Sergio Agüero threatens to be the Premier League’s best goal-scoring foreign import

When all is said and done, there may be very few who would argue that Sergio Agüero has not done enough to be the very best from outside of England.

Football over the years has always created debate among frenetic followers who believe that their opinion is correct, that the statistics always back up the argument and there’s no other way to compare. That’s why when the best players have their names cast on the debate table, there’s usually no definitive answer.

It’s also why sitting here typing this, it was difficult to ignore the sheer numbers that give Sergio Agüero a worthwhile mention. The Argentine is continually leaving his mark on a league that can’t seem to wrap its head around how he can be stopped, or where he sits in the conversation of the best players to have graced the Premier League.

Such has been Agüero’s rise from his debut against Swansea in 2011 that the numbers are hard to look away from. In Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Arsenal at the Eithad Stadium, Aguero scored his 155th, 156th 157th Premier League goals in only his 227th appearance. He now has 14 goals this season, and also registered his 10th league hat-trick, now only second to Alan Shearer who ended on 11, and sits 8th on the all-time goal scorers’ list.

All hail King Kun, arguably the best goal-scoring foreign import the Premier League has ever seen, and the best piece of business under the trophy-laden City juggernaut that launched over a decade ago. He has been a model of consistency for such a long time, it’s difficult to see how he hasn’t found himself donning the white of Real Madrid or the stripes of FC Barcelona.

But that’s just it – he hasn’t had to make such moves to prove he is the real deal. City have had the pleasure of seeing his supreme qualities since that  £38-million move from Atletico Madrid.

That figure seems so miniscule in the current inflated market, as of to say his was a bargain of some sorts, the kind of money you spend to get a Lamborghini Gallardo at a cut price.

And as he found himself in similar positions for his three-goal haul against Arsenal, the flickering memories began to roll in the mind – that chest and volley from Thierry Henry against Manchester United, or Luis Suarez’s mesmerizing performance against Norwich City, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s free kick against Portsmouth.

“City have had the pleasure of seeing his supreme qualities since that  £38-million move from Atletico Madrid.”

Because these are the caliber of players that Agüero is threatening at the very top, if not surpassing year by year, goal by goal, in his quest to become the outright best.

Under three different managers in Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola, Agüero has shown us, time and time again, that he is the real deal. All have won titles with him as their main man, and may not have won the rave reviews they’ve had if he wasn’t around.

And to the betterment of City’s journey to becoming an all-round European elite, it’s also been good for the league to have such world class talent in its ranks, to boast and brim with joy at the quality of a player who hasn’t lost his step, even when injuries threaten to derail him.

This is where it gets tricky. In as much as he has been able to work towards being the supreme centre forward of his time in Manchester, how can we ignore the exploits of aforementioned Suarez, Henry and Ronaldo?

All brought something to the table – Suarez’s all-round forward play, Henry’s world-class finishing and Ronaldo’s invention. In as much as statistics can point you in one direction, there are also those glittering moments of magic that leave you wanting more.

So, what we see is just as important as what we can put in numbers. Agüero will not sit at 8th forever, and his goal scoring won’t, presumably, suddenly vanish. But how many of his appearances really take your breath away and make you sit up to attention?

This is probably where Suarez, Henry and Ronaldo flourish  The numbers are there for them, too. Agüero would definitely fit in a “Top Five Best Foreign Players” list somewhere, but when will be confident enough to say that he, indeed, is the very best the league has seen?

At 30 years of age, he won’t be around forever, but when all is said and done, who could argue that he wasn’t the outstanding foreign import to have laid those Puma boots on the slick grass of the Etihad, or any other ground for that matter, in the entirety of the league’s existence?

He’ll continue on his merry way with an way trip to Everton, and then a decisive home tie against Chelsea, and then 11 games after that. With a bit of silver in his hair, Agüero will leave a trail of destruction until its time to say goodbye.

Maybe then, we’ll close the book on this, never needing to debate it again as we speak with pride of his undeniable pedigree as the one who stands above them all.

Old heads Fernandinho and Kompany rise to save Manchester City’s title challenge

Both Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho put on a splendid show of men that have been here before, bringing Liverpool to their knees in the face of City’s determined performance.

Fernandinho and Vincent Kompany. With time, you may have thought that these two would have been slowly lost in Pep Guardiola’s masterplan, quietly removed from the equation as they find their reserved spots at the old age home on the Manchester City bench.

Then, you see the way they operate in matches such as the one against Liverpool, and remember that football is all about ability and thought, to be able to conduct the manager’s instructions to the book, and execute them without fault, regardless of age.

And although Kompany’s own performance wasn’t faultless, his leadership on the field of play at the Etihad Stadium cemented an important 2-1 victory against the league leaders, emboldened by their own narratives of unbeaten seasons and bravery, but brought firmly back down to earth by the excellence of City’s display.

In the middle of the park, space was hard to find, but Fernandinho escaped those harsh conditions to deliver a midfield masterclass of sheer determination and love for the more robust side of Guardiola’s thoughts. Without him, City have been the nervous, brittle wreck of Guardiola’s Fernandinho-less team that lost to Crystal Palace and Leicester City, still learning how to play when he’s not around.

Here, the Brazilian was the lead orchestrator for the likes of David and Bernardo Silva, Sergio Agüero and Leroy Sané to go and park themselves in the opposition’s half, to cause havoc in those uncomfortable areas where opposing Liverpool defenders didn’t want to be. Without him, this win may not have been possible. He goes about his job with no fuss or sparkle, his twinkling demolition acts sometimes going unnoticed.

This spectacle had it all – fine margins, technical brilliance and robust booting of the ball into the stands in the final minutes. It may have all been so different had Sadio Mané converted his early chance in the first half, but such is the concept of the game that the top teams need, maybe even summon, Lady Luck more often than not – John Stones and Ederson knowing her better than most.

Without that goal-line clearance, Agüero wouldn’t have put City in the lead. He showed his unquestionable brilliance with a close-range finish of devilish precision, this his 37th goal against the other self-proclaimed ‘Big Six’ sides since 2011/2012. He, like Kompany and Fernandinho, has been around for the glowing years of City’s rise, a title-winning centre forward seemingly unnerved by any doubts that may follow him.

And when Liverpool seemed to wrestle the initiative back in their favour with Roberto Firmino’s not so “no-look” header in the 64th minute, the sense of a shift in power was clear – City had hardly been switched on after the break, and Jurgen Klopp’s move to bring on Fabinho for James Milner had stifled City’s job.

Before this, Kompany had performed a double clearing act, first with his head and then with a heaving swing of his left foot, being in the right place at the right time like he so often is, this 32-year-old Belgian brute of a man, unerring in his utterances towards Mohamed Salah when he had lunged to bring the Egyptian to his haunches.

And as Elisabeth Elliot once said: “Maturity starts with the willingness to give oneself”, the kind of unselfish acts of nature that allow the rest of the team to flourish. This is where Kompany and Fernandinho excel, the former a handyman of those first days in 2008 when City were still dreaming, and the latter an added piece of protection for the younger ones, the Johns and Aymerics of the world.

These are the fruits of old age, the nous that comes from hard graft and selflessness, successful title triumphs and faltering title challenges. Fernandinho contorted his body in ways that brought cheers from the City fans and thumbs-up from Guardiola. He started moves and stifled others, never missing a beat.

He is no Jorginho or N’Golo Kanté – indeed, these seem to be the variations of the modern-day defensive linchpin – but his longevity and willingness to learn and improve at the ripe old age of 33 make him arguably one of the best in his position.

And although he didn’t provide the assist for Sané’s winning strike – a finish that made you wonder what would’ve have happened if we still had rectangular goal posts – his name should be stitched into a banner and hung up alongside Kompany’s. “Fernandinho and Kompany: the men behind the scenes”, it should read.

For Liverpool, this can only be taken as a learning curve as they come to grips with their own dizzying reality. They are the league leaders, and with it comes great pressure from those chasing them down. There are those that seem to enjoy their long suffering and wait for a Premier League title, the first to remind us of those Lovren comments or Virgil van Dijk comparisons.

It’s telling that Agüero’s goal came from Lovren’s side, and for all of Liverpool’s defensive improvement with Van Dijk in the team, there’s still a weakness with Lovren there, a little switched off when all his senses should have been in overdrive with Agüero around.

Such were the margins, those microseconds that turn out to be the most important. For City, the gap has been reduced, and in times like these, the so-called “fossils” stand up and bring that experience to the table.

Kompany and Fernandinho will be long gone in a few years, but for now, their chiseled old nature is just what Guardiola will need for the months ahead.

Manchester City | Watching The Country’s Best

Seeing Manchester City’s women’s team has been high on my agenda this season. Originally, I had plans to see them during their home Champions League encounter against Atletico Madrid in September. But after walking around Yorkshire all night after Wrexham’s draw with Harrogate, the added trip to Manchester the following day was less enticing.

A similar set of circumstances nearly curtailed my journey to see the Cityzens this time too. Wrexham were playing in the FA Cup the night before and I went along to support my team following the news our manager was ditching us for Shrewsbury Town. It was an entertaining 0-0 draw under The Racecourse lights but it left me wanting more. Plus, after much turmoil, I fancied a little break from Wrexham to see a new ground, a fresh set of faces and, hopefully, some goals.

The top-of-the-table clash between Man City and Arsenal in the FA Women’s Super League felt like the perfect tonic. The two sides had scored 72 goals between them going into a game that would feature the WSL’s all-time leading goal scorer, Nikita Parris, as well as Vivianne Miedema – who would become the joint-highest ever scorer in a single WSL season if she found the net.

I looked forward to the goal-fest.

Highlights

SportCity

This was my second time blogging on a Manchester City team having previously witnessed the men’s side thrash Crystal Palace 5-0 in my first ever Premier League match last year. Heading out of the Etihad that day, I noticed a smaller stadium over the bridge that allows supporters to cross Alan Turing Way – the main road outside the ground. Later I learnt this was the Academy Stadium, where the Man City youth and women’s teams play their home matches. I immediately wanted to return and see a game there.

Heading back to the Academy Stadium on this occasion, I realised I never fully appreciated the district that both stadiums were at the heart of: SportCity.

Approaching The Etihad. 

Built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, SportCity covers a vast area of east Manchester and has a number of impressive facilities including the National Cycling Centre, the National Squash Centre and a 6,500-seat athletics arena. The site boasts the largest concentration of sporting facilities in Europe, with over four million visitors per year and has, no doubt, helped the development of several sportspeople from amateur to elite level.

Seeing the signs for all these fantastic sports venues nearby was exciting enough but seeing the Etihad and the impressive 7,000-seater Academy Stadium filling up really made me feel like the place was special.

Matching expectations

Arsenal headed to the Academy Stadium with a 100% record at the WSL summit. City, meanwhile, stood in second place – six points behind the leaders – but were also unbeaten. If you factored in both sides’ excellent defensive stats and the fact the top five goalscorers in the competition were from both clubs, you could easily argue the two best women’s teams in the country were playing against each other.

And, thankfully for me, it looked that way during the match. There was so much quality on display that each side looked equally good in almost every position. Up front, Parris and Miedema showed their prowess with some outstanding centre-forward play, while in the middle of the park, Arsenal’s Danielle van de Donk and City’s Jill Scott won possession back so many times for their respective teams.

However, where the game was ultimately won and lost was in defence. City’s back four were simply phenomenal. Demi Stokes, Gemma Bonner, Jen Beattie and Steph Houghton frustrated the Arsenal attack with fantastic blocks, clearances and tackles. Whenever the Gunners looked to be in on goal, they were unable to find the killer pass or shot due to the girls in blue closing them down. It really was a magnificent display from them.

Dead ball.

Although Arsenal were pretty well-organised themselves, they let City in too many times and it cost them their perfect record. Leah Williamson prevented Georgia Stanway from scoring early on but they couldn’t contain her for too much longer – Stanway eventually grabbing her eighth goal of the season when she hit Stokes’ cross through Arsenal’s in-coming defenders.

Parris should have doubled City’s lead soon after with just the keeper to beat but hit her shot wide. However, the game was sealed mid-way through the second half when Stanway found the bottom corner of the net following a mazy run off Keira Walsh’s exquisite long-range pass. The Arsenal defence could have possibly done better to block Stanway’s shot but it was a fine finish from the 19-year-old and her brace proved to be the difference.

Freebies

Even though the entry fee was a ridiculously cheap £4.50, Manchester City provided superb hospitality with a number of free gifts and initiatives included in the price. There were teamsheets handed out on the way in, a photo of the squad available on the way out and all hot drinks during the game were on the house!

The day also marked the 30th anniversary of Manchester City’s women’s team coming into existence and a number of the original 1988 squad were in attendance – along with Neil Mather, the man who started it all.

I missed the pre-match speeches they gave as I was waiting for my friend outside the ground. But if you weigh up what City were offering – including a presentation for Houghton winning 100 caps for England and Beattie for making 100 City appearances, plus a chance to meet them afterwards – it’s really going to encourage people to get involved with women’s football.

Disappointments

Arsenal injuries

At half-time, I fancied my chances in the raffle after getting two rows of tickets for purchasing two programmes. However, as the numbers rolled on the scoreboard they only seemed to go up to 400. My tickets were 870-880.

As you can imagine, when they eventually stopped, I didn’t win the signed City shirt.

Grey skies above The Etihad.

Other than that, my only disappointment was learning about Arsenal’s injury list. Losing long-term absentees Kim Little and Danielle Carter earlier in the campaign hadn’t stopped their storm up the league but the recent loss of influential midfielder Jordan Nobbs might have been a factor in their defeat at City. Nobbs is now a doubt for England’s World Cup squad in France next summer – which is devastating for her and could possibly prove costly for Arsenal come the end of the season.

Overall

The game proved to be exactly what I’d hoped for: two teams with real quality playing attacking football. I did think there’d be more goals and the lead would swap hands at least once but it was an engrossing match nonetheless, capped off by a big shift in title race momentum.

Seeing BBC reporters Alex Scott and Reshmin Chowdhury walk past me was a fun highlight. It only emphasised further how big the game was. As did the 2,000+ crowd.

It’s very pleasing to see attendance figures for women’s football rising with each game I go to, and now they’re surpassing many crowds from teams in Wrexham’s league, I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the Academy Stadium.

Raheem Sterling stands tall when all seems forgotten

The Manchester City winger was the alleged victim of racial abuse from a set of Chelsea supporters over the weekend, a theme that has gone on unresolved even after his performances at the World Cup.

In this year’s FIFA World Cup, Raheem Sterling was donning the white of England as they progressed to the semi-finals to play Croatia. And amidst the glum of England’s recent performances in past tournaments, this was a grand achievement created on the backdrop of Gareth Southgate’s mantras of progression and evolution, becoming a real international threat to the superpowers of Brazil, France, Germany.

In the tournament, Sterling didn’t score, had one assist – he set up Jesse Lingard for England’s third goal in their 6-1 triumph against Panama –  but played the supporting role to Harry Kane’s goal scoring spree like a director behind the scenes of the bigger picture: Kane receiving the accolades, Sterling quietly going about his day-to-day job, a darling of the team. To the fans that sang songs of praise to Southgate’s men, Sterling was just a part of the greater spectacle, a man of importance in England’s quest for meaning on the international scene.

When Sterling was playing for Manchester City in their 2-0 loss to Chelsea this past weekend, football’s not-so-endearing side reared its head in the shape of a few supporters who seemed to have forgotten which country he had represented in the summer. For a moment, it wasn’t Sterling the English player who went to retrieve the ball to the jeers of the home fans in the corner. This was Sterling, the mischievous player of colour who had a gun tattoo on his leg, who was known for walking to the shops with a harmful pair of car keys in his pocket.

Indeed, there seems to be two versions here: Sterling, the starlet for England, and Sterling the bad boy for City – the same person, but two different people, like a shape shifter who can be in two places at the same time.

As Sterling pointed out in his latest Instagram post, reactions such as the ones seen at Stamford Bridge are fueled by media outlets that allow stories to be published which paint an unwanted picture on players of colour that follow a series of stereotypes – expensive tastes in material possessions, quizzical haircuts and hard-to-control temperament.

Malcolm X may have been onto something when he said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Being a Zimbabwean of colour myself, who was given the privilege to attend one of the more affluent secondary schools in the country, I have experienced what it’s like to be in an environment where you want to feel like you belong, but having the same itchy feeling that in some alternate universe, this isn’t where you were supposed to be. It’s the reality that a number of people like Sterling have to face more often than they may like, more often than should be allowed.

It makes you wonder, even writing this piece, whether or not a potential employer or casual reader would create their opinions of my writing based on the colour of my skin, or the quality. What about the aspiring doctor or accountant or coach? Sol Campbell became the 8th black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) manager of the 92 teams in the Football League when he was appointed by Macclesfield Town. Where do we put this in the wider picture?

The opportunities for betterment and a chance to become more than just a statistic or questionable headline are there on paper, but the reality on the ground tells its own narrative.

And for all the narratives that are created in the life of Sterling, this season he has contributed eight goals and six assists so far, a handy return for a player who was written off before Pep Guardiola had his chance to sprinkle his magic dust and wave his wand. The touch has improved, the dribbling has more of a punch and the finishing and appreciation for players around him portrays a man feeling at home in Guardiola’s immediate plans at the Etihad Stadium.

For him, this is all that matters. His life has meaning, direction, a sense of purpose to become the best version of himself at a time when others may want to portray his worst.

Sterling’s reaction to the alleged abuse was something of a kick in the teeth for those that turn a blind eye to what matters most – a cheeky, glistening smile of fortitude rather than fear, a reaction many of colour would have appreciated or empathized with in the face of adversities and prejudice. Would the media twist this against him, too?

Because for those that strive to look beyond what’s in front of them, they realize that the energetic pre-Guardiola Raheem has worked hard to fine tune his game to become one of the very best that the Premier League, and England, has to offer at the moment. The same Raheem whose step-overs in the corner against Manchester United may not have received the same reaction if he was someone else.

And, here’s something to think about: if he or any other player of colour scores the winning goal or penalty kick that gifts England that yearned-for crowning instant in front of the watching world, at a World Cup or European Championship, then what? Do the English fans revel in his success, or forget that he is one of their own?

Next Maestro off the Dutch Conveyor Belt

Here is Stuart Griffiths with his view of the newest Dutch maestro on the block – Ajax’s Riechedly Bazoer.

By Stuart Griffiths.

Even before joining Ajax from their fierce rivals PSV in 2013, Riechedly Bazoer had already attracted attention from Europe’s elite.

If not for his mother intervening, Bazoer could today be playing for the blue side of Manchester, having been offered a 3 year deal by the then Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini.

Still only 19, it has been a quick rise through the ranks for the Dutch wonderkid, having already represented The Netherlands at International level and Ajax in the UEFA Champions League.

His first Ajax goal came on 19th February 2015 in a 4-2 victory over FC Twente. He has 5 goals to his name so far this season, which includes a right-footed thunderbolt against Eredivise arch-enemies Feyenoord, which subsequently turned out to be the match winner.

Many in his native homeland see Bazoer as a holding midfielder, protecting the back four which he has done with great maturity at such a young age within this vastly inexperienced Ajax team. This key role allows the likes of Davvy Klaasen and Nemanja Gudelj to advance and support the front three.

Having said this, Frank De Boer has occasionally played him in a more advanced role. In an interview with Dutch national newspaper De Telegraaf, De Boer was asked of the reasoning behind this decision.

“He is so talented. I see him as a major force in the future of Ajax and Dutch football, I was just saying to Dennis (Bergkamp) he plays so free and uninhibited. He is so fast and powerful.” He said.

I’ve witnessed Riechedly playing a few times this season and he immediately stood out on each occasion. His strength on and off the ball caught the eye, with this undoubtedly helped by his six foot frame.

Recently, football-oranje caught up with former Ajax youth coach Fons Groendijk and he envisioned the young midfielder as the ‘Patrick Vieira of Ajax’, as he has an ability to drive forward with the ball at great speed and has extremely quick feet for a large man.

With a passing accuracy of 86%, it’s easy to see why he is so increasingly sought after. This accuracy has seen him create numerous chances this season, assisting in 3 goals and creating 19 chances for his teammates, according to squawka.com.

In a recent match against Vitesse Arnhem, he had one of his best games in an Ajax shirt scoring the only goal of the game, creating 3 chances and completing 91% of his passes.

With The Netherlands missing out on the European Championships this summer in France, whilst many of the current squad seem to be coming towards the end of their International careers – Bazoer looks finely positioned to cement his place in the team.

Matters are helped further with the oranje adopting a similar 4-3-3 formation to Ajax that includes his favoured holding midfielder position.

The position is currently occupied by Daley Blind in the national team, but with Blind now playing centre-half for his club and his versatility across the pitch a well-known attribute, it will only be a matter of time before we see Bazoer taking up the defensive midfielder role, and potentially making it his own.

As to where life after Ajax takes him – your guess is as good as mine. According to recent reports, Barcelona have had him watched numerous times this season and Luis Enrique has him pinned as an ideal replacement for Sergio Busquets – should the long-serving Catalan choose to try pastures new this summer.

He has also been linked with a move to the Barclays Premier League, with talk of Pep Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain, Manchester City Sporting Director, meeting his agent in Amsterdam a fortnight ago.

Personally, I’d like to see him continue to apply his trade at Ajax before making a move. If a move to Manchester City does materialise, the guidance of Pep Guardiola would allow Bazoer to prosper and develop much like Sergio Busquets all them years back at La Masia and Barcelona B.

Whatever comes of him this summer, The Netherlands will be glad to know they have a young prodigy from Utrecht to build their new era around.

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