Manchester City artistically brilliant but little joy in Carabao Cup demolition of Burton Albion
In school sport, there is often a guideline where matches are stopped when the scoreline becomes so one-sided that tears are a distinct possibility. This had exactly the same feel: cold hands, broken spirits, sheepish celebrations. A football match mixed with mercy killing. This was the first ever competitive meeting between Burton and Manchester City. It spectacularly failed to justify the adjective.
It was during the scoring of the third goal that you started wincing. Burton Albion defenders ran across their penalty area as if told about a nearby fire, desperate to throw buckets of cold water on the problem. Around them, Manchester City players moved at the barely half the speed but with all the control. It eventually fell to Gabriel Jesus to roll the ball into the net. Jesus walks (and still has time to finish).
If the goal celebrations were low-key before half-time, by the time the seventh goal was scored with more than a quarter of the match remaining home supporters laughed at the scene. We scoured the internet for potential records that the home side may break. One interesting nugget was that City are the first English side for more than 40 years to score seven or more goals in consecutive fixtures. This was also the joint-biggest margin of victory in the club’s history.
Football like this is supposed to be enjoyable to watch, and of course City supporters delighted in their team’s supremacy. But for the neutrals amongst the crowd, the overriding mood was one of mild embarrassment. It as as if we were witnessing something so humiliating that it deserved some privacy, like an uncomfortable clinic appointment or a family argument.
There is obviously artistic merit in watching Pep Guardiola’s team click so stupendously. Gabriel Jesus scored four times and could have had six, while Kevin de Bruyne looked visibly annoyed at being brought off with more assists still in his locker. City scored three times from deliciously chipped through balls and three more from pulled back crosses from the byline. Oleksandr Zinchenko scored the most spectacular of them all.
But a significant part of football’s enjoyment is sourced from the competition. To really take joy out of watching players achieve, there must be a contest. The only time in the match that the home crowd ever felt frantic was when they demanded that their team reach double figures. It gave an already farcical match an added air of the unreal.
For the second time in four days, Guardiola named a surprisingly strong starting XI. Only one of the back five could realistically be considered first-choice, but the front six shared 306 international caps. If there are defensive deficiencies within City’s squad, their attack has more superstars than the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But there is a logic to that strategy. Last season, City won a percentage of their matches before they had even kicked off. So dominant were City that opposition managers were psychologically broken. The only plan was damage limitation, and City were able to preserve energy. It is this air of invincibility that City lost in their stuttering December run. Ten matches between Christmas and the end of January might be seen as a headache for Guardiola. He believes it to be an opportunity to build a head of steam. Rotherham and Burton might agree.
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We will see more of these one-sided matches in cup competitions. As the gap between financial haves and have nots grows year on year, and players are given rare opportunities to shine that cost more than the entire squad of their opposition, this becomes the only likely reality. Enjoy them if you like, but some of us can find little joy in it. Stop, stop, they’re already dead.
As Mike Dean blew his full-time whistle, a slight comedic groan went around the Etihad. Manchester City had failed to score ten. Nothing else sums up an extraordinary night in Manchester, where League One opposition were reduced to youngest siblings being taunted in the back garden. Hundreds of Burton fans were stuck in a traffic jams on the M6 and thus missed the match. Perhaps they were the lucky ones.
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