As Manchester City’s players huddled around the centre circle in number eight shirts to pay a poignant pre-match tribute to Colin Bell, it occurred a Pep Guardiola team might never have been so fittingly dressed.
England international Bell, widely revered as the finest player in City’s history, passed away after a short illness on the eve Wednesday’s 2-0 Manchester derby win the semi-final of the EFL Cup.
Bell, according to the loud and often repeated refrain of the Kippax Stand at City’s old Maine Road home, was the greatest inside forward that the world had ever seen.
A technically gifted all-round midfielder, somehow simultaneously graceful and powerful, Bell thrived in those dangerous pockets between winger and centre-forward to cause maximum damage in Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison’s celebrated City teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The inside forward had long gone out of fashion before Pep Guardiola ushered in his era of “free eights”. From Xavi and Iniesta, through Thiago Alcantara and Toni Kroos to David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, City’s former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss delights in filling his side with such players.
During Sunday’s swaggering 3-1 win over Chelsea, De Bruyne was joined in the line-up by Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva. That quartet of playmakers probably would have resumed duties together at Old Trafford had Silva not been suspended.
After paying tribute to City’s eternal eight, Guardiola’s team of number eights got to work. Where the league fixture on this ground a month ago was as stodgy as the pitches Bell graced in his heyday, the pop and fizz to the early passing was much more in “Nijinsky’s” image.
Remembering the King
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 6, 2021
The one remaining City player wearing the number on the night, Ilkay Gundogan, timed his arrival into the box to convert Foden’s fifth-minute pass perfectly. Or so he thought. Offside.
That incident came after John Stones bundled the ball in at the other end of the ground – not for the last time – and was spared an own goal for a flag against Marcus Rashford.
City’s current creative stars all arrived with far weightier price tags than the £45,000 Bury received for Bell in 1966. Well, apart from Foden, who did not cost a penny. It felt like eras had passed between the young England man knocking a finish past Dean Henderson and the VAR delayed flag being raised.
Fixtures so rich in history can’t help but recall past narratives and this felt like the most well-matched derby in terms of quality and attacking ambition for some time. The increasingly impressive job being carried out by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at United does plenty to recall the work of another fondly remembered and recently departed favourite of the Manchester parish.
United struggled in the aftermath of Matt Busby’s glorious reign to the extent they were relegated in 1974. Tommy Docherty picked up the pieces and helmed a swashbuckling promotion before his side finished third in their first season back in the top flight and reached the FA Cup final.
Relegation in these days of superclubs was never realistic for a giant of United’s means. Sixth and seventh-place finishes perhaps as bad as it would get.
It’s been an uneven ride at times and this fourth successive semi-final defeat will awaken Solskajer’s critics again. But as Bruno Fernandes forced a palm-stinging save from Zack Steffen, as Paul Pogba continued to steadily reacquaint himself with his mojo and Rashford and Anthony Martial’s piercing runs put City’s dogged backline to the test, it was impossible to deny he has made United fun again.
4 – Manchester United have been eliminated from all four semi-finals they’ve contested under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (League Cup x2, FA Cup and Europa League). Hurdle. pic.twitter.com/JqSD8kjscp
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 6, 2021
There is something of the joy and rediscovery of the Tommy Doc journey, half knowing it might go off the rails at any point, in these days of Ole’s at the wheel.
In the end, it was two sources of City’s under-rated steel that won the day. Stones’ bundled finish from Foden’s set-piece early in the second half marked the high point of his career resurrection. He and Ruben Dias defended with aplomb thereafter, equally at home on the front foot or in the last ditch. There is no better centre-back pairing in English football at present.
“It takes 11 to make a team, there are always one or two who get the headlines,” Bell told the Blue Moon Podcast in 2013, brushing off his revered status among the City faithful. It was one of those workhorses he admired who had the final word.
Fernandinho thumped a 25-yard volley into the turf and beyond Henderson to book a Wembley date with Tottenham and a shot at a fourth straight EFL Cup success for City. Perhaps another story to be written, told and retold over and over with a smile. Just like those that have accompanied glasses raised to Docherty and Bell over recent days.
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