Significant step for Hargreaves on a night when City stroll home
Manchester City 2 Birmingham City 0
Owen Hargreaves will not be getting carried away, not least because he has experienced promising new beginnings on this Manchester City turf once before – and just look where those took him.
His Manchester United debut came in this very stadium over four years ago when his muscular tackling – too much for Elano that Sunday afternoon – was the sole source of United optimism as his new side fell away to a 1-0 defeat. Little attention was paid to Sir Alex Ferguson's disclosure, that evening, that Hargreaves would not be joining up with England the next day because of a knee problem.
Privately, City's staff have been excited by the physical condition of Hargreaves, who has not troubled the club physiotherapists once in the 23 days since he underwent a medical, but they knew the only true test would come in the heat of competitive football.
The stadium clock had marked 13 minutes last night when that test came – the first serious, unflinching challenge Hargreaves made, right leg outstretched, on Birmingham City's Irish striker Adam Rooney. For a second after he emerged from it you held your breath to see if he would be running or hobbling. He ran.
This was a more significant moment than the one which makes the headlines, wonderful though the sweetly struck, 25-yard shot was, four minutes later, when Hargreaves took a touch and arced a ball into the top right-hand corner of Birmingham's net. The muted celebration – hands briefly aloft before he turned back to the clamour of team-mates – was not of a typical debutant who had taken 17 minutes to produce an act of genius. "Fergie, Fergie, sign him on!" City's crowd sang out to a player whose offer to play for nothing at Old Trafford was declined this summer.
The midfielder's onward journey at City will certainly bring far tougher competition than this. Never has the title "holders" less befitted a side than it did Birmingham last night, and though the home side could draw on a £106m team which included Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli, they barely had need to draw breath.
Kolo Touré, captain on his first appearance since suspension for failing a drug test in February, provided the one rescue, clearing off the line a bicycle-kick from Curtis Davies, the opposing captain. There were also first starts for Stefan Savic and Abdul Razak and the sight of transfer-listed Wayne Bridge as a left winger on his first start of the season.
Bridge began the move which yielded City's second goal – a pass for Aleksandar Kolarov whose cross was swept in first-time, left-footed on 38 minutes by Balotelli, starting his first game since the Community Shield.
Tevez's distance run revealed that he never shirks when the white line separates him from the distractions, though he should have capped the game with a breakaway goal five minutes from time. It was to Hargreaves that the night belonged, though. A sliding challenge across a greasy surface to halt Keith Fahey was his second and last serious stretch of the night and manager Roberto Mancini's initial plan to limit him to 45 minutes was dispensed with.
He left the field just before the hour, to a standing ovation. The challenge of Everton is next, on Saturday, with Hargreaves' place on City's bench having been contingent on last night going well. After just six minutes' competitive football in the previous three years it will feel like he has climbed a mountain, though he knows he is only hacking around in the foothills.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Pantilimon; Onuoha, K Touré, Savic, Kolarov; Hargreaves (Milner, 57), Razak (Scapuzzi, 86), Zabaleta, Bridge (Rekik, 78); Tevez, Balotelli. Substitutes not used Taylor, Clichy, Suarez, Aguero.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Doyle; Spector, Ibañez, Davies, Murphy; Burke, N'Daw, Beausejour, Fahey (Gomis, 67); Redmond (King, 78), Rooney (Zigic, 67). Substitutes not used Myhill, Caldwell, Asante, Jervis.
Referee K Friend (Leicestershire).
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