x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fans flock to celebrate Manchester City in ‘second home’ Abu Dhabi

Open training session by Premier League champions brings joyous feel to Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium

Fans flock to the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on May 14, 2014, for an open training session by English Premier League champions Manchester City. Christopher Pike / The National
Fans flock to the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on May 14, 2014, for an open training session by English Premier League champions Manchester City. Christopher Pike / The National

Ali Khaled

You would not have begrudged them another day off. Perhaps on the poolside loungers at the St Regis Hotel on Saadiyat Island.

But here they were, the tired but happy players of Manchester City, delighting the several thousand fans who had turned up at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday to greet the newly crowned English Premier League champions.

Billed as an open training session before Thursday’s exhibition match against Al Ain, it was that only in name. This was more a local coronation for Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed’s club.

A short season’s highlights reel had whipped up the crowd’s excitement level before the players walked out to the slightly curious tune of “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve.

Ultimately, there was nothing bittersweet about City’s season, the painful defeats to Barcelona in the Uefa Champions League long forgotten in the aftermath of Sunday’s euphoric title victory.

One by one, as the players were announced – Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Samir Nasri – roars of delight came down from the stands, where most fans were likely seeing their heroes in the flesh for the first time.

Edin Dzeko, Martin Demichelis and the rest. And then, to an almighty cheer, the darling of the fans, Yaya Toure.

After a rendition of the club’s anthem Blue Moon, the squad, in their yellow training tops, broke into a light jog around the perimeter of the pitch, the screams growing louder as they approached the fans. And none as loud as a section made up of Emirati women waving a UAE flag. In Abu Dhabi, Manchester City is the people’s club now.

The city coaches, lead by Brian Kidd, then took the players through some stretching exercises and a few crossing and shooting drills. Not surprisingly, it was all conducted at a leisurely pace.

With many of these players heading off to the World Cup next month, manager Manuel Pellegrini had given no promises how much game time the Brazil-bound contingent would play against Al Ain. This is no time to pick up silly injuries.

The amateur psychologists in the crowd would have tried to gauge the body language of Nasri, who the previous day had been omitted from the French World Cup squad to much debate.

But this had a joyous, last-day-of-school feel to it, and there were few long faces to be seen anywhere.

Hart, Toure, Joleon Lescott and a few other injured players ambled around the sidelines, cracking jokes and posing for pictures. Demichelis did a solo jog around the pitch to the delight of his growing fan club. Zabaleta, whose wonderful celebrations on Sunday won a million hearts, beamed throughout.

Finally, Pellegrini refereed an 11 v 11 match conducted at walking pace that was interrupted several times by young fans running onto the pitch, much to the irritation of the security guards but to the huge delight of the crowd.

Pitchside, an interview with City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain was drowned out by the screams of the fans.

Next it was Toure’s turn. “A second home,” he called Abu Dhabi. Queue more shrieks from the stands.

Then it was over, the players departing to Oasis’s rock anthem Roll With It. Hundreds of school kids jumped the fences and ran onto the field, a scaled-down version of the pitch invasion seen at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

Earlier, when asked about plans for next season, Pellegrini had said this is a week for celebration. Tonight, a match against Al Ain at the new Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Next week, Hart, Toure, Kompany and many others will join their countries in preparation for the World Cup.

For Pellegrini, relaxed and smiling as he walked off the pitch, it will be back to work. The serious business of plotting the defence of the Premier League title and the little matter of a genuine assault on what is surely now Manchester City’s most coveted prize, the Champions League.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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