The football landscape in Manchester is changing. Just head through the eastern part of town, along Alan Turing Way, and a new stadium is starting to thrust skywards directly opposite Manchester City's ground, in the same way that Mini Estadi nestles beside the Camp Nou. The Etihad Campus, City's new training complex, will be operating within six months, with a 7,000-seat stadium as its focal point. The difference with Barcelona is the 80 acres of spare land that City have for development around it, now a frenzy of hard hats and scaffolding operating to the designs of Rafael Viñoly, the Uruguayan architect whose portfolio includes Jongno Tower in Seoul, Carrasco international airport in Montevideo and various additions to the skylines of New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles, among others.
For those of us who remember the old City, these are moments when it can feel like an entirely different club and it brings to mind a line in Pies and Prejudice, Stuart Maconie's book about his travels through the north. Manchester, he wrote, was still a "mucky kid at heart, but having been mithered by Mam and had their faces wiped with spittle on some civic hankie, they've scrubbed up dead smart." It encapsulates everything that has happened to City, on the journey from chip-fat to champagne.
Viñoly's latest project will feature a long sweeping footbridge, named the Commonwealth Way, to link the two grounds over a dual-carriageway. There will be 16 other pitches, accommodation for players, apartments for relatives, a medical centre, a boardroom, a media theatre and the kind of five-star luxury that it is fair to say was not always evident in the years the team trained on council pitches in Moss Side.
Then again, a lot has changed since the days Platt Lane doubled up as a meeting point for the local down-and-outs. Paul Lake tells the story in his autobiography about how a noisy troupe would congregate by the meshed perimeter fence to abuse the players on their laps of the pitch, including one guy whose party trick was to smile menacingly and rub his crotch up and down the netting.
"Wonder whether Bryan Robson has to cope with this at the Cliff?" was an often-heard lament among the players. Which feels like a piece of classic City, long before the days when they shelled out £639,000 a day on wages, ferried executives around in chauffeur-driven cars and once surprised Barcelona after a conference call from Abu Dhabi to Manchester was misunderstood, specifically the words "it's getting messy" and – true story – Garry Cook, bless him, put in a £30m bid for Lionel Messi.
"Typical City" – the phrase that they came to hate – tends to mean another five- or six-goal thrashing these days and the free-scoring exploits of Manuel Pellegrini's side tell only part of the story. City's Under-18s are unbeaten since 28 September and won 2-0 on Saturday against Manchester United. The Under-21s have not lost in three months. At senior level, City fans will have a better understanding now why the people of Málaga have named a street after Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini was let go.
At junior level, City's Under-13s and Under-14s are national champions. Nobody should get too far ahead of themselves but if Abu Dhabi's royal family continue to apply the same mix of hard ambition and incalculable wealth, it is not outlandish to wonder whether what we are seeing now is leading to a period of extended domination.
If it is a deception, apologies in advance for being reeled in. For now, though, it feels like common sense after City's anachronistic run of freewheeling wins. A 5-1 joyride at Tottenham, to go with a 6-0 against the same opposition in Manchester, the various ordeals for Arsenal (6-3), United (4-1), Norwich (7-0), West Ham (9-0 over two legs of the Capital One Cup semi-final), and not forgetting another eight occasions when City have scored at least four; these are results that belong to a black-and-white era.
Their latest financial results show that annual revenue, £87m only four years earlier, has risen to £271m, overtaking Chelsea and Arsenal and putting City sixth in the Deloitte money list. Yet there are other ways to calculate the club's growth. In the space of a year, City's ticket office have dealt with fans from 76 different countries. City's worldwide television audience is up by 133% since 2009 (in the UK it is by 103%) and 15.2m of the annual 33m visitors to their website are from abroad. No trophies are awarded for this sort of thing but it is still monumental progress that the club's YouTube channel attracted 60m hits over the year. Barcelona's, to put it into context, had 50.5m, Santos are next with 30.7m, then Real Madrid (24.5m) and Juventus (19.6m).
United fan like to taunt City with an adaptation of the old Inspiral Carpets song: "This is how it feels to be City/This is how it feels to be small/This is how it feels when your team wins nothing at all." It no longer feels so cutting when pre-season fixtures in the United States are selling out within 20 minutes and analysis by the Mailman Group shows that City are suddenly more than twice as popular as any other European club on China's main two social media sites, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo.
In other ways, City are still in a game of catch-up. At Old Trafford, there is a stadium tour every seven minutes and a plausible explanation why the television companies have selected every one of United's FA Cup ties for live coverage since late-January 2005. Repetitive? Yes. Unimaginative? Absolutely. But you can understand the logic when United pulled in higher viewing figures for their game against Crawley Town in 2011 than watched Arsenal play Barcelona three days earlier.
The modern-day City do not have the same kind of pull. Newspaper data also shows that they have plenty of ground to make up, comparing the number of website hits a City match would ordinarily attract compared to one featuring United, Liverpool or Arsenal. The drop to that next group down, comprising Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona, is considerable.
These are relatively small matters, however. The bottom line is that success on the pitch has to happen first and providing that it is sustained, the rest falls into place over time. Every league match at the Etihad is a sell-out these days and cup-tie attendances – so poor a few years ago the crowds used televised fixtures to chant their displeasure to the stay-aways – now average above 42,000, an increase of 7%. Plans have already been drawn up to increase the stadium's capacity from 48,000 to 60,000. It is ambitious but the work will not be undertaken unless extensive research confirms it will be worthwhile. For the current campaign, season tickets were sold out within 90 minutes.
A £1bn outlay from Sheikh Mansour will always polarise opinion and it is certainly an unorthodox place of sport when middle-ranking staff are asked to choose between a BMW or Range Rover for a company car (in a different time, it was something small and inexpensive with one strict condition: nothing red).
It is tempting as well to wonder how seriously Uefa have looked at the bloated sponsorship agreement with Etihad Airways, from the Abu Dhabi empire, that has helped City tick the financial fair play boxes. But it was always futile expecting a forensic investigation and before anyone complains too loudly it is also worth remembering the hypocrisies and self-serving interests of the clubs campaigning to Uefa for those regulations. They wanted a closed shop. What they got was a club living up to Lonely Planet's description of Manchester as having a "champagne-for-breakfast insouciance and almost giddy attitude."
That club, in fairness, have clearly had enough of being taken for a ride as potential sellers put on a premium for prospective signings, as Porto can now testify after bumping up the price for Fernando and Eliaquim Mangala. A few years ago, City would have signed the cheque. Nowadays, they bend to nobody. It is the big club's mentality and Manchester's changing skyline just adds to the sense of a club coming into their time. If they can hold off Chelsea, Arsenal and everyone else this season it is going to be difficult, in the extreme, to shift them from the top.
Ingenius, infuriating, Berbatov will be missed by many
Farewell then, Dimitar Berbatov. You were infuriating at times, you danced to a different tune and maybe sometimes it was us, not you, who put on the wrong track. But when you were good, those days when you made it feel like football was the most natural thing in the world, we would always forgive you for the occasional lapses.
A personal memory lingers from a 2-0 win for Manchester United against West Ham in October 2008. Cristiano Ronaldo scored the goals but it was the blur of movement and high skill before the second of them that sticks in the mind, as Berbatov spun, pirouetted and glided away from James Collins to set it all up. sp
"I'm going to have to see that again to understand how he did it," Sir Alex Ferguson, as confused as the rest of us, said afterwards. "You'd pay double the money to watch that – fantastic imagination, control and balance."
It was not always like that and Berbatov has at least one foot in the pantheon of Ferguson buys who could not show value for money. All the same, 56 goals and 27 assists from 149 games is a decent counter-argument. At Tottenham Hotur, it was 46 goals in 101 matches and the last season and a half at Fulham, leading to his loan arrangement with Monaco, brought 20 more from 54 appearances.
Of course there was always much more to Berbatov than just a list of numbers on a sheet of paper. Just consider the clip of him taking down a long, crossfield pass at Craven Cottage with the nonchalance of a man who does not appear to realise, or care for, the speed of everything around him. From 40 yards the ball sticks to his boot like a stone landing on sand. And those were the kind of moments for which we will remember him, rather than the occasions when he drifted to the edges, holding the ends of his sleeves and watched games whizz by.
Berbatov, in the good times, had the knack of reminding his audience that a player who puts his foot on the ball sees the most. Arsenal, with their heavy reliance on Olivier Giroud, could have done much worse.