Professional? What have you done with City?

Date published: Tuesday 12th April 2016 11:12

Hey, you with the white hair. Yes, you. Who are you and what the hell have you done with Manchester City? Where are the marauding attackers being let down by suicidal defending? Where are the lackadaisical central midfielders? Where is the monumental cock-up? Where are the pictures of Sergio Aguero looking mournfully back at Eliaquim Mangala and wondering how one of the world’s greatest strikers has ended up here, with these players, losing again?

This was organised, disciplined, calm, measured, reserved, efficient Manchester City and that Manchester City are in the semi-finals of the Champions League. They were helped in no small part by a bizarrely flat PSG, but who amongst us thought this City back four were capable of keeping a clean sheet against a team boasting any real quality?

The team that has not beaten a top-six Premier League side all season has triumphed over the French champions; the team that had not won 1-0 at home since 2014 has won 1-0 at home against a side that has scored over 80 league goals this season. And they did it without Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure.

The absence of Toure – seen by some as a brave move – was key as it meant the absence of doubt about the application of every player on the pitch. Without Toure, Manuel Pellegrini could be sure that every City player would at least attempt to keep their shape, to make that tackle, to track that runner. Without Toure, you lose dynamism, but you gain discipline. And it was definitely a night for discipline over dynamism.

The much-maligned Fernando was pleasingly combative, Fernandinho was a whirlwind of tactical fouls and interceptions, the pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and Mangala was calmer than they had any logical right to be, the full-backs were almost flawless, Kevin de Bruyne offered a combination of graft and craft that should have made him a Jose Mourinho favourite, and Jesus Navas showcased exactly why he will always have more fans amongst players and coaches than supporters and pundits; he entirely nullified the threat of Maxwell on the PSG left by doggedly running byline to byline.

“Very, very professional,” was the verdict of Rio Ferdinand and you wonder how many times that word has been used during Manuel Pellegrini’s reign. Nobody has doubted that they have been capable of thrilling, of devastating and, too often, of clusterf***ing, but professional? That’s a new one.

I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that De Bruyne’s injury cost City a genuine title challenge, but it’s also clear that there have been far too few performances with this level of concentration and application. Pellegrini is fond of saying that his City side know only how to play one way, but Tuesday night showed they were capable of something different, something more pragmatic, something that’s now taken them to the Champions League semi-finals.

“Can City win the Champions League, Manuel?” was the question after the game.

“Of course,” was the answer.

Maybe, just maybe, this Manchester City can.

Sarah Winterburn

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