English soccer

The pain might not be over for Manchester City.

After its agonizing Champions League elimination on Wednesday, City — tired, perhaps, in legs and mind — is facing the prospect of its FA Cup defense being ruined in the semifinal on Saturday by a player the club sold in the offseason and who has gone on to become arguably English soccer’s player of the season.

English soccer
English soccer

In letting Cole Palmer join Chelsea for at least 40 million pounds ($50.7 million) on the final day of the summer transfer window, City manager Pep Guardiola knew he was allowing a “star player” with “immense quality” leave his club.

The wider world might have thought differently.

After all, this was a 21-year-old winger with fewer than 1,500 minutes of first-team action under his belt at his hometown club. He was someone Guardiola, at that stage, really trusted to play only in domestic cup competitions. Someone whose fee appeared well over the odds — hardly a surprise given the buyers were Chelsea and its big-spending American owners.

As it has turned out, Palmer might go down as one of the best signings of recent memory, certainly the best of the new Chelsea era.

On the back of a hat trick against Manchester United two weeks ago and four goals against Everton on Monday, Palmer is tied as the top scorer in the Premier League with 20. That’s the same number as City’s Erling Haaland, who not long ago was being talked up as a generational goal-scoring talent.

That Palmer is competing for the Golden Boot — he has one more game to play than Haaland, too — is even more head-scratching given he didn’t feature in Chelsea’s first three games and didn’t score his first league goal until October.

Since then, it seems Palmer has been displaying his trademark celebration — where he crosses his arms and produces a “shiver” pose — every week. His nickname is “Cold Palmer,” a nod to his composure on the ball and in front of goal.

“I don’t judge the player when we sign (them) but I expected the best,” Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino said. “It doesn’t surprise us. He’s a player who’s had the capacity to score goals when he was playing at Manchester City. He has the capacity to score easily.

“The way he’s adapted, playing and performing is fantastic. He behaves like a top scorer and I think it’s amazing for the team and him.”

Palmer plays as a No. 10 or as a right winger cutting inside onto his favored left foot. He is languid, skilful — he loves a “nutmeg,” where a player kicks the ball through an opponent’s legs and runs around to collect it — and is proving to be an unforgiving finisher.

He has scored some of the best goals in the Premier League this season, such as a solo strike at Luton that included him rolling the ball with the sole of his boot around the goalkeeper and pausing to see a defender slide past him before slotting home. His opener against Everton was a thing of beauty, too. He has also converted nine from nine from the penalty spot this season.

No wonder he has caught the attention of England coach Gareth Southgate, who has included Palmer in his recent squads and given him second-half cameos against Malta and North Macedonia in November. Palmer looks sure to make the squad for the upcoming European Championship, though he is unlikely to be in the starting lineup.

Before that, will Palmer return to hurt City, where he spent 15 years before asking to leave to get regular action, knowing he couldn’t realistically get ahead of the likes of Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish in Guardiola’s pecking order of attacking midfielders?

He has already scored a stoppage-time equalizer from the penalty spot against his old club in a 4-4 thriller in the league in November. He has already scored at Wembley Stadium — the venue for the semifinals — this season, too: For City in the Community Shield against Arsenal.

Guardiola will know City’s hopes of keeping alive its Premier League-FA Cup ambitions rest with keeping Palmer quiet.

“To make the decision to come to Chelsea was a big one for me and my family, but I just wanted to play football,” Palmer said. “I’m thankful to Chelsea for the opportunity and I’m buzzing.”

PRESSURE ON UNITED

The other semifinal sees second-tier Coventry look to cause another upset by beating Manchester United, whose team and manager will be under huge pressure on Sunday with their season effectively on the line. United is languishing in seventh place in the league and continuing to deliver inconsistent performances, meaning it might not even qualify for Europe through its finishing position. Winning the FA Cup earns a place in the Europa League, though United would be the underdog if the team reaches the final on current form. As speculation continues to swirl about United manager Erik ten Hag’s position, losing to Coventry — managed by former United striker Mark Robins — would surely be the final straw.

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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