El Cashico – a game for the age
HOW apt that as a curtainraiser to El Clasico on Saturday night, the filthy rich Premier League stages El Cashico! Or, if you prefer, the Oil and Gasico.
Either way, Manchester City vs Chelsea is a clash that conspicuously lacks the political, cultural and football history that ensures Barcelona vs Real Madrid resonates around the world. Even so, we should get used to the idea that the ‘fight of the fossil fuels’ is one of THE fixtures of the current era.
As critics are quick to point out, it “ain’t got no histry” at all and it lacks the gravitas of Manchester United and Liverpool, the tribalism of Spurs vs Arsenal and the religious undercurrent of Celtic and Rangers.
Even this week’s EFL Cup match between Liverpool and Leeds carried more echoes, albeit distant, of a genuine rivalry between giants than tomorrow’s early kick-off between the game’s nouveau riche.
Yes, they may both be at the gold tap stage of their development and owe everything to their lottery-like wins in the game of ownership, but one area where there are increasing parallels to the Spanish classic is on the pitch.
There’s no Messi or Ronaldo but a glittering supporting cast and, give or take a complaint from Liverpool and Arsenal, they are just about the best in England on current form.
But with well over a billion quid spent on each, you could argue that they should be. In fact, you could argue they should have done better.
Both have won trophies and had their moments of what we might call “flaunting it”, but neither has come close to the enduring dominance that both Liverpool and United have enjoyed in the past. That only reaffirms the view that there is still more to football hegemony than the size of your bank balance.
The aforementioned clubs also had several decades’ start on both blue outfits as established sporting institutions whose names, traditions and levels of support would take some overhauling.
They still haven’t been. Besides, when they were taken over both Chelsea and City were closer to the knacker’s yard than European glory.
Where there is a real difference between them is in style – or, rather, the goals and modus operandi of their respective sugar daddies. Roman Abramovich, in the words of then Arsenal director David Dein, “parked his tanks on our lawn and started firing £50 notes at us”.
It was a scattergun approach with both players and managers, but once Jose Mourinho was in command, the Russian’s roubles transformed Chelsea into champions and a formidable force in Europe.
Patience, however, was not a noticeable virtue and years of turmoil followed. Manager after big-name manager came and went but trophies would somehow still be won although more in spite of rather than because of any coherent plan.
Chelsea were simply the ultimate toy-cumfashion accessory of one of the richest men in the world who did what he wanted with them.
The polar opposite was Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United Goup (ADUG) whose objective was to put their emirate on the map.
More methodical, patient and, yes, ambitious than Abramovich, they have used City as a vehicle for a global enterprise that ultimately is supposed to yield a profit.
Success has taken longer but they have laid foundations that ought to ensure it lasts. They have changed the club root and branch but not without consulting the fans on every aspect.
They have built the world’s best training facility-cum-campus, regenerated a derelict chunk of east Manchester around the stadium and bought stellar names.
Manchester City are also the mother ship of the City Football Group that has affiliates in New York, Melbourne and Yokohama. And their plan is not just to beat Manchester United but Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The capture of Pep Guardiola is a key step along the way and the Catalan has already made his presence felt.
The Battle of the Blues is in many eyes a potential title decider and for once City have had a week to prepare. Chelsea, who have been enjoying this luxury all season, arrive having had their mettle tested by Spurs but they will have gained confidence from their ability to adapt to match situations.
Antonio Conte is a manager who can think on his feet just like Guardiola and their tactical clash will be one of the more fascinating aspects of this expensive collision. City have weaknesses in defence which Diego Costa and Eden Hazard are sure to exploit.
But City’s Kun Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling with David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan pulling the strings can be unstoppable.
The home side also have Yaya Toure back in the fold and perhaps a greater depth in the squad – the likes of Leroy Sane, Nolito and Kelechi Iheanacho offering reserve firepower.
Chelsea’s three-man back line may find itself tested more severely than before although Hazard and Costa could cause a bit of havoc in City’s rearguard.
Whoever comes out on top, these two clubs are here for the long term. Both sets of owners have made expensive mistakes but are showing signs of having learned lessons.
The battle on the pitch looks a mouthwatering prospect but could become a regular feast.
The clubs may be Johnny-come-latelys to the top table and it is taking time for their global followings to grow, but if their rivalry is not one for the ages, it is one for THIS age – both on and off the field.
Barca and Real have been warned.