An afternoon stroll for City

Posted by Simon Curtis

It wasn't clear whether it was the bright spring sunshine or the discomfort at watching his midfield constantly give the ball away, but Sam Allardyce spent much of Saturday's game slumped in his expensively molded touchline seat, grimacing and wincing for all he was worth.

Maybe the seat was too tight a fit for his burgeoning girth. Big Sam has never been the prettiest man in England, it has to be said, with a face that, over time, has grown to look like something constructed from the old wooden beams salvaged from the roof of Burnden Park before they turned it into a supermarket car park. The gum chewing and the obvious dissatisfaction at Howard Webb's idiosyncratic refereeing style had got up his nose like an early summer bee wreaking its own special havoc.

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West Ham were busy taking part in one of the oddest games played at the Etihad all season. Manchester City were there too, albeit in body only in the case of certain individuals. For the first 20 minutes, this Premier League match between the season's second-best and their 10th-best opponents resembled nothing more competitive than a gentle kick-about in the park.

As the heavily advertised 23rd minute arrived, however, the game began to move. The distinct possibility of a goal being scored while 47,000 people were enthusiastically clapping the memory of poor tragic Marc-Vivien Foe came to the fore, as first Sergio Aguero bobbled a mis-hit shot onto the post and then a deflection nearly took the ball past Joe Hart at the other end. Fittingly, minute 23 had produced a shot of color and energy into hitherto drab proceedings.

Six minutes later, City were in front thanks to a masterpiece of swift interchange between three of the four mini-marvels terrorizing the West Ham back four. The ball departed from Yaya Toure's boot and ricocheted from Sami Nasri to David Silva and back again in the flash of an eye. Before you could say "tiki taka," the ball had left Nasri's possession and arrived in front of Aguero, who slotted in past a clearly impressed Juusi Jaaskelainen.

The West Ham defense had been dissected by four razor-sharp passes. You half expected, as the mini-terrors in sky blue wheeled away to congratulate each other, that the claret and blue pillars left transfixed like a forest of poles in the penalty area would slowly, one-by-one, in neatly sliced pieces, fall gently to the turf like victims of the neat strokes of a forest chainsaw.

By halftime, City had disappeared back into their cantering, slide-pass routine, while Allardyce's ever more excitable chewing motion was beginning to work his seat loose of its concrete plinth. One's thoughts drifted back to the days of managerial yore, when the Hammers built a reputation for wonderful flowing football under future managerial heavyweights such as Noel Cantwell, John Bond, Malcolm Allison and Ken Brown. The days of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall in the hot seat and not a strip of chewing gum in the house. The days when blowing bubbles meant clearing champagne from your face, with Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore, Trevor Brooking and will-o'-the-wisp Alan Devonshire carving pretty patterns across the Boleyn Ground grass.

Allardyce doesn't have much time for all of that. "Put your foot through it, son!" is more likely to be the touchline refrain. The energy and bluster of Kevin Nolan, who has followed him from Bolton to Newcastle and now to Upton Park, is the chosen format for today's West Ham. With City dozing, the Hammers had plenty of opportunity to show the watching public that some of that artistic heritage lives on.

Instead we got Joey O'Brien, not hewn from the Bobby Moore school of defending, whacking the persistent Pablo Zabaleta up in the air. In truth, the second half saw more forward motion and more intent from both sides.

So many chances were eked out and frittered away, it seemed there might still be something to salvage for the away side. With the game drifting back into a morass of misplaced passes, we were once again brought to our feet by an exquisite goal, the second such gem to be found in the dry dust of this encounter. Floating forward from the right-hand edge of the box, the unmistakeable figure of a huge West African bulldozer of a man hove into view and, with the very minimum of back-lift, he smote the ball with such venom, it was past the Finnish keeper before he could execute a decent dive.

In the slanting light and with all that sweat flying everywhere, you could have sworn that it was Yaya Toure who had been responsible for this second bolt out of the blue, but maybe our eyes were deceiving us. On this day of moving remembrance, it looked suspiciously like somebody else, who once graced these parts with similar forcefulness.

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