February 6, 2023



Manchester City’s twisting tale can offer a new chapter of stranger things | Barney Ronay | Football

5 min read

Has there been a more existentially strange interlude in the history of any modern football club than the drama that could await Manchester City over the next three months?

This is a question that may concern only City’s fans for now. It will get lost in the more general weirdness of sporting life in the time of plague. But bear with it, because while the prospect of finishing the football season is a journey without maps for all concerned, what awaits City from here could be both glorious and a little disturbing.

First, though, it is necessary to wade through the wider layers of strangeness as Full Resumption looms over the coming week. There are many strands to this, from simple excitement at seeing football again to basic questions of staging.

To take a small example: one aspect of the Premier League’s return is the willingness to dress the spectacle up, with talk of piping in crowd noise to cover the awkward silences.

This is definitely a good idea. It’s true that coverage of the Bundesliga is still accompanied by no more than muffled German shrieking from coaches and managers – and that this has turned out to be a comforting and agreeable soundtrack. But these qualities are unlikely to translate well to English football.

This is in part a function of German itself, a language that in muffled shrieking form tends to lose its meaning, to become shapeless white noise.

I speak decent German, and even have a family grounding in elderly German bellowing. But muffled German football shrieking still sounds like a thrillingly formless thing, perhaps even some kind of pointed commentary on the absurdity of the basic spectacle itself.

Either way this represents a significant turnaround for muffled German shrieking generally, which might in the past have been associated with less positive things, like spending five years hiding in a grain cellar in Klagenfurt, or being bayoneted out of a haystack in northern France.

Instead it has become so essential to the football experience that English clubs could consider piping it into their own stadiums to create a more authentic atmosphere.

But then let’s face it, there isn’t much that is authentic around here. Everyone will try their best. The talent of the players and the loyalty of supporters is not in doubt. But this is still likely to be a strange experience, a hastily trimmed sport-style product cranked out to pay the bills, with everyone concerned keeping their eyes on the finish line.

Kevin De Bruyne celebrates with Riyad Mahrez and Benjamin Mendy

Kevin De Bruyne is congratulated by Riyad Mahrez (left) and Benjamin Mendy (top) after scoring Manchester City’s second in the win over Real Madrid in February. Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

There was a hint of genuine sporting intrigue in the suggestion this week that the Champions League may become an eight-team mini-tournament ending in August. But even this points to wider contortions. In particular it brings us back to City, whose season has the potential from here to become a genuinely strange three-month interlude.

It is a story that takes some filling in. Before the hiatus City were one of two Premier League clubs still involved in three competitions. As it stands Pep Guardiola’s team could end up playing 17 games across 10 summer weeks to end the season.

This kind of churn is common in winter and spring, although rarely to such an extreme. Nobody has played for three months. The strain on muscles, and on the mental capacity of players will be unrelenting. Plus of course there is another element. This is a team still waiting to learn if it’s about to be cast out, to be transformed into a sporting ghost ship.

The timing means City’s appeal at the court of arbitration for sport against their Uefa ban will be heard during the active season, with a hearing due next week. It has been suggested Cas may not reach a verdict until August. European courts can also be brusque in their judgments. Either way everyone concerned will be working with this cloud at their back waiting to break.

And the stakes here are suddenly profound. Win the appeal and life carries on with an added surge of optimism. Lose it and a rejigged season is shot through with something else. It was already clear there was a new edge to watching City, a luminous, compelling team told suddenly that it was in fact transgressive, that its brilliance is also evidence to be taken down and used against it.

The victory against Real Madrid in February, 12 days after the ban, was a thrillingly layered twist. To win the competition from here would be an extraordinary act of defiance from a playing unit that has nothing to do with the actual offence.

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On the other hand, lose that half-done last-16 tie and until the Cas appeal is won City’s players are faced with an extended frogmarch around a series of empty domestic spaces, a team deprived of its founding goal, deprived of narrative tension. And forced to walk through this landscape in silent, gawping televised detail, like a footballing Mary Celeste, always moving, never able to dock or find rest.

At the end of which there is a feeling City may just go on and win the Champions League, if only to face down this perfect storm of ill winds. Even the format is a good fit. Home “advantage” is blown. There are only three matches to win if you can get to the endgame.

Perhaps things have always been headed this way for Guardiola, a manager who acts as though every second in time is another personally tailored twist in the story of his own white hot destiny. Well, guess what. It is now.

Either way it promises to be entirely engrossing. Need some drama to get lost in? Fearing that football might seem icy and empty, a vision of muffled English shrieking? There aren’t many better 10-week box-set dramas coming up than the prospect of City versus the world.

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