It’s going to be a blue Christmas

There was a sense of Christmases past, present, and future coming into focus as Manchester City played Leicester City in the League Cup this week, says Liam Mackey.

It’s going to be a blue Christmas

Just the sight of the home side playing in front of a noisy King Power Stadium brought to mind Christmas past and luminous memories of that miracle season of 2015/16 which ended with the 5000-1 outsiders crowned Premier League champions.

Christmas present was represented by the opposition albeit that, on the night, they came across a bit like a tribute band.

A second-string selection — which, in the context of a mega-bucks football club, means the €50m man, Bernardo Silva, getting to play a leading role — looked like Man City and played like Man City but, despite eventually squeaking through on penalties, were still some way short of emulating the real thing.

And all the signs are that the real Man City, Pep Guardiola’s swaggering side which is laying waste to all comers, great and small, in this year’s Premier League, are not just for this Christmas but for many more to come.

Last week, Eamon Dunphy raised a few eyebrows — now, there’s a shock — when he opined that “football is dying” and complained there are no players around who look capable of touching the bar set by Messi and Ronaldo.

Pep Guardiola
Pep Guardiola

“If I want to watch some sport at 5.30 on a Saturday, I’d watch rugby every time over football,” he declared.

Now, even allowing for the Dunph’s habitual deployment of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the timing of this particular obituary for the game he has played and loved, struck me as bizarre.

When Leicester confounded all the odds by winning the title two years ago, there was widespread praise for the uncommon unity of purpose in their team of so-called journeymen, coupled with recognition that in Vardy, Mahrez, and Kante, they were blessed with a transformative trinity of exceptional players who were playing the best football of their careers.

But, without in any way detracting from the romance of that incredible achievement, it did not go unnoticed either that little Leicester’s path to glory was considerably smoothed by the relative poverty of the opposition that season, the Foxes eventually winning the title by a comfortable 10 points, with Arsenal second, Spurs one further back and, separated only by goal difference, Man City and Man United a full 15 points off the pace.

This season is very different. Big guns like United, Spurs, Liverpool, and Arsenal might all have their well-documented frailties and failings but they have undoubted strengths too. The reason they already look like alsorans before Himself has even left the North Pole tomorrow is simply because a truly scintillating Manchester City have set the Premier League bar higher than it’s been since Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were managing their greatest championship-winning teams.

When Dunphy uses Messi and Ronaldo — especially the former — as a stick with which to beat the modern game’s lesser talents, he must know he’s in blue moon territory: One might as well bemoan the absence of a new Pele, Maradona, Best, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, or Zidane.

Supernatural talents such as those are as rare as supernovae.

And speaking of blue moons, if Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva aren’t quite in that bracket, they’re not in a galaxy far, far away either, and are just two of the main reasons why Pep Guardiola’s team are such a joy to watch.

David Silva
David Silva

But while City currently stand head and shoulders above the rest, I reckon this season’s Premier League has already given football lovers plenty of reasons to be cheerful, including, in no particular order: Liverpool’s devastating attack; Harry Kane, the best English striker since Alan Shearer; Eden Hazard, such a talented game-changer for Chelsea; Marcus Rashford, a young gun with the potential for greatness; an all-time Premier League classic in Manchester United 3 Arsenal 1; Burnley over-achieving under the admirable Sean Dyche; Wilfried Zaha dazzling as Crystal Palace turn things around in the basement; and Wayne Rooney enjoying a bit of an Indian Summer at Everton in the course of which he has scored one of the greatest ever Premier League goals with that phenomenal effort from inside his own half against West Ham.

As signs of life go, that’s not too shabby for a sport supposedly dying on its feet.

Another intriguing mark of the Premier League’s improving health is that, for the first time ever, five English clubs have made it through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

Of course, the Dunph might well advance this as evidence of a deterioration in European standards, and he might even be right: The round of 16 games in the new year will tell us more.

In these pages back at the start of the season, I suggested that Man City would be the Premier League’s most able representatives in Europe this season but I also expressed doubts that they were ready to go all the way in the competition.

Now, I’m beginning to think that 2018 might well be the year that the erstwhile noisy neighbours emerge triumphant on foreign as well as domestic fields, even if, in my opinion, they still have some way to go to match the magnificent Barca side which Guardiola led to the summit on a memorable day in May 2011 when they simply took Manchester United apart in the Champions League final at Wembley.

But, hey, City are not in a bad place, right now. And, unlike that other City who looked like running away with a league in 2017, one can feel confident in saying that they won’t have to worry about Preston North End coming in to spirit away a couple of their best players.

So, in the spirit of the festive season that’s in it, here’s to the team which is putting the Pep in everyone’s step.

Well, nearly everyone.

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