Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Football's coming home - to Manchester

There will be time enough to worry about the meaning of Manchester's astonishing reinstatement as the El Dorado of English football – and the implications for all their their less wealthy domestic rivals – but in the meantime there is surely only one appropriate response.

It is one that has to be touched by a degree of wonder when you remember that it was just a few months ago that United, who now seemed locked into a potentially sublime dispute with Manchester City, were cast into some outer wilderness by Barcelona at Wembley stadium.

No one is saying, at least not if they want to avoid a visit from the men in the white coats, that Barça are about to abdicate – or that it is already time for them to be weighed down by a rush of intimidation generated in the North-west of England.

However, if their coach, Pep Guardiola, had even half an eye for events at White Hart Lane, where City produced a cutting edge of extraordinary accomplishment, and Old Trafford, which saw United continue to give an impression of near miraculous rebirth, he may well have paused at the possibility of a stunning transformation at the top of the Premier League.

But could it really be that after the season of deep mediocrity that ended last spring we have on our hands a full-blown renaissance?

These may be the earliest days for such a lofty assumption, and Arsenal's grotesque and haunting frailties hardly provided the most strenuous litmus test at Old Trafford, but there is no shortage of reliable witnesses ready to give at least some attention to the evidence of their own eyes.

Ian St John, the man who played such a vital role in the rise of Bill Shankly's Liverpool, left Anfield hugely heartened by the progress of his old team under Kenny Dalglish in Saturday's victory over Bolton.

He was especially thrilled by the continued evidence that a player like Luis Suarez can lift the horizons of all those around him. He then tuned in to City and United and pronounced himself "amazed". It is not a phrase that leaps to the lips of gnarled old pros. They have, after all, seen most of what the game has to offer, good and bad. They talk of physical affliction at the scale of cheating in today's game. They wonder what happened to the old belief that the trick of great football is the liberation of its most creative performers.

Yet at the weekend, in the blue of City and the red of United, we didn't see occasional bursts of virtuosity. We saw it on an extraordinary flood tide.

We were reminded not just of the beauty of the game but its power, its ability to move the senses – and also the speed with which it can achieve a change in our perception of who is good and who is bad and who might just be utterly exceptional.

The faces of the victim managers said much of what we needed to know about the impact of City and United on one dramatic afternoon in August.

Arsène Wenger and Harry Redknapp, faced by the disaffection of their greatest creative forces, may have imagined they had suffered nightmare close seasons. Now another reality had engulfed them. It was the daunting one of lost ground, of the sickening sense that the terms of the battle had been changed.

The Saint, certainly, is emphatic, saying: "One moment you are wondering what is happening to football, asking where all the players have gone, the ones who make it all worthwhile, who do the things you do not expect, and then suddenly they are leaping out of the television screen. That's what happened to me yesterday."

This also happened to the football nation with such effect that even beyond the boundaries of Manchester there is surely not much doubt about the most compelling question of the new season.

Is it City or United? A few weeks ago the temptation was to say that United had gone a long way to underlining their champions' status with the fluent football that wiped away City's two-goal lead.

United were reinvented, refreshed by youth and with Wayne Rooney reasserting his belief that the best of his game was still to come. City were being asked the same old questions.

Would they ever get out from under the weight of their wealth, the sense that however much talent money can lure it cannot make the psychology of a great team, and would Roberto Mancini ever reach the point where he could say, 'Yes, I believe in my players'? It seems odd now that the question still has the whiff of new paint because what happened at White Hart Lane on Sunday surely has the potential to change everything. Mancini, almost ritualistically, complained about the poor marking that brought Spurs s their only goal, but this time an almost rueful smile was not long delayed. Yes, he had superb players who had expressed themselves brilliantly. Yes, he suggested, we may just have a great season.

So where was that expectation best grounded, in north London, where Edin Dzeko looked so immense that the hulking, disconnected figure of last spring seemed like a fault of memory, or Old Trafford, where United took another impressive stride along the road of renewal?

The beauty of the argument is its balance and intrigue and all those questions which can only be answered when a team is asked the deepest questions about not just its talent but the character it has formed. Of course, the scale of the talent at Mancini's command is a matter for envy. Sergio Aguero has brought not only beautiful skill to augment that of David Silva but he plays with an extraordinary relish – almost enough in itself to persuade you that when it matters most City will benefit from the most compelling of momentum.

But then we do not need Mancini to tell us that it isn't always as simple as that. The Italian has been fighting forces at Eastlands which might well have brought down a less resilient figure. The strain has shown on his face often enough – and in the triumph at Tottenham there was still the ambiguity of Carlos Tevez on the bench, a force of nature but so often a one-man riot of disruption and distraction.

Is there still a place for the eccentric brilliance of Mario Balotelli? There are so many questions still to be resolved, and most of them surrounding the doubt about whether it really is possible to buy a team by the job lot.

Even the most sceptical of us had reason to wonder about our suspicions when City laid waste to White Hart Lane – and sent a warning, surely to not just every corner of English football but also Europe. What we saw was dynamism and belief – and, yes, a joy in sheer performance. It was a new dimension of extraordinary power and potential scope.

Then there was United, seamless in their determination and ambition but looking so much better than the team who at times made such heavy going of their 19th title win and then were eviscerated by Barcelona at Wembley. What they had now were so many certainties, so much confidence in their ability to cover new ground and create new achievement.

Yes, the balance is delicious and if we agonise over the underpinnings of wealth that have created it, we are bound to be drawn to what we believe is likely to unfold out on the field. It is, after all, the place where football is always obliged to redeem itself with great performance and the fashioning of dreams. In this sense, at least, Manchester, the old capital of English football, may be entitled to believe that the game has indeed come home.

Belfast Telegraph


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