In May of 1983, three clubs were relegated from the First Division. Brighton & Hove Albion were one, and the other two were Swansea City and Manchester City. Manchester City returned to the top flight a couple of seasons later but, for Swansea City, the intervening three decades have brought hardship and a couple of seasons during which even the league status of the club was thrown into doubt. This evening, though, they’re back, following an eight year period that saw them leap three divisions. Much has changed in that time. Maine Road and The Vetch Field are no more, replaced by The City of Manchester Stadium and The Liberty Stadium. The First Division is no longer the show-piece event of English football – it’s all about the Premier League. A lot has changed since 1983.
Manchester City start this season with the burden of expectation that the lavish riches of Abu Dhabi brings with it higher than ever. An FA Cup win in May broke a curse of sorts, their first major trophy since 1976, but now the task is an even stiffer one, to bring the English championship to the sky blue half of Manchester for the first time since 1968. There has been plenty of denial of the fact during the pre-season white noise, but there can be little question that a serious championship challenge will be expected from Manchester City this season, and the arguable “distraction” of the Champions League us unlikely to prove to be much of an excuse if they are unable to keep up their challenges on two fronts.
For Swansea City, meanwhile, aim number one will be survival, but the bookmakers’ universal confidence that they will be relegated at the end of this season seems a little hasty. For the last couple of seasons, the bottom half of the Premier League has not looked a great deal different to the top of the Championship. Who is to say, for example, that this year’s Swansea team will be so much worse than any other three teams in this division that their relegation can only be regarded as a foregone conclusion? Their pockets are not as deep as most, but they thoroughly deserved their win in the play-off final against Reading at the end of last season, and the near-universal derision that their chances of staying up have been met with give them a rare luxury this evening – the pressure, to the extent that it can be in the modern Premier League, is off.
There is a buzz in the air at The City of Manchester Stadium this evening, but it is a buzz that acts as a double-edged sword. Manchester City shoot from the traps like a greyhound with the scent of rabbit blood in its nostrils and Yaya Toure has a shot charged down within the first minute but, once Swansea settle down, they don’t look outclassed. They’re not a pub team, of course. They’re professional players and this is their job. They look composed and calm, with the impish wide midfielders Dyer and Sinclair looking particularly troublesome as they flit around the outskirts of the Manchester City penalty area. On a couple of occasions, they are only one or two good passes from a clear goalscoring opportunity. Manchester City, meanwhile, look appositely luscious when they are on the ball, but they are being rushed and harried, and – whisper it – made to work very, very hard indeed for every single ball.
It takes until just over the mid-way point in the half for Manchester City to force a chance, and when it comes it requires a little Premier League quality from the Swansea goalkeeper, Michel Worm. Some neat inter-play on the right hand side leaves the ball with David Silva, and his curling, powerful shot is pawed away by the Swansea goalkeeper. It feels as if Manchester City have settled, though, and within a minute Edin Dzeko tries a shot from an angle that is deflected off the arm of the Swansea defender Ashley Williams. It would have been a harsh award, but they have been given in the past. It feels, though, as if Manchester City are starting to come to life, and as the half-hour mark ticks over Johnson drags the ball back to Silva, whose side-footed shot beats Worm but thuds against the crossbar.
Manchester City have weathered their early nervousness and are in control now. They manage a couple of further half-chances – Adam Johnson forces Worm to save from an improbably tight angle and Silva side-foots over from eight or yards out, and Swansea are having to fight tooth and nail to get any possession that last for longer than a few seconds. Yet they are still hanging on in there, although reliant on some somewhat profligate finishing, not least from Yaya Toure, who seems to be of the opinion that the Swansea goal should be several feet higher than it actually is. Otherwise, Worm is proving himself, on this early evidence to have been a wise investment and saves excellently with his legs from Dzeko before Gareth Barry’s fierce shot from distance rattles the crossbar for a second time. At half-time, the two sides are level, but only just.
It takes twelve minutes at the start of the second half for Manchester City to finally make their breakthrough, and those twelve minutes are hairy at times, with Swansea having their best chance of the match when Stephen Dobbie’s deflected shot forces Joe Hart to scramble at full-length to save. When the goal comes, it carries with it an element of luck. Silva feeds Johnson on the right-hand side and his cross-cum-shot is only palmed by Worm into the path of Edin Dzeko, who, with barely even the time to react, manages to stab the ball over the line. Under the cold, harsh glare of The City of Manchester Stadium floodlights, it can hardly be argued that it’s not a goal that Manchester City deserve – they have been battering at the Swansea goal since about twenty minutes in – but there will be a small part of many neutrals watching that will have died on the inside with the goal.
Swansea recover reasonably effectively, but Manchester City have introduced Sergio Aguero – a moment to savour in the glamour of the Premier League, the introduction of the £35m substitute, a moment which really sums up the wretched financial imbalance of the the division – and he proves to be the absolute tipping point for the Swansea defence. Mid-way through the half, and with Aguero having been on the pitch for less than ten minutes, Micah Richards crosses from the right for him to poke the ball in from close range. Three minutes later, he chases down Steven Caulker and nicks the ball from him. He chases the ball down to the byline and manages, somehow, to drag it back for David Silva to roll the ball in from close range. The game is up for Swansea now, and the match plays out as an exercise in damage limitation for Swansea. Worm saves a deflected shot from Yaya Toure brilliantly, but the three goals inside four minutes have killed the game as a contest and Manchester City seem happy to take their foot off the pedal and settle for what they have although, in stoppage time Aguero drives a magnificent shot past Worm from thirty-odd yards to finish off a near-perfect evening for Manchester City.
It has been a harsh education in the ways of the Premier League for Swansea City, this evening. Swansea, however, can also take some solace from the match. They held their own reasonably well for over fifty minutes, and may have found, in Michel Worm, a goalkeeper worthy of a place in the Premier League. They can at least, while licking their wounds this evening, consider that they will face few tougher tests than that which they have witnessed tonight. Some may have thought that throwing away a two goal lead in the Community Shield last weekend might have had an adverse effect on this Manchester City team, but the introduction of Sergio Aguero proved that money talks decisively in modern football. His performance, which wasn’t even half an hour long, was inspirational and game changing, and it is impossible to believe that his talents will languish on the substitutes bench for too much of the rest of the season. It is early days, very early days, but as a signal of intention this was the sort of performance that Manchester City will need to show a lot of, if they are to come close to winning the title.
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