Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Can anyone stop Manchester City?

Fernandinho and Ramirez in Champions League action when Shaktar Donetsk met Chelsea and on opposite sides again tonight
Fernandinho and Ramirez in Champions League action when Shaktar Donetsk met Chelsea and on opposite sides again tonight

Some of the acclimatisation stories about Manchester City's Brazilians are purely apocryphal. A good one about the £160,000-a-week Robinho regularly hailing a bus to make a two-mile trip across town to the Trafford Shopping Centre proved to be untrue, demonstrating that all that glittered about the playmaker was not gold.

Fernandinho is a different matter, however. You have only to compare the quality of his English now with six months ago to know this individual is cemented into Manchester and the impression extends to his enthusiastic response to the story that he has taken to listening to local radio to help the language along.

"Yes, BBC Manchester, you are right," he says. "I listen to the Manchester news on local radio. It has helped me learn English. I have it on when I am driving to training in the morning. I like the radio because it makes you listen. When you are talking to me in a room like this, I look at your lips and try to learn – but when you are listening on the radio you can't see but you can hear." Carlos Tevez he ain't.

As a 28-year-old who had spent five years playing in the inconspicuous surrounds of Ukraine and won a mere five Brazil caps, Fernandinho seemed an improbable individual to add a more imposing quality to a City midfield which the club's director of football, Txiki Begiristain, rapidly concluded was in need of it. Yet there were hints of what City had signed in the 4-1 Manchester derby victory last autumn and then his two-goal match-winning display in City's magisterial 6-3 victory over Arsenal in December.

That Arsenal game revealed him to be a more imposing presence than Gareth Barry, with more muscular strength to marshal the midfield and then drive forward beyond it. The challenge is to balance the defensive and attacking roles.

Gary Neville yesterday described the City system to which Fernadinho is integral as "energetic, high-intensity football with a twist of subtlety akin to what Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund delivered last season." Though 4-4-2 football is seen as outdated these days, Fernandinho and Yaya Touré in central midfield were allowing Manuel Pellegrini to use that system, Neville argued.

There is no false modesty about this from Fernadinho (pictured). He knows he is delivering for Pellegrini and he wants Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari to see it for himself. With the knee injury sustained by Liverpool's Lucas Leiva likely to keep him out until April, there is a feeling the City player will be in the squad for Brazil's friendly against South Africa in Johannesburg next month.

"A lot of my rivals [for a Brazil place] are playing in the [Chelsea] game," Fernadinho says, with his great friend and former Shakhtar Donetsk team-mate Willian in mind, as well as Ramires.

"There is also Lucas and [Tottenham's] Paulinho but those [Chelsea players] are the main guys in the frame for Scolari. He needs to watch this game!"

Tonight's match-up with Ramires has the potential to be especially revealing. The two possess the same build, stamina levels and potential to enforce the midfield and connect it through sudden, rapid bursts into offensive areas. They first came up against each other when Shakhtar and Chelsea clashed in last season's Champions League. Fernandinho emerged with the spoils in that one-to-one battle, as well as a 2-1 win, which partially explains Chelsea's interest in him last summer.

"There was some contact between Chelsea and Shakhtar but nobody from Shakhtar told me about it," he says. "I was a little bit surprised because they already have Ramires."

He takes issue with the notion that City play football with a Brazilian style. "I don't think so," he says. "I think it is more Spanish the way we play here." The most successful Brazilian sides are more typically English because when Brazil try to keep the ball like Spain, it seems they do not play so well, he argues.

"Back in Brazil they talk about the great teams they had in (the World Cups of) '82 and '86 – fantastic teams to watch, great players. But they didn't win. You think about those players – Zico, Falcao. You could say they were the best team. But they didn't win."

Which could conceivably be the danger for City: that Jose Mourinho's more attritional team take the title, rather than Pellegrini's – who are indisputably the best, man for man. "We pray that it won't be. I don't think so," Fernandinho says. We are about to learn if the confidence of Brazil's new Mancunian is built on solid foundations.

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