It is fair to state that Manchester City have had more than a few electrifying players who have lit up the English divisions down the years.
Think Ali Bernabia, think cultured Algerian midfielder with staggering vision, allied with the ability to execute a pass from his repertoire that had City fans truly grateful for a Kevin Keegan signing. Think Eyal Berkovic, think of the diminutive, perceptive schemer whom, in league with the former, had defences in the second tier of English football running scared throughout the 2001-2 campaign.
Casting the mind slightly further back, think Georgiou Kinkladze, the wizard from the Caucasus who, despite not being the quickest, was gifted with exceptional technique and a spellbinding dribbling ability that lit up a dour 1995-6 season for the Blues. Think Shaun Wright-Phillips, the pint sized winger who showcased his dazzling pace and offensive play.
The four midfielders mentioned above were, in their blue heyday, of an extremely rare breed, one which could captivate those in attendance when they seemingly illuminated matches at will. However, in spite of this, with every player there was a drawback; Benarbia arrived in England in his twilight years, Berkovic’s erratic temperament eventually saw him clash with the then Manager, Kevin Keegan, Kinkladze’s inconsistent time at city saw them drop two divisions before he departed for Ajax Amsterdam in Holland while city fans saw Wright-Phillips sold to the vultures of Chelsea for £21m in a desperate bid to stabilise the club’s finances.
While City fans have endured a turgid few decades devoid of any silverware they have at least had the joys of witnessing the above talents, and now it seems, they have another in this mould. Except this one, on the evidence thus far, encapsulates the above in one, majestic performer.
Think Elano Blumer, the Brazilian who arrived at Eastlands in the Summer of 2007 under the umbrella of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s revolution and who, despite having international caps to his name, didn’t grab too many headlines at the time. Following the trend, there ought to now be a negative. It’s difficult to find many in the blue half of Manchester at present, nor with Elano. South Americans aren’t typically considered to like the colder, harsher climate of English football compared to its European neighbours, yet what makes this 26-year-old unique is that he has taken a distinctly unconventional route to, and through, Europe.
The fact that Elano has spent the past three seasons in the freezing Winter of the Ukraine, plying his trade for Shakhtar Donetsk, bear testament to his resolve and should ensure the rare bonus of a mercurial South American talent actually favouring the English Winter to elsewhere. Additionally, no longer are City in such a dire financial position, and they stand a very good chance of holding onto stars such as Elano and the young England international, Micah Richards.
Former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, swept into Eastlands after a protracted takeover and immediately wiped City’s £81m debt, before freeing up another £40m to invest in the playing squad. Eriksson was believed to be interested in a late Summer move for Liverpool bound Fernando Torres, matching the Merseyside club’s £20m+ bid for the Spaniard. Sven must be glad he missed out – in picking up Elano for a fraction of that price he has introduced another foreigner to the English game with the ability to impact on it, in much the same way that Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola did for years following the stateside World Cup in 1994.
Further reinforcing this have been his international excursions while at City, the latest of which saw him fly from Brazil on a Thursday, nonchalantly brushing aside any jet lag and even bagging the winner courtesy of an accurately placed shot on his Saturday return against Birmingham. This followed a brace from outside the box to deplete Middlesbrough’s hopes in a 3-1 win; the set piece for the second was earned in a manner Kinkladze used to, drawing defenders like a moth to the flame before guiding a 20-yard-effort into the top corner.
A proceeding win over Newcastle United by the same scoreline was capped by another mesmerising free-kick, exhibiting technique as good as any and from a greater distance. This isn’t to mention his rivalling Cesc Fabregas at the top of the assist charts, linking up particularly well with the young Michael Johnson and showing perceptive attacking midfield play worthy of Benarbia or Berkovic.
Sven says we haven’t yet seen the best of Elano, which is extremely heartening news for the blue faithful and crushing for the Premiership defences that he hasn’t yet faced to unlock. It took the maestro little under 20 minutes of his debut to burst past his marker at Upton Park and provide the Italian poacher, Rolando Bianchi, with a stunning, low cross to slide onto and put the Blues in front. It was Wright-Phillips, all over again.
The Blues have waited a long time for a new messiah like this to hail in their ranks; any thoughts of ambition were firmly dashed with the sales of Nicolas Anelka and Wright-Phillips in 2005. At the helm then was Stuart Pearce, who began brightly in charge at Eastlands but went on to oversee an 18 month period which was forgettable at best. While he has proceeded to guide England’s under 21’s in the right direction, from New Year’s Day until the end of the 2006-7 season, he presided over a Manchester City team that didn’t score a home goal. Service to the strikers was lamentable, and Pearce could have used the talented playmaker from Iracemapolis, Sao Paulo. In fairness, though, Psycho worked on a limited budget, admitting on his departure that he felt ‘like a caretaker manager until the next man arrived.’
Nonetheless, he may not be the only one to rue having not worked with Elano. Having lit up the Copa America over the Summer, the Mexican left winger turned forward, Nery Alberto Castillo, opted for Shakhtar after being hotly tipped to take up a portion of the war chest handed to Eriksson by Shinawatra. Shakhtar is a club with a parallel to City in that they have spent substantially, notably for a club from the Ukraine, where resources have been scarce down the years. While they are enjoying a good run in the UEFA Champions League, one only has to look at the fortunes of Dinamo Kiev in the competition to ascertain the quality of the domestic league. Should Donetsk’s turn to brush shoulders with the European elite come to an abrupt end, Castillo may well encounter some doubt regarding his decision to go to the freezing Eastern European country.
City, on the other hand, have enjoyed their best start to a domestic campaign for 37 years, with a humiliating 6-0 reverse at Chelsea and poor performance at Blackburn the only real cause for complaint. The UEFA Cup Final will be played at the City of Manchester Stadium in May 2008, and while the blueprint for a cup slot has been laid down by teams like Everton, Blackburn, Middlesbrough and Spurs in recent years, if the Blues can tweak their away form for the better, not many would bet against them.