and should have had an­other, and the MSN were all there. No longer awe-struck, City coun­tered the master counter-at­tack­ers and beat them to the punch.

City fans woke on Wed­nes­day morn­ing won­der­ing whether their old song from the cock-up days ‘We’re not re­ally here’ still rang true. But they were there, al­right, as a ‘typ­i­cal City’ start would have re­minded them.

Thirty-eight min­utes in Barca had 72% pos­ses­sion and were one up through a clas­sic Lionel Messi counter-punch. The game ap­peared to be go­ing the way of the pre­vi­ous five en­coun­ters be­tween the mas­ters and the awestruck ap­pren­tices – a harsh les­son.

There were still gaps in the stands and queues out­side the ground – a de­lay be­cause chips had caught fire in one of the kitchens! It could only hap­pen to City. Those in­side were boo­ing the ref and con­spir­acy the­o­ries about UEFA were gain­ing trac­tion.

The Cham­pi­ons League an­them had re­ceived its rit­ual jeers and with the home side strug­gling to get a kick, an­other Euro­pean even­ing had all the dispir­it­ing hall­marks of ‘typ­i­cal City’.

Pep needed some­thing, City needed some­thing and, for once, they got it – a sui­ci­dal pass across the penalty a la John Stones against Spurs – and City pounced. One-all just be­fore half­time was a mas­sive psy­cho­log­i­cal boost and fi­nally City had had a bit of luck.

To dis­be­liev­ing eyes, they then be­gan to dom­i­nate the se­cond half, em­ploy­ing a high line and press­ing Barca to win the se­cond balls. And, lo and be­hold, they even played the long ball.

Al­ways con­sid­ered a no-no to Pep, this was not Sam Al­lardyce but what in Spain they call a Guardi­o­lada – Pep do­ing what is least ex­pected - and it worked. City got be­hind Barca’s own high de­fen­sive line and ran them ragged. For once in Europe, the crowd roared.

A fab­u­lous end-to-end se­cond half turned it into a great Euro­pean night, the kind the Sheikh and his Cata­lan hench­men have craved but which had al­ways eluded City.

Steeped in hu­mourous self-dep­re­ca­tion for so long, fans had taken a while to be­lieve in their sud­den rise to be­come a do­mes­tic pow­er­house but Europe they had not been able to get their parochial heads around.

Their con­ti­nen­tal cause has not been helped by a rash of UEFA rul­ings that seemed de­signed to stymie City’s progress – from petty fines for be­ing sec­onds late for re­turn­ing to the field, dis­dain for trav­el­ling fans to squad re­stric­tions and a £49mil­lion fine among oth­ers.

An un­der­stand­able Brexit-like re­luc­tance to em­brace Europe built up and even Pep’s call to “stop the feud” fell on deaf ears.

But Tues­day night felt like a turn­ing point. The fans saw their City he­roes take on Barca at their own game and beat them in gung-ho style. Last sea­son they had some­how clawed their way to the semi­fi­nal but had gone down with a whim­per. This was dif­fer­ent.

This was Pep not Manuel Pel­le­grini. This was the uni­ver­sally-ac­claimed best man­ager in the world, a jack-in-the-box on the bench, his foot­ball brain in over­drive, tweak­ing, urg­ing, ad­mon­ish­ing and schem­ing – a Napoleon di­rect­ing the bat­tle. His lugubri­ous pre­de­ces­sor would slink back into the up­hol­stery when a goal down.

This was why the City bosses had courted him for two years, built the academy, sought his ap­proval be­fore buy­ing play­ers even when he was still at Bay­ern. They be­lieved he was the man to take this great step, to get a team with an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex and a doubt­ing fan base to cross the Ru­bi­con.

They’re not there yet - they still have work to do to reach the knock-out phase - but this could well be a break­through. The rau­cous se­cond half at­mos­phere showed that ‘Emp­ti­had’ can be a mis­nomer for Euro­pean games and the play­ers’ re­sponse sug­gested they be­lieved too.

For the first half, we heard the com­men­ta­tor say that Pep didn’t have the play­ers to play the Barcelona way, but in the se­cond they shut him up – at least the out­stand­ing Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Ser­gio Aguero did.

Ra­heem Ster­ling did too un­til he re­vealed a ‘hand grenade’ first touch when through on goal but he’s im­prov­ing.

Stones hung in there too – you can’t do any­thing else un­der the ob­ses­sive, at times manic, min­is­tra­tions of the man­ager who sel­dom sleeps and does not eat be­fore a game. After this clas­sic, he could have feasted and slept well in the knowl­edge that his first mis­sion had been achieved.

He has spo­ken of how the lack of his­tory in Europe is an im­ped­i­ment to get­ting play­ers and fans on board and that he would need time. But three months since the sea­son be­gan he has writ­ten the first chap­ter in a new his­tory.

He has in­stilled be­lief in a club that, when it came to Euro­pean foot­ball re­ally did feel ‘we’re not re­ally here’. They are now.


Manch­ester City mid­fielder Kevin De Bruyne (right) cel­e­brates his se­cond goal against Barcelona at the Eti­had Sta­dium in Manch­ester on Tues­day.

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