Pep Guardiola’s perennially fruitless trek to Tottenham – the one where City perform their Eurovision Song Contest impersonation of ‘nil points’ – would normally have triggered plenty of chatter about the misfiring Champions of England.
It didn't last long. Within 15 hours the usual City loss at Spurs' state of the art stadium was way down the topics of conversation, disappearing under a volley of Premier League fire - 115 live rounds, masquerading as Financial Fair Play charges.
The intention was obvious - obliterate Manchester City Football Club. Raze it to the ground and lay waste to each and every honour achieved since 2008.
Spurred on by principal protagonists Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, the Premier League lit the proverbial blue touch paper, hoping that an aggression against City would somehow keep the pending appointment of an independent regulator of English football at bay.
Less than a fortnight on, the Premier League’s battle plan is looking as convincing as Vladimir Putin’s blitzkrieg strategy of this time last year, to seize Kyiv within 72 hours, annihilate Ukraine and re-write history.
Not only does it resemble a desperately late ploy – a la Fergie Time – to lodge the charges prior to the Government white paper on Football Governance, it’s already backfiring, with City surging back to the top of the table.
As City’s standard-bearer, Guardiola has rallied his troops and varied his tactics to take down opponents on the pitch, leaving the likes of City Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and eminent barrister Lord David Pannick KC to sort out the legal wrangles off the field.
City’s initial statement on Monday, February 6th read: ‘The Club welcomes the review of this matter by an independent commission, to impartially consider the comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position. As such we look forward to this matter being put to rest once and for all.”
The mood music is that of ever more confidence of complete and utter vindication at the conclusion of the Independent Commission. That said, it’s idiotic to pretend anyone at the Etihad Stadium enjoys the barrage of cheating slurs and accusations, currently coming City’s way, but it has had a galvanizing effect on Pep and his players.
As was pretty much expected, City took down Aston Villa with a comprehensive first half display paving the way for a comfortable 3-1 win. It was never going to match the pure theatre and sheer drama of last season’s 3-2 title winning affair, but Ilkay Gundogan ushered up a delicious portion of déjà vu with a tap in goal at the far post.
With expectations off the chart and another last match decider on the line for City’s fourth title in five years, the team bus – with Pep perched on the front passenger seat – was given a raucous reception en-route to the Etihad on that fateful day in May.
Fast forward nine months and the fervour, fighting spirit and togetherness of the fans with their club, their manager and their team, was a sight and sound to behold. Singing and chanting hordes and plumes of blue pyrotechnics greeted Guardiola & Co.
The Premier League title wasn’t up for grabs last Sunday afternoon, something far more significant was in play – the first moves in ensuring the survival and future prosperity of the best run club in world football – namely Manchester City, ‘Club of the Year’ at the 2022 Ballon d’Or Awards.
The Fight ‘Til The End spirit was much in evidence as was the humour – so often self deprecating – that has seen City supporters through thick, thin and sometimes anorexic times.
Hanging from the second tier of the South Stand for all to see was a huge banner emblazoned with ‘PANNICK ON THE STREETS OF LONDON’ – a wonderfully whimsical take on City’s lead barrister, wreaking havoc on the Premier League’s FFP folly.
With Arsenal dropping points against Brentford, Mikel Arteta – City’s once highly revered Assistant Head Coach in the days of The Centurions and Fourmidables – but now reduced to regular touchline hissy fits, was bemoaning the vagaries of VAR, in the run up to the Premier League leaders taking on the Premier League Champions at The Emirates.
Both Arsenal and Brighton had been wronged by ridiculous VAR officials and Howard Webb, PGMOL’s Chief Refereeing Officer, had been quick to say sorry to both clubs.
I must have missed Webb’s profuse apology to City, after Marcus Rashford was deemed as not being offside or interfering with play, when United equalised in the Manchester derby last month! Perhaps Howard and his pals at PGMOL are Elton John fans and, when it comes to City, sorry seems to be the hardest word.
One good thing to emerge from last weekend's VAR farce is the departure of Lee Mason from PGMOL – he who forgot to draw the lines for Brentford’s disputed equaliser at Arsenal. Mason a well known Bolton fan – that’s Bolton spelt ‘Manchester United’ – will be missed...like a bout of malaria!
With the gap down to three points, a City win would see Pep's team back at the pinnacle of the Premier League for the first time since November 5th and, just as then, there were plenty of fireworks in store. A loss would give Arteta a six point advantage, plus a game in hand over his mentor.
History was in favour of the visitors. City had won eleven and drawn two of the previous thirteen league encounters and had knocked the Gooners out of the FA Cup in January.
Officiating proceedings was one of PGMOL’s finest, the well known Altrincham fan – Anthony Taylor – whose birth certificate belies the popular notion that his forenames are actually Thomas and Walter, before reaching Anthony.
In a match that must’ve enthralled the neutrals, Taylor excelled.
As Ederson indulged in a smidgen of first half time wasting – something as rare as rocking horse poo – Taylor took it upon himself to book the City keeper.
Contrast his actions with every referee who officiates at the Etihad – Taylor included – who purposefully ignore blatant time wasting by opposition keepers! At best, the offender gets a yellow card in the 89th minute or in time added on.
The hypocrisy and double standards was there for all to see. Obviously Taylor had received the joint PGMOL/Premier League memo. Perhaps we can look forward to flurries of yellow and red cards in the future when City’s opponents start playing silly beggars?
Pigs will fly!
Marginally less contentious was the penalty award to Arsenal. The Two Eddies – Moraes and Nketiah – had in football parlance, ‘a coming together’, but no! Apparently it was a nailed on penalty and Ederson was lucky to stay on the pitch to every non-City supporter.
It was a strange take on matters when contrasted with the collision between Erling Haaland and Villa keeper Emi Martinez three days earlier. The Argentine World Cup winner won a free kick and a City goal was chalked off.
There’s nothing like a bit of consistency and, once again, this was nothing like a bit of consistency.
What would have been a City penalty for a foul by Gabriel on Haaland, was chalked off because the Nordic Meat Shield had been a fraction offside as the ball was played through. Haaland didn’t touch the ball – in the same way Rashford hadn’t touched the ball at Old Trafford – but the Norwegian Blue was deemed to have been interfering with play.
The more positive aspects were reflected in some exquisite interference with Arsenal’s title ambitions, courtesy of a sublime Kevin De Bruyne opening goal, a well drilled and thoroughly deserved Jack Grealish score, all rounded off by Erling equalling Sergio Aguero’s club record of 26 Premier League goals in a season.
Haaland has another 15 games to go to ease past the record.
Goal provider and scorer extraordinaire, De Bruyne was in fine form and not only because of his stunning finish with his ‘weaker’ left foot.
He forcibly pushed arsey Arteta out of the way when the Arsenal boss tried to prevent KDB taking a throw in. Kevin’s piece de la resistance was his passive p*ss taking of the irate home fans as bottles and other projectiles were thrown his way.
Substituted in the 87th minute with the game won and points in the bag, De Bruyne was pelted with what Amazon Prime’s commentator, Clive Tyldesley referred to as, ‘harmless missiles’.
One can only imagine the graphic descriptors and adjectives that would have poured puke-like from his lips, if that had been City supporters throwing items at an Arsenal player.
The FA claim to be investigating, so expect De Bruyne to face charges of ‘smiling the wrong way’ or ‘ducking missiles in a fashion likely to endanger the pitch’.
The ‘Agenda’ is now staggeringly obvious as all elements of top flight English football fall in line with the Premier League’s pursuit of punitive measures against City. Even co-commentator, Ally McCoist – a man who had previously won respect from City fans for his unbiased views on City games – was auditioning for the gig on Arsenal TV, Sky Sports or BT Sport.
City’s twelfth PL win over Arsenal – they last lost in the PL in 2015 under Manuel Pellegrini – was achieved in a style not normally associated with Guardiola. His team’s 36% possession statistic was the lowest of any team he has ever managed. Compare and contrast that with 65% possession at Spurs, no goals and no points and you won’t find any City fans criticising Pep’s pragmatism.
The Catalan genius even admits when he gets things wrong but, more importantly in this top of the table tussle, he knew what needed doing to get it right. Pep said things hadn’t gone to plan: “I decided something new (for the game), and it was horrible! In the second half, we were more comfortable. We let them play in the first half. We adjusted a little bit.”
City hold a +10 goal advantage at the top, but as Pep is quick to emphasise, Arsenal still have a game in hand. At this point both clubs remain masters of their own destiny, with the Gunners yet to visit the Etihad on April 26th.
With 45 points still to aim for, City must keep the supply lines open, feed Haaland and the front men with the ammunition and repel incoming fire.
It could take a combination of muck and bullets as well as surgical strikes, be it on the pitch or in the ‘courtroom’, for City to lay their enemies to rest.
By David Walker
Dedicated to the memory of Milly Rose Stirrup, a beautiful little girl who gained her Angel’s wings on Thursday. At just six-and-half years old, Milly was a massive City fan who loved Phil Foden and always said she wanted to marry him when she grew up.
We send our love and deepest condolences to Milly’s parents, Philippa and Shaun, her Uncle Liam, her grandparents June and Kieron and all family and friends. We’re so desperately sorry for your loss, there just aren’t the words…
Twitter: @ReadButNeverRed @djwskyblu