Ali Baba magic lights up Maine Road

Manchester City 3 Birmingham City

Dave Hadfield
Monday 24 February 2014 05:09

Under the midday glow of the blue moon, a new Manchester City star was born. Ali Bernabia, the 32-year-old Algerian signed on a free transfer from Paris St-Germain just in time to play in this game, enjoyed the sort of debut that can rarely have been bettered by any Maine Road hero of the past.

Bernabia, swiftly christened Ali Baba by the City crowd, might not have scored any of the goals in a comprehensive demolition of one of their main promotion rivals, but by the time he went off to a standing ovation 15 minutes from the final whistle, he had helped to set up three and been the dominant figure on the pitch throughout.

"We got him for nothing and I am having to pinch myself to believe it," said his new manager, Kevin Keegan. "I hope the Manchester City fans enjoyed that as much as I did. He talks with the football and tells other players what he wants them to do."

As the French footballer of the year in 1999, Bernabia arrived with an impressive pedigree, but few City fans would have had a very precise idea of what to expect from him. They soon found out, because even playing with a team of strangers he created space and opportunity for them from his first touch of the ball. His passing coaxed players into attacking positions they had never known were there, and when City's first goal came he was, inevitably, at the heart of it.

Taking a return pass from Richard Edghill, Bernabia found the angle in the penalty area and threaded the ball through for Paulo Wanchope, whose shot came back off the post for Shaun Goater to finish the job.

The supporters showed what they thought of that contribution when Bernabia went to take a corner from the left-hand side two minutes later. Again, his educated touch and imagination were crucial, this time using Danny Tiatto as a foil. Bernabia gave his new team-mate an abundance of time in which to get his cross over and Richard Dunne forced it in at the near post for his first City goal.

Bernabia's part in the third goal was less direct, but still significant. His expertise with the dead ball was one of the features of his performance, and his slide-rule pull-back for Dickson Ehotu gave City's other debutant a chance to hammer in a shot that was deflected wide.

From the corner on the other side, taken by Stuart Pearce, Goater's head brought him his ninth goal of the season. With Bernabia providing the fodder for The Goat, there will be plenty more to come.

After that, the second half was an anti-climax, with City losing their momentum as Bernabia began to show signs of tiring. All the same, he set up what could have been Goater's hat-trick, prevented only by Alan Kelly's legs.

For Birmingham, with a run of six wins coming into this game, the whole match was an anti-climax. Apart from Geoff Horsfield's close-range header from Andrew Johnson's cross, splendidly saved by the City goalkeeper, Nicky Weaver, as early as the eighth minute, they barely raised a threat and will not have been delighted to come off the field to find that they have been drawn to return to Maine Road next month in the Worthington Cup.

Manchester City 3 Birmingham City 0

Goater 23, 42, Dunne 24

Half-time 3-0 Attendance: 31,714

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments