Manchester City’s Champions League hopes are hanging by a thread following this week’s defeat to Barcelona. In similar fashion, City’s Premier League aspirations were perilously close to petering out last season after the seismic 3-2 loss to Liverpool…and we all know how that turned out!
The reviled rodent-like Luis Suarez wreaked havoc at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night, bagging a brace to put Barcelona in the driving seat in the Catalonian’s two-legged Last 16 CL affair with City.
The Uruguayan striker – immensely talented but universally detested – had come back to England to torment the team that had shattered his Premier league dream – a dream that verged on reality on that fateful Sunday afternoon of April 13th, 2014.
Suarez had been instrumental in orchestrating a famous Liverpool win, albeit he shouldn’t have been on the pitch after being more than deserving of a second yellow card for blatant ‘simulation’.
Referee Mark Clattenburg bottled it completely, abdicating responsibility in front of the baying masses of giddy Scousers. Suarez remained on the pitch, Brenda’s bunch bagged the points and Liverpool – Hansen, Dalglish, Ken Dodd, Cilla Black, Jimmy Tabuck, Phil Thompson et al, were convinced they were as good as Champions of England.
Worryingly, ‘Twattenburg’ will once again be officiating at Anfield, when the actual ‘real life’ Champions return to the Land of Make Believe at high noon on Sunday.
At first glance, the stakes are not as high, but they’re high enough for a City team seeking to retain their title and a Liverpool side desperate to regain the Champions League status relinquished last December.
After a week that has shown that the Premier League, for all its riches, record attendances and global viewing figures is technically adrift from some of it continental counterparts, it’s back to good old blighty and a massive domestic ding dong down the East Lancs Road.
If City fans are depressed by their played three and lost three record against Barca, they’d be nigh on suicidal if they examine the history books when the blue side of Manchester visit Merseyside’s red terrain.
It’s no wins in 12 visits to Anfield, one in 26 and two in 46…all they way back to 1956.
Liverpool away is the sole territory never to have fallen to City in a league game since Sheikh Mansour took control of the club in 2008.
The lessons of history are there to be learned, wisdom gathered and different, more profitable courses chartered. From City’s perspective, it must be hoped that Manuel Pellegrini has taken heed – more so than when venturing into battle against El Barca.
Fortress Anfield is there to be breached. An energy-sapping 120-minute, stuffing in Turkey should have taken its toll on Liverpool, as they tumbled out of the Europa League to Besiktas on Thursday night.
If ever City had a pre-match advantage at Anfield it should be now. The return of Yaya Toure helped galvanise City to a stunning 5-0 win over Newcastle United last Saturday.
His suspension-enforced absence from the 2-1 defeat to Barcelona would suggest he should be fresh and raring to go at a ground, where his early injury- induced departure, undoubtedly contributed to Liverpool’s success last season.
Ironically, the return of the Ivorian giant could see James Milner reduced to the ranks of the substitutes bench, as conjecture rages in relation to the England international’s future.
A favourite with many City fans, Jimmy seems increasingly likely to succeed Stateside-bound Steven Gerrard and sign for Liverpool in the summer.
If as feared/suspected Milner declines a new deal at the Etihad and leaves on a ‘Bosman’, it’ll compound City’s quandary in relation to home-grown talent.
The Premier League rules require each club to have eight ‘home-grown’ players in a squad of 25. With Frank Lampard finally joining New York City and Milly almost 99% certain to go, who’d rule out City putting in a ‘shock’ bid for one of England’s brightest stars – Raheem Sterling? Sterling has been stalling on a new long term Liverpool contract.
If you’re forced to buy British you may as well buy the best, albeit at the ridiculously inflated domestic market prices. A case of watch this space.
Of more pressing urgency is the need for a City win to narrow the gap on Chelsea down to just two points. Yes, Maureen’s mob would have played a game less than City, but as football clichés go, far better to have points in the bag than games in hand.
The return to Anfield will also revive bad memories for City skipper Vincent Kompany, whose miscued attempted clearance acted as an assist for Coutinho to hit Liverpool’s winner.
Normally Captain Fantasic, Kompany is in the midst of his worst run of form at City and subject to scrutiny like never before.
He suffered a torrid 90 minutes at the hands/feet of Suarez on Tuesday and, for the first time ever, even his place in the team is being questioned by a large section of fans.
Not so his manager.
Pellegrini said: “Vincent is an experienced player with a strong character. He must receive the criticism that everyone receives when our team doesn’t have the performance that everyone hopes for.
“Was the criticism fair? Everyone has the right to criticise. Everyone can see the game in a different way. I have my opinion, you have yours. I think he’s a great player.”
Had he not been a football player and manager, Manuel would surely have carved out a great career in the Chilean diplomatic service.
Pellegrini’s ability to stay calm under pressure has never been questioned. He was cool and collected in the aftermath of Clattenburg’s outrageous refereeing last April, and he’s steadied the ship following the Barcelona disappointment.
His team selection and tactics have been severely criticised and it’ll be fascinating to see what changes, apart from Yaya’s obvious return, are made at Liverpool.
Edin Dzeko played superbly against Newcastle but sadly fluffed one or two of City’s better chances against Barcelona – will he finally make way for Wilfried Bony to make his first start?
Manuel’s much maligned 4-4-2 formation still has merit in the Premier League, far more so than in European games, so a bang in form Sergio Aguero will lead the line.
A hardly fit Aguero was a 68th minute sub in the 3-2 defeat in April, replacing Dzeko, but only after the Bosnian striker had a stone wall first half penalty claim refused by Twattenburg.
So much went against City in the game last season that it can only heighten reasons for optimism this time out. Alternatively there can’t be even a hint of complacency as that could derail the title defence once and for all.
They paid the penalty on the day for sheer bad luck and poor officiating.
On the subject of penalties – and with Twattenburg’s past record – it can only be hoped Dejan Lovren takes Liverpool’s two spot kicks that Battenburg is likely to serve on a plate to Pool.
It was his miss that sealed Liverpool’s 5-4 penalty defeat in Turkey, after Brendan Rodgers had withdrawn Mario Balotelli – penalty taker extraordinaire – during the first 90 minutes.
Conversely, Joe Hart’s super save from Lionel Messi’s last minute penalty meant City ended the Barcelona game on a comparative high,with hope in their hearts of what could still be in the Nou Camp on March 18th.
A thoughtful Pellegrini reflected: “Parts of the game that decided the Barcelona result were down to a poor performance from me, from the team, from everyone, not just one player. We played for 25 minutes and all the second half without any problem.”
Maybe, just maybe, Manuel has a point, but he and his team need all three on Sunday and must ensure that history does not repeat itself.
By David Walker
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