Messi Finishes Fail To Dampen Two Days Of Manchester Culture...
Manchester City 1-2 FC Barcelona
(Champions League Round of 16, Leg 1…)
|The Mowdog and The Bodging @ the Etihad...|
|NOT Lye Town...|
|Ter Stegen prepares...|
|Hosing the pitch, or have the smaller players been caught short?|
|Free flags wave free...|
Arriving at the Holiday Inn Express, Salford Quays, the wrong room had been allocated for our stay, resulting in a hauling of luggage to the sixth floor then a realisation that someone’s leather jacket hung in a wardrobe, other clothes lay on a shelf and a partly used water bottle sat next to the bed, suggesting that this room was already taken. Oops… A return trek to Reception caused some embarrassment for the guy on duty but he apologised and another room was sorted out. It was a fine room for a Manchester United fan, for the view across the deep water was of Old Trafford, apparently one of the much sought after room for visitors, who wanted to drool over their team’s venue. A stroll to look at LS Lowry’s paintings nearby had been enjoyed before the nuisance of the hotel blunder and I was well impressed by much of the art work on display. Interestingly, the painting about local people going to a match, actually at Bolton’s old ground, Burnden Park, which I visited once to watch Villa lose (no change there) featured, but the leaning, dull figures made it seem like there was a punishment in store for the supporters, much like it is at Villa Park these days, I guess.
A tram would be the means of transport to the Etihad Stadium, where I had also watched Villa a few years back, but at night, this place would seem foreign to me. Oddly, most of the accents on the tram were foreign too; Spanish, German, eastern European and so many Scottish lilts were audible. I was damned glad the young woman I sat next to appeared to be a local, so that I could think about Coronation Street… The tram became very packed as it moved towards Piccadilly Station, which became more of a problem because there was a drunk on board, hefting a half-empty bottle of Shiraz, which he swigged from as he grunted, laughed and then bleated unintelligible, incoherent phrases of possibly English words. People seemed glad that he finally exited, although several passengers appeared to want to give him a gentle shove out of the sliding doors as he tottered precariously at previous stations. I know I did…
Naturally, upon arrival at the Etihad complex, the people approaching the stadium were not like Lowry’s figures; there was night-life atmosphere, there was an expectation and there were food outlets, from which I bought a delicious hot-dog, which was shedding tasty pieces of onion. It’s what you do. A considerable gathering of people was massed around the arrival of a team coach and there were many mobile-phones raised to snap images and bits of video of players emerging, which reminded me of the disciples of a god, hands up and praising in the pews of a church. Obviously, food and drinks inside the stadium were priced ridiculously and so I wasn’t surprised to pay £2.50 for a small bottle of water. The entrance, block, aisle, row and seat numbers were confusing even to some stewards but finally, four rows from the front, close to a corner-flag, we took our seats and The Bodging was pictured with me for austerity. This was definitely NOT Lye Town’s ground…
The City ‘anthem’ was played, reminding me of the old Spurs song ‘Nice One, Cyril’ and Chelsea’s ‘Blue Is the Colour’ but the line which sang about “…we are the lads who are playing today…” might have been as corny as those old North London ditties. Then the chap due to sit to my left arrived. It was 7.41pm, he was rather study, nay, rotund, with a mouth which matched. He was abusive throughout the game, fuelled by alcohol, singling out Mascherano, because of his Liverpool links: “You couldn't f…… play then, you can’t f…… play NOW…” But Suarez really attracted his hatred, each vile description being liberally sprinkled with the ‘f’ and ‘c’ words. He hated Messi too: “Hit ‘im! Hit ‘im!” Later, he howled at the Argentine when the number 10 approached to take a second-half corner, whilst many other fans booed. Odd that… One would have thought maybe to pay £55 and NOT appreciate watching such talent was lunacy. And so we all stood for the whole game and used the seats we’d paid for to sit on at the interval. That’s when The Bodging ate his Wagon Wheel. It’s what he does…
|Half-time Wagon Wheel for The Bodging...|
|Messi flagged in a selfie with me, taking a photo...|
|Spot the silver-haired Mowdog?|
A couple of young guys took positions directly in front of us, possibly the kids in your class who would have been memorable not quite for their academic achievements and like a switch on a lamp being flicked, each crowd chant brought them up short and they joined in, then returned to their chatter, which was mostly about the fact that those two seats weren’t theirs to stand in front of. Indeed, the two spectators who should have sat/stood there arrived well after the start, mumbling that they were surely in the right place but being unwilling to cause a scene, so there were now four people standing in front of us… I thought one of the late arrivals was a woman but it was guy in walking boots and a type of kilt and the two young fellows disappeared to stand somewhere else after the break anyway. One steward, who looked remarkably like the car-park attendant at Bromsgrove Sporting’s ground, then decided to pick out people with cameras, beckon them and instruct them not to take any images when the match began. I thought this was harsh on those visitors with cameras for the vast majority of spectators around me were taking photographs and videoing throughout the game with their mobile-phones in any case. Paying £55 for a seat I was unable to use because everyone was standing throughout the game, was actually ludicrous, especially as it was surely the responsibility of the jacketed stewards to make sure people were sitting down. Or was it just too much trouble? One tall bloke in front of you and you spent a good deal of the game staring at the acne on the back of his neck. Another mouthy fellow, standing a few seats away from a man and his young son, used profanity throughout the match, especially the noun ‘c…’, and although the stewards clocked him, they, er, left him alone. Easier, I guess…
|"Bravo! I'm not playing..."|
|Iniesta, the playmaker...|
|Messi er, warms up...|
|Busquets... THE man...|
Ah, yes, the game! Well, City played James Milner in the centre of midfield, the very same Milner who was a bit part player at Villa, lacking the pace off the mark to work the flanks effectively and hold down a regular position, despite displaying some ability to read the game and probably being a candidate to fill the deep midfield holding role. His name was chanted by the City fans, incredibly, as was substitute Frank Lampard’s, which similarly puzzled me, whilst David Silva’s ball control, vision and cleverness were perhaps taken for granted by a largely unenthused crowd. Nasri was rarely involved, despite a couple of fine passes, plus a first-half shot, set up by Sergio Aguero, who really excelled for the hosts with his selfless running. Barca ‘keeper Ter Stegen fell awkwardly left and rather untidily patted the ball away from Nasri’s first-half effort, as if he was having trouble erecting his tent on Mawgan Porth beach in Cornwall. Dzeko had the aerial beating of the bearded Pique for much of the game, but the Spaniard’s ground-defence, in contrast, was as stunning as it was effective. Ter Stegen watched a header go wide during the first period and also held one close-range but weak nodded effort by the tall striker after half-time. Barca’s German custodian was only then called upon to deny City once more, but failed and offered Manchester a lifeline. At last the hosts harvested success from creativity, following a strong tackle on a dithering Messi by Clichy but substitute Fernandinho’s pass was heeled for Aguero by the deft Silva, yet even then, had Ter Stegen lifted his right hand as he advanced in a half-crouching position, surely the ball would have been saved. Quick passing, smart play and a goal back. Maybe City would learn from that, I thought… Oddly, Matthieu’s appearance had only just happened for the guests and surely Mascherano’s presence in defence might have prevented the goal, for he had moved into the replaced and largely effective Rakitic’s slot in midfield…
|Rakitic (4) prepares to be influential...|
City certainly looked more adventurous after the interval but generally from set-plays, sadly and also from some more inventive passes by Fernandinho after Nasri was replaced. Nasri had been rather anonymous, along with Fernando for much of the contest. Clichy was dismissed, effectively handing Barca the win, although when Messi was nudged over by Zabaleta in added time after ninety minutes, the scurrying live-wire’s spot-kick was knocked out by the diving Hart, to set up a diving header rebound on a plate for the Argentine, which he headed, defence-like, wide of the gaping goal’s left upright. It should have been 1-3. Messi’s rushes were often imaginative, accompanied by the franchise frown, but he was always a threat and those curled left-foot passes from the right offensive zone towards the left and the languishing Neymar, or the pitter-patter sprints of the overlapping Alba, were tough to prevent. One clipped cross from the right towards Suarez, near post, caused the first goal to go in, for home skipper Kompany’s defence-play was hampered by the Uruguayan’s challenge and Suarez spun to fire a hard shot across the surprised Hart and low into the far corner of the net. Suarez, already hated, was now despised, but soon, after receiving a neat pass from Neymar, the forward was only denied a second goal by the advancing Hart, whose buttocks appeared to save well.
|Messi on the run...|
|Messi ignores the abuse...|
|Pique tells Messi which casino they are attending later...|
Messi was also denied by Hart’s dive at his feet, which caused the pair to slide into one another and smile, despite the fact that Messi’s smile was of the frowning variety. Dani Alves was looking competent for the guests, rampaging forward, head up, like a sprinter in a 1948 London Olympic Games sprint and as usual delivered one typically wayward cross from the right, which actually struck the crossbar and gave the Brazilian cause not to have to apologise for yet another misplaced centre. I liked Rakitic’s touchline back-heel over a defender which he himself latched onto but his two shots from distance in the second period lacked accuracy. Alves was kicked by Clichy to earn the Manchester man his second yellow card, then the irritated right-back looked none the worse when he was immediately replaced by Adriano, kicking a water bottle with more accuracy and venom than several of his deliveries. Demichelis was strong for City and prevented more damage to his team and although Kompany was culpable for the opening goal, he made some telling interceptions too, despite losing his rigidity by chasing out of his penalty-box when Messi made a fine run from the centre to the left, beat the Belgian and fed Alba, in oceans of space because Zabaleta was concerned about Neymar; Suarez made the run into the 6 yard box and deflected Alba’s low cross from the byeline past Hart and into goal off the base of the right post.
The first-half hinged on the ability of Iniesta, Messi and Busquets to interweave passes and make a nonsense of controlling the ball; all three looked comfortable, all three were so different. Iniesta caressed the ball, his tight control and turning of his body to prevent a tackler from getting close were exemplary and his attitude was first-class, gliding in possession like honey from a jar. Messi made the exciting runs, often fastened onto expected return-passes and bled challenges to either bounce free with the ball still laced to his left boot, or win a free-kick. Busquets was brilliant, generally passing short and astutely, not bothering with sprinting, more reliant upon languid lopes, reminiscent of the stick insect I once held at Newquay Zoo. No matter who is detailed to mark him, one invariably notices that attention elsewhere frees five metres of space around Busquets and that is all he needs to feed the wands of Messi and Iniesta.
Yet there should be another wand included too: Neymar’s. Unfortunately, he seems to be on the fringes of games, too often being forced off the ball, despite taking real physical punishment. He reminds me sometimes of the Kansas City Chiefs’ running-back, De’Anthony Thomas, whose slight, quick frame on punt returns searches for seams to run into. Neymar doesn’t always get it right but his chipped effort, cleared away in the first-half by City also spoke of imminent lethal danger. If only a little bit of Suarez’s bluntness could rub off on Neymar, then he would be as dangerous as Messi usually is. Suarez was effective in attack, scoring twice but also in defence, heading away two dangerous City set-pieces at crucial times and probably because he was playing against a Premier League defence, he looked the part more than he has done in Spain.
|Penalty awarded to Barca...|
|Messi positions his body to head the rebound wide...|
Overall, the spectacle was good to watch and City need to wrestle initiative from Barca in the second-leg, utilise the cleverness of Silva (who was amazingly replaced), possibly even the pace of Navas to run at the Catalans, along with Aguero’s passion and expertise. They surely must use speedy breaks and be prepared to offer Busquets no more than a yard around him to work in, also to attempt to force Messi outside onto his right foot and thus feed Alves wide, whose distribution is often erratic. Neymar, however, is the enigma and could win the game on his own. Aerially, City could cause damage, obviously, so Yaya Toure’s influence in that aspect of the game is likely to be crucial, after being suspended for this game.
Oddly, for all of Messi’s brilliance, City’s goal stemmed from his error and he missed that crucial penalty at the end of a game which Barcelona might have won more convincingly…