Man City's riches might fund titles but it can't buy them the affections of fans, says FFT's Neil Humphreys, as the blue half of Manchester threaten to derail Liverpool's fairytale run.
Manchester City must feel like Millwall with more money. To paraphrase the Lions’ ode to melodrama and martyrdom, no one likes them. They don’t care. They are Manchester City; moneybags Manchester City. They are Manchester City from the oligarch-controlled Etihad.
This wordier version doesn’t quite match the pithiness of The Den’s famous ditty, but the sentiment is shared. Millwall wallow in their self-pity and their inability to shake off sepia-tinted images of no-necked thugs chasing West Ham teenagers along Green Street (one of whom was me, but I’m not bitter. I just channel the memory to make strained analogies to Premier League title-challengers 25 years later). Whilst City have somehow ended up locked in the stocks with wild romantics queuing up to smash them in the face with rotten tomatoes.
Liverpool are the people’s choice. They’ve got the feel-good factor. They are the Richard Curtis rom-com of the Premier League and Steven Gerrard is Hugh Grant, swearing far too much in front of the camera and slipping and sliding around the Anfield turf with all the innate charm of a foppish, English gent. What’s not to love?
Pantomine villains and billionaire boys
Chelsea, on the other hand, belong to the dwindling band of Jose Mourinho acolytes who either love a pantomime villain or sit around in berets, smoke herbal cigarettes, listen to jazz and intellectually differentiate between parked buses and the ingenious ability to penetrate the deficiencies of a superior team with a breathtaking display of defensive obduracy.
His brutal brand of counter-attacking caution isn’t anti-football in the same way that jazz isn’t indulgent anti-music. The rest of us just don’t get it. We see only a couple of parked buses. Mourinho loyalists see a hidden beauty beyond our tiny minds.
And then there are the billionaires’ boys from Manchester City. They are the popular choice of those living in Manchester. Well, the half of Manchester that doesn’t follow Ryan Giggs’ resurrected speedsters. Beyond half a city, one or two opulent palaces and a flotilla of yachts moored off the coast of Abu Dhabi, Manuel Pellegrini’s men are not quite drowning under a shower of goodwill.
The idea that the title race could end with everybody getting what nobody wants is a tad extreme, but City’s rapid evolution from a doughty David into an ungainly Goliath has been swifter than Sergio Aguero’s decisive break into the Queens Park Rangers’ penalty box. His delightful finish in the final seconds of the 2012 season cast off the shackles of Sir Alex Ferguson’s omnipotent dictatorship. The Argentine’s impudence summed up his side’s attacking emphasis over Manchester United’s weary warhorses. It was a brand new day for the Premier League. It was a beautiful day.
Rise of the machines
At the time, one or two glaring inconsistencies with this idealised view were overlooked, namely that Manchester City were blessed with the kind of hedonistic riches last seen in the final days of the Roman Empire. If City’s players were not quite being fanned with palm leaves and served nubile young virgins on a bed of seedless grapes, they were hardly roughing it. But their embarrassing wealth didn’t quite suit the narrative. They were like a trust fund baby trying to impress his new girlfriend’s family, focusing only on his successful business rather than the fact that it had been entirely bankrolled by his father.
A rising empire had toppled a stale one. That in itself was a cause for celebration.
But City’s empire now dwarfs anything that came before, financially at least. In 2012, they pipped Manchester United through stealth. Now they are steamrollering to the summit. Through no fault of their own, their players’ sudden resurgence has been greeted with a rueful shrug and an overwhelming sense of anti-climax; an acknowledgement of the inevitable dominance of wealth.
Watching City’s systematic destruction of the lively, rebellious Crystal Palace was reminiscent of the Terminator’s Rise of the Machines, with Yaya "T-1000" Toure pulling Tony Pulis’ spanner from the works and snapping it between his muscular fingers. Just back from injury, Toure defied physiology. He functioned too quickly and moved too many body parts, repeatedly, to suggest he was more machine than man; in a good way of course. But there was still a suspicion that he might turn to the camera and mutter “Hasta la vista” before being dragged away by John Connor.
The inexorable finish
Despite the always entertaining presence of David Silva and Aguero, City’s emphasis inadvertently veers towards the muscular. Their comfortable victory at Palace was liberally sprinkled with adjectival mentions of “strong”, “aggressive” and “ruthless” in match reports; all admirable and essential qualities to quicken the title pace, if not the neutral’s heart.
Even Martin Demichelis is being praised for his hitherto unheard of consistency, removing the only real comic element from City’s industrious line-up. His mistakes against Barcelona, Sunderland and Wigan added a human dimension to the side; a tender vulnerability behind the oil-fuelled production line. There were quirks. There were foibles. There were funny ponytails.
For a while, Demichelis wasn’t just another international millionaire in the moneyed-up machine. He was that rather endearing wally down the pub. Now he’s reasonably reliable, respected and popular and does what it says on the tin. He’s mostly error-free and a trifle bland. In just three months, he’s gone from calamity to Coldplay.
Demichelis’ unexpected recovery and City’s late surge to the summit suggest a dramatic reversal of fortune and a sudden twist in a tale that has already endured more agonising twists than Cardiff’s back four. But it’s a bit of a smokescreen. A City triumph would be a resumption of normal service with the static and interference from Mourinho’s meddlers and the trespassing Scousers finally fixed.
That’s the niggling concern. City would be worthy title winners, but not necessarily the most popular. Their victory might be a worrying portent of seasons to come. Goliaths are begrudgingly respected, but seldom cheered.
If Manchester’s money men brush aside Liverpool’s likely lads, Toure and company might think they’ve just shot Bambi.