Notes on a Champions League decider

THE dust has settled, the scarves have been put away and Harry Redknapp’s suit has just about dried out. Tottenham will play in the Champions League next season; Manchester City will not.

It felt like a cup final when City and Spurs met at Eastlands last night – except with more at stake. Here are the 10 things I will remember from the evening.

1. Last night’s match was like, y’know, rilly important. Totally. Or as the reporter on Radio 1’s Newsbeat put it in yesterday’s 5pm bulletin: “We’re building up to the huge battle for fourth place in the Premier League – which will get you into the Champions League qualifiers for next season as well, of course.”

Blimey. As if finishing fourth wasn’t a big enough prize in itself, you get this European thing with it too. Who knew?

I finished fourth in my school sports day sack race once. The first three got a certificate. You know what I got? Nothing. (Although I did still finish ahead of Rafa Benitez.)

2. Martin Samuel is very popular with Manchester City fans. It’s probably just as well, as the Daily Mail columnist was placed in the most exposed seat in the press box last night – front row, extreme left, next to the aisle.

You’re so close to the home fans that they can walk down and peek over your shoulder as they head to their seats.

Samuel, easily recognisable from his picture byline, is well-liked by City fans, though. While a number of journalists have criticised the club for their spending since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in September 2008, he has maintained a positive tone, arguing that it has made the Premier League more exciting.

So it was that during the half-time interval last night, a fan could be heard telling Samuel: “You’re the only one who tells it as it is! All the other journalists just write urban myths!” On the subject of which…

3. Stephen Ireland is not building a shark tank at his home. Buried away on page nine of City’s astonishingly good match programme last night was a four-paragraph story headlined: ‘Stevie rubbishes shark rumour.’

It referred to reports in a couple of the tabloids suggesting that the City midfielder was planning to install a shark tank. (Presumably like a fish tank, but with a really big fake stone bridge.)

Ireland, though, dismissed the story, saying: “My kitchen is very much as it was and I’ve no plans to put in a shark tank or anything else for that matter.”

4. Emmanuel Adebayor is surely the most enigmatic forward in the Premier League. At the start of the season, Adebayor was heading in goals like nobody’s business.

Remember the build-up to last September’s Manchester derby, when Carlos Tevez made his first return to Old Trafford since leaving United? No less an authority than Sir Alex Ferguson described Adebayor as City’s best player.

It’s hard to know what has happened since. By his own admission, Adebayor has not had his best of seasons. Shortly before he was sacked in December, Mark Hughes made it clear he had lost patience with the striker by dropping him – a move prompted by his inept display in a 3-0 defeat at Tottenham.

Last night, Adebayor offered little attacking threat, and was too easily dominated by Tottenham’s central defensive pairing of Ledley King and Michael Dawson. And yet the ability is clearly there. Go figure. Talking of King…

5. Ledley King would be great if his knees weren’t marginally less reliable than my old Rover. I used to have a car that was great to drive, but cost a fortune to service.

The Tottenham captain is a bit like that. As former Spurs manager Juande Ramos once said: “It’s no use having a Rolls Royce in the garage.”

King was magnificent last night, but it’s very rare that he can play two games in less than a week, as he’s just done.

There have been calls for Fabio Capello to take him to the World Cup. If England get to the final, they will play seven games in a month.

Is King worth the risk, even as a stand-in? Well, it wouldn’t be any dafter than Sven-Goran Eriksson’s decision to take Theo Walcott to Germany four years ago as a work experience kid.

6. Patrick Vieira can’t influence big games on a regular basis any more. I saw Vieira play for City at Fulham in March, and thought he was very effective as a spoiling midfielder.

Imagine my surprise (phrase © Viz) when I read a clutch of match reports the next day which went along the following lines: “Patrick Vieira… past it… carthorse… knackers’ yard… glue factory.”

Against Aston Villa last Saturday, Vieira was superb, and all the criticism turned to praise: “Patrick Vieira… imperious… rolling back the years… midfield colossus… every chance of another contract.”

Last night, he came on as a substitute for the injured Gareth Barry after around an hour. Barry’s energy had been vital to breaking up Tottenham’s forward momentum and launching City counter-attacks. Vieira, understandably, wasn’t able to match that kind of display. City were pushed further and further back until, eventually, they cracked.

7. Peter Crouch has no respect for his mum. Jayne Crouch is a City fan, her Macclesfield-born son revealed in the build up to last night’s game.

Not only did little (big) Peter state that he was going to stick her in the away end, he then proceeded to round off a terrific performance by heading in the late winner that finished off City’s Champions League hopes. Kids, eh?

8. Tottenham deserve to finish fourth. Well, they might finish third yet if they win and Arsenal lose on Sunday, but you get the point.

City were in the prime position to land fourth spot after thrashing Burnley 6-1 at Turf Moor on Easter Saturday, as Spurs conceded three penalties and lost 3-1 at Sunderland in a hopelessly indisciplined performance.

Spurs, who went on to lose the FA Cup semi-final to Portsmouth a week later, had successive league games against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United to follow. Surely they wouldn’t pick up much from those games?

As it turned out, they collected six points out of nine. And that was the key difference between them and City – Tottenham won the games that really mattered.

While City showed they could batter Burnley and Birmingham out of sight – a sign of progress, as they couldn’t do that earlier in the season – they lost crucial home games against Everton and United.

Tottenham went with an attacking 4-4-2 formation last night, and gradually forced City back. In the end, Roberto Mancini had no answer.

9. Harry Redknapp might be advised to pack a spare suit for major games in future. While giving a live post-match interview to Sky, Redknapp was drenched by his Spurs players, who tipped a large container full of water over his head.

When he finally made it to the post-match briefing for the written press, he still looked rather soggy.

A journalist asked: “Did you bring a spare suit, Harry?” To which the Spurs manager replied: “No, I’m still dripping.”

10. Roberto Mancini has discovered a nice line in metaphor. The City manager, not surprisingly, faced a few questions from the press regarding his future after last night’s game.

He responded by stating that – even though City had missed out on a place in the Champions League qualifiers – he felt sure he would be given the chance to take the club forward next season (sentiments which have since been echoed by club chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak).

Although Mancini put it a little more eloquently than that. He said: “When you build a house, you don’t start from the roof, you start from the basement.

“We have worked very well, and I think we are near the roof.”


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