Ali Benarbia and Yaya Toure have both played vital roles in City’s regeneration during glittering careers that brought them to Manchester via Monaco. Simon Curtis takes a closer look…
The Principality of Monaco, with its endless lines of Maseratis immaculately parked outside the Café de Paris on Place du Casino and its marina full of super yachts, has little in common with the down-to-earth city that spawned the industrial revolution.
Likewise, the local football team has had little or nothing to do with Manchester City down the years. Perhaps one of the only tenuous links between the two cities is the famous casino, reminding City fans of a rich history of football gambles that didn’t pay off.
City’s history against French sides is also a little thin on the ground, with only Paris St Germain having visited Manchester in competitive fixtures, once as recently as last season’s quarter finals, the other slightly further back in the 2008-09 season in a UEFA Cup season that was curiously lop-sided, with a game between the two sides staged in Manchester but none in Paris, owing to five-team groups that year.
Despite the lack of competitive games between City and Monaco, however, there are two links that are highly significant to City’s modern day success story.
Two of City’s greatest midfield servants of the modern era plied their trade in the Principality before making their names in Manchester.
Despite playing for Bordeaux and Paris St Germain between his stints at Monaco and City, the genius of Ali Benarbia was clear for all to see within half an hour of making his debut in a run-of-the-mill lunchtime fixture in the second tier against Birmingham City at Maine Road in 2001.
Benarbia, a French Player of the Year while at Paris St Germain, arrived in Manchester totally under the radar, allegedly stopping off at City’s training ground for lunch on his way north to sign for Sunderland.
Whether it was the chef’s poached salmon or the balmy Rusholme climate reminiscent of the Cote d’Azur, we will never know, but the little Algerian stayed to play a pivotal role in City’s goal- drenched promotion at the end of that season under Kevin Keegan.
Dovetailing clinically with Israeli Eyal Berkovic, the unlikely pair drove City to one of the most memorable seasons of creative football ever seen at the old ground.
In more recent times another ex-Monaco player has graced the City midfield and this time to such effect, he will go down as one of the most important players in the club’s modern day renaissance.
Far from the deft skills of Benarbia, with his twists and turns, his pinpoint passes and his sumptuous skills, Yaya Toure’s game has been built on the power of his running, the deadly accuracy of his shooting and the unstoppable force of presence he bestows upon the central areas of the pitch.
The giant Ivorian completed 27 games on the French Riviera before heading to Barcelona, from where he cruised into Manchester in the summer of 2010. Author of the goal, against Manchester United in that season’s FA Cup semi final, that can be considered the catalyst to every success that has flowed since, Toure has grown into a giant of the Premier League era.
The goal against United took City through to their first FA Cup final since 1981 and it was Toure again, whose close-range shot won an energetically fought final with Stoke to kick-start City’s ascension towards the forefront of English football.
His searing free kicks have lit up continental and domestic competitions alike, with the trademark powerhouse midfield displays one of the major reasons why City are these days considered realistic candidates for the game’s biggest prizes.
Thus the era spanning these two Monaco alumni marks the revolution of Manchester City from second tier gamblers to European certainties.
In the decade that spans the dancing shadow of a little Algerian wizard and the towering hulk of an Ivorian force of nature, the club has evolved in remarkable fashion.