Centurions

Centurions

Before 2017 was even over, pundits and fans started to ask: Is the current Manchester City side the best the Premier League has ever seen?

By April, the mere suggestion had morphed into serious debate. It seemed the crown was to be contested by Pep’s latest side, and this season’s Premier League champions, Arsenal’s Invincibles, and Manchester United’s treble winning team of ’99.

All had merits that were difficult to argue against. Arsenal hold one of the few records that the current City team didn’t break. It was of course, the honour of going a full 38 games without tasting defeat.

Nothing should take away from that feat – one which may never be beaten – but the table never lies (we’ll keep coming back to that cliché). This season, the Citizens won an incredible 32 games; the Invincibles drew 12 in their unbeaten campaign.

If Mayweather gets criticised for winning without being exciting, the old chants of “Boring, boring, Arsenal” can be shoehorned (if a little unfairly) into this debate. Arsenal took a great singular achievement – going undefeated – and have traded on it ever since. It kept Arsène Wenger in a job for a decade longer than necessary.

The United team from 1999 is remembered as an all-time great because of how it captured the perfect treble: league title, FA Cup, European Cup. The injury time heroics against Bayern Munich helped give the season a Hollywood ending, almost on a par with that Agüero moment.

But the table from that year paints a different picture. They edged out Arsenal by a solitary point, tying with them on most wins that year – 22. It was actually Leeds United that held the record for consecutive victories with seven.

It hardly reeks of domestic dominance.

By comparison, this season City smashed records for most away wins in a season (16); most goals scored in a season (106); best goal difference (79); and one that will stand the test of time like Arsenal’s Invincible record – breaking the 100 point barrier.

City were head and shoulders above the rest of the league during the 2017/18 campaign. Detractors can’t say the league isn’t as competitive as it was in 1999. Back then the traditional Big Four played without fear of failing to qualify for Europe. Nowadays there is a strong top six, and anyone outside it can win any given match.

The results, week-after-week, promote unpredictability. The only certainty, the season defining constant, was Pep’s men would continue to march onward.

The competitiveness and response to it was best summed up in the home game against Southampton. A team that would avoid relegation by three points managed to hold the Blues until the fifth minute of injury time.

Then along came Raheem Sterling, he linked up with Kevin De Bruyne with a quick return pass, and curled the ball into the net, and was probably this writer’s favourite goal of the 106 scored all season.

It kept the winning streak going, making it 19 on the bounce.

That defiance and determination to keep excelling propelled City to unimaginable heights. Guardiola’s style of football, which had faced doubters the season before, was now controlling the English game.

Armchair experts – whose simple solution to Pep’s possession-based attacking football was simply to press City into submission – had to sit stunned as the Blues steamrolled every team they faced. They made the Premier League look like the top-flight North of the border.

Unfortunately, the seven days of destiny became a week of despair as City lost to Liverpool in the Champions League twice and missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clinch the title at home by beating arch-rivals United.

In a way, it had to be this way. A strand of “Typical City” will always exist in the club’s DNA. If there’s a hard way to do something, that places untold strain on the hearts of supporters, City will find it.

But this time, it was a blip rather than a prolonged period of pain. It acts as a slight taint on an otherwise perfect league campaign. No one remembers the three teams that beat United in the league back in 1999, or the 12 times The Invincibles dropped two points as they went unbeaten.

City’s slight imperfections make for more dramatic stories.

But they shouldn’t be the story or cloud judgement. Remember, the table really doesn’t ever lie. After 38 games the only story that matters is told by points acquired, goals scored, goals conceded, and the gap created by these in relation to other teams.

If those damning statistics aren’t enough, remember how City achieved such a massive gulf. It was by playing the sort of football that turns drunks into poets. It’s more than just possession football; the ball isn’t kept for the sake of keeping it away from the opposition, it is kept to create dreamlike sequences.

No team’s highlight reel from any era is a such a pleasurable viewing experience.

Pep’s team are the first Centurions, this alone makes them deserving of being named best team the Premier League has ever seen. The manner in which they achieved it just underlines the point.

The scary thought: they are only going to get better.

(Photo credit: http://www.mancity.com)

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Capital Gains

Capital Gains

Sunday sees a League Cup final that carries greater significance than it is usually afforded. It is Jurgen Klopp’s first chance for silverware at Anfield, for his counterpart in the opposite dugout, it is the start of his swansong. The often derided competition suddenly has the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the season.

Manuel Pellegrini has never shied away from the League Cup’s significance. He rightly points out, it was a catalyst for securing the Premier League in his first season and that it’s no coincidence that last year’s winners, Chelsea, also went on to take the title.

In a season where the pecking order has been turned on its head, a cup victory here, and the boost of confidence it provides, could be the thing that finally settles City into their stride. Despite league defeats at home to both Leicester and Tottenham in recent weeks, they are still very much in the title chase.

The importance of the League Cup was highlighted when Pellegrini relegated the FA Cup on his list of priorities. The FA’s ignorance – or perhaps arrogance – to give into the BBC’s demands for a Sunday fixture, when there were other TV slots available, meant their domestic cup was shown up as an inferior product.

Pellegrini has had to deal with months of speculation about his future, only to endure weeks of assumption since Pep Guardiola’s announcement that he’d be joining the Manchester club in the summer. It’s been easy for outsiders to imply that the dressing room is looking beyond Pellegrini now, that they have their eyes on either the next manager or a transfer.

A cup win ends that debate. It would prove the team is still focused on the here and now. Walking around Wembley with a trophy will reaffirm the unity within the squad and its senior management. It further justifies the FA Cup side after a big win in Kiev.

All that stands in Pellegrini’s way is the competition’s most successful entrant, eight time winners, Liverpool.

For them, the League Cup provides a chance to add some shine to what has turned into a difficult season for Klopp. A new manager always needs time to reshape the club in his vision. But after much fanfare the initial buzz has faded and the enormity of the task has become evident.

Any hopes for a Champions League push by finishing in the top four have disappeared. Their only chance now is through the Europa League, where they face bitter rivals Manchester United next. Even the most optimistic fan can’t be eying Europe’s secondary tournament this season; winning it will be a bonus rather than meeting expectation.

Indeed, all expectations must have shifted in recent times. Was sitting eighth in the table the goal when they fired Brendan Rodgers? It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have fared better without the overhaul but Fenway Sports Group must have been thinking long term.

Liverpool will be confident of finding an immediate antidote against City following their 4-1 league triumph at the Etihad. Klopp will go into Sunday’s showcase believing an application of gegenpressing will provide a similar outcome. He also knows, like the rest of us, that Pellegrini is stubborn. He won’t modify his approach now, he will try to outgun Liverpool and hope they collapse before his team is overrun.

Sunday could see the coronation of Klopp or the cementing of Pellegrini’s legacy. Failure could lead to the collapse both teams have flirted with all season. It’s not just a cup they fight for at Wembley, it’s precious, season-saving momentum.

Make a Stand or Lose a place in Yours

Make a Stand or Lose a place in Yours

The stance taken by Liverpool fans against the incoming price hike at Anfield is justified and long overdue. Their decision to say “enough is enough” is a force for good that every football fan in the country should get behind. Loyalties may divide us for 90 minutes when teams face one another, but together we need to protect our mutual interests. Football is for the people and money is slowly taking it away from us.

For far too long, the cash in top flight football has been grotesque. More than ever before, supporters are aware how much money is flowing into the game from commercial avenues. At the same time, the cost of following a team has risen at a greater rate than these business success stories.

It’s as if the working class man has been under a spell. Dazzled by massive names from overseas gracing their town. Stadiums morphing into modern complexes that are among the best in the world. Commenting on their star striker’s new salary as if it’s a bonus section in Premier League Top Trumps.

Under the evil voodoo trick they have failed to notice the rich have been getting richer. Chairman haven’t been using the increased revenues to solely finance the players and new facilities. Everyone has been getting their slice and the common man has been asked to provide more. Agents and men sat in boardrooms are playing the part of the anti-Robin Hood.

The new stadia will remain a source of pride, until they are inaccessible on a working class wage and become filled with corporate fans. Sat there for multiple reasons – none of which are to cheer the team on. Next season they could be going to a different club; it all depends on where the best business is.

The working man instead settles in at home. He watches Sky Sports News fight his corner. They report the justified outrage at the increasing cost of the game for the guy struggling to afford a replica kit for his children. They are either experts in satire or fail to see the irony.

It is their outlandish £5.5bn bids that make this all possible. They balance the books by asking the struggling fan for over £30 a month to access their sports package. But that’s just a starter . . . how about HD, and broadband, and over 300 channels you’ll never watch?

It is greed fed by gluttony.

£77 for one game is the step too far every fan in this country has been made to shuffle toward for too long.

With the latest TV deal, every club in the Premier League could afford to make every single game free for fans at the match and still make more money than the current season. This is before we take into account the latest overseas TV deal, announced last week. That comes in at a cool £3bn.

That’s over £8bn to spread across the 20 clubs and no consideration has been given to the man at the turnstile. Instead, Premier League monsters chase the purple dragon of European success while their counterparts in the Champions League evolve without robbing those in the stands.

It’s time every fan started protests to enhance the impact of the Liverpool walkout. At the same time, everyone with a Sky Sports package should cancel it and show the TV companies their time running (ruining) our game is over.

The longer we sit in silence, the closer we get to suits sat in every last part of our beloved grounds.

And we’ll be left with a despot television empire telling us it’s still the best league in the world and worth every one of our hard-earned pounds to watch it, on their terms, stuck in our living rooms.