When Sven-Goran Eriksson took the reins at Manchester City in July 2007, the squad he was working with was a shambles. It had finished the previous season having scored just 10 home league goals; the quality of the football was beyond dire; and many supporters questioned whether they’d even bother returning to watch the new campaign.
Backed by new chairman Thaksin Shinawatra’s chequebook—which would later turn out to be not that useful—Eriksson set about bringing in a whole host of players to boost his squad.
The early headlines were grabbed by the likes of Geovanni, a Brazilian who came with a good reputation having scored in the Champions League against rivals Manchester United, and Rolando Bianchi, an Italian striker who had been netting goals for fun in Serie A for Reggina.
However, once their early promise died down, the real excitement grew around another of the new signings—creative midfielder Elano.
He took a few games to settle into Eriksson’s City team. Once he had, he was whetting the supporters' appetite again, after a long spell of little for them to get excited about. When he scored his first goal for the club especially, tongues really did begin to wag.
It came in a 3-1 victory over Newcastle United at the then-City of Manchester Stadium. It had been a tough match for City; they’d fallen behind early on but fought back to lead with goals either side of half-time. The icing was put on the cake in the closing stages, after a foul by Nicky Butt around 30 yards out was penalised by the referee.
Elano stood over it and, without whipping or curling the ball, simply powered an effort right into the top corner of Newcastle goalkeeper Shay Given’s net. It was perfectly placed—the shot couldn’t have gone nearer to the corner of the goal without touching either the post or the crossbar—and despite beating the wall on the goalkeeper’s side, Given just couldn’t get near it.
For a spell, that opened the floodgates. Elano netted twice in the next match, a 3-1 home win over Middlesbrough, one of them being another superb free-kick. This time he used less power and curled a shot over the wall, into the bottom corner of Mark Schwarzer’s net.
The Brazilian then bagged the winner in a 1-0 success over Birmingham City, sliding a shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. It capped off four strikes in three games, as he appeared to have truly settled into the team.
He might have faded in and out of the opening matches of the campaign, but he was really building a solid relationship with his team-mates by the time October turned to November.
Along with Michael Johnson in midfield, Elano was helping the team overachieve in the first half of the season—they were flirting with the Champions League places by the time Christmas arrived, though that form wasn’t to last.
It was exciting to watch in contrast to the bilge that had been served up the season before, and Elano was at the centre of it all.
In truth, Johnson’s injury for the second half of the season might have had a lot to do with why City then struggled. He’d been linking up so well with Elano throughout the opening months that they were picking teams apart. They seemed to know where each other was on the pitch constantly, and both had the ability to find the other to set up an attack.
Without Johnson for the second half of the season, Elano looked a little lost at times. He was still a creative influence, but he wasn’t able to turn on the style in the same way after January and often went missing.
His goals dried up, save for a couple of efforts from the penalty spot, and he was finding life in the Premier League a lot harder as City began to slide down the table to a ninth-placed finish.
As City’s squad became more threadbare in the final weeks of the campaign, he also was forced into an emergency right-back role, which completely stifled his influence on matches. He was a world away from the genius he'd looked in the first few months of his time with the club.
He had the final say of the Eriksson reign, scoring a wonder-strike on the final day of the season. It wasn’t one he bothered celebrating, however; it came when his side were trailing 7-0 at Middlesbrough in a game that would finish 8-1 to the home side. There was little dignity in celebrating that goal, no matter how good it was.
Eriksson was sacked that summer, and that began Elano’s slow exit from the club, too. The Swede’s replacement in the dugout, Mark Hughes, clearly didn’t feel the midfielder was up for the job, and the Brazilian was in and out of the team in the Welshman’s first season in charge. He’d been an automatic starter under the previous manager.
This was despite an impressive start under the new boss. The Brazilian bagged a penalty in a 4-2 loss at Aston Villa, before hitting a brace in a 3-0 victory over West Ham United a week later. But with compatriot Robinho arriving for big money from Real Madrid and marking the start of the Sheikh Mansour era at City, Elano was a little forgotten about—he drifted for several months.
In his 2013 autobiography, Craig Bellamy: Goodfella (h/t the Daily Mirror), the former City and Wales striker accused Elano of being one of a trio in a Brazilian clique at the club, commenting that he, Robinho and centre-back Glauber Berti "didn't give a s--t."
Nevertheless, many fans wanted to see him in the team more often, still remembering what he'd done in his early months.
Perhaps Elano's most impressive display came on an evening where City almost upset the odds.
Having lost the away leg of a UEFA Cup quarter-final tie with Hamburger SV 3-1, Hughes needed his side to perform at home if they were to have any chance of staying in the competition. They compounded the situation by conceding an away goal in the early stages—meaning they needed to score three in 90 minutes just to force extra time.
Elano took the game by the scruff of the neck. He equalised from the penalty spot before whacking two free-kicks against the frame of the goal. The first, a rifled effort towards the end of the first half, left the crossbar shaking violently. The second left the goalkeeper rooted as it bounced agonisingly out of play from the left-hand upright.
He was like a man possessed that evening, but it still wasn’t enough for City to get the result they wanted.
It seemed to reinvigorate the Brazilian’s City career. He scored another penalty the following weekend, as his side beat West Bromwich Albion, before another spot-kick was converted against Blackburn Rovers a fortnight later. He made a name for himself with super-cool finishes from 12 yards and never looked like missing.
Just when it looked like he might have been playing his way back into favour with the manager, he was sold to Galatasaray for £8 million—the same fee that City had paid to Shakhtar Donetsk for his services in 2007.
Perhaps the Brazilian lacked the consistency to have been a player in the current great City teams, but he played his part in bringing excitement back to the supporters after a downturn in fortunes.
To compare him to the likes of David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne would be silly—though he ranks highly as one of the biggest cult heroes the club has had, alongside the likes of Ali Benarbia or Georgi Kinkladze.
For two years Elano stole the hearts of City fans, and it is still difficult not to wonder what might have been.