Author Jan Darkeespan.com
Darke, who refereed matches for the network during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, is ESPN’s leading voice on soccer in the United States. He has played in the Barclays Premier League and Champions League since 1982 and has one of the most recognisable football voices in the world.
Latest news: Manchester City is human after all! United’s fierce local rivals proved at the Etihad on Sunday that they can be beaten with a 2-0 victory. But does that mean Pep Guardiola’s team is out of the discussion about hungry Premier League teams? Not necessary. The Rolls-Royce still drives like a dream, even if the tailgate has a scratch, right?
City’s run of 21 wins in a row and 28 unbeaten games in all competitions is amazing, even if it was interrupted by a combination of their own sloppiness, United’s excellent defence and deadly counter-attacks. The loss was no fluke, but City is still a great team, coached by experts, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be around them.
They were fluid, graceful and dominant. They won possession of the ball and barely let the opponent develop….. until Sunday. The fact that Guardiola barely mentioned the club’s top scorer, Sergio Aguero, who prefers to wear the wrong shirt number 9 (and sometimes Gabriel Jesus), is further evidence of the innovative mentality of this obsessive, perfectionist coach.
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But his race had to end somewhere. According to the law of averages, there comes a day when things don’t turn out the way the more experienced teams would like. The 2003-04 season, which remained unbeaten, remains perhaps the Premier League’s most successful. This team only scored 90 points, with 26 wins and 12 ties. By the end of that season, the players knew that every opponent wanted to be a team that would end their unbeaten streak. In the end, no one did.
One of those invincibles, Ray Parlour, recently said of their historic season: I remember when we were all standing up. All the teams that played us treated it like a cup final. We went to Portsmouth and were defeated. We should have lost 5-1, but we got a draw. That’s what the best teams do.
Manchester United’s team winning the treble (Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League) in 1999 is another argument for the best Premier League team of the modern era. That team included Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskham, not to mention goalscorer Peter Schmeichel and champions in midfield Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and David Beckham. These illustrious names sprinkle a lot of stardust, but the fact remains that they won the title with a very modest 79 points, suggesting that this is hardly a banner year. Of course, there have been other good United teams under Sir Alex Ferguson’s 13 title wins, especially when Eric Canton’s genius was on display.
Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea team, in the 2004/05 season, was based on a good defence around John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, but people tend to forget that the team also had the talent of wingers Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, and finishers like Didier Drogba. They’ve had a lot to contend with, and they’re also some of the best of all time.
Former Manchester United player and TV commentator Gary Neville still talks about the 1998 Arsenal team as the strongest he played against: They can beat you in many ways. They had the talent of Ian Wright, Bergkamp, Overmar and the rest and you could never bother them with Patrick Vieira or Emmanuel Petit or Tony Adams.
Comparing eras is very difficult because the game evolves and is played in different environments.
Man City’s victory lap is over, but if they finish the season well and win trophies, they will be counted among the greatest Premier League players of all time. Getty
Former England defender Danny Mills said: Man City’s current team would have scored against almost any team if all the games had been played in that time. You’re so good. But even 10-15 years ago, the game was much more physical. They would have been knocked out of the park. You can’t take it now. I’ve been sent seven times. If I played [now], it would be 77! Then they couldn’t play like they do now and make all those passes.
It could also be said that it is still too early to put a name to this City team, although an unprecedented four-time Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup title is still on the horizon. As long as the trophies are not on the bench, this team will have to wait its turn to take its place among City’s other title winners, especially those who set a 100-point record three seasons ago. But in this curious season of ghost games that are supposed to end with an asterisk on the road, it’s still possible that the environment is so strange with a temperature gun, face masks and empty stadiums.
It was unusual for City – hit hard by a series of positive COVID-19 tests in mid-December – to put together results in the way they did, especially as the manager revealed last week: I was sitting there watching us play West Brom, 1-1 draw, and I thought: I don’t like my team. We had to be calmer, think more and not run around.
I sat down with the coaches and we decided to go back to [the basics]. Lots of width, and maybe surprise opponents by shuffling Joao [Cancel] and Alex [Zinchenko] in to get more people in midfield, and then settle down and let the talent take over.
Of course, there is one thing that makes this side of town much angrier than some of the previous, free, but shaky defensive editions: Ruben Diaz. Since his arrival from Benfica, he and defender John Stones have conceded five goals in 17 games. It is arguably the safest city in the modern era, surpassing even Vincent Kompany’s teams. Guardiola is grateful: Ruben plays every game like it’s his last. He not only plays his game, he makes everyone else better.
This vastly improved defence will make City much stronger this season and also give them a much better chance in the Champions League, something Guardiola no doubt meant when he signed a new contract to stay in England.
I like to train in the land of Shakespeare, the Beatles and Oasis. It’s not just about football, he says it’s a special place.
Having a team with so much talent helps too. How they manage the pace of this particular and demanding season can be crucial. They looked a little exhausted at the end of United’s derby defeat.
But it won’t be until the end of the season that we’ll really be able to judge their place in the pantheon of Premier League greats.
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