Saturday, 13 March 2010

The race for fourth

With eight games left, Champions League football for next season is still in our own hands. This shows how far we have come. The Premier League is certainly not for the faint hearted, so we have done well, particularly for a relatively newly assembled team that I believe has still yet to reach its potential and find real consistency. Now, three teams stand in the way of us making a good season into an excellent one.

Liverpool, Spurs and Villa

A weak season by Liverpool’s standards has come just at the right time for City. For the last few years, Everton and Aston Villa have been pretenders to the throne, but they have failed to take advantage. Villa have been getting very close recently, and if we weren’t on the scene they’d be definite favourites to clinch fourth spot. But our new investment, from late 2008 onwards, meant we would more than likely be challenging the likes of Villa around this time. This year we have been the (obvious) ace in the pack and that has been to the detriment of Villa and Spurs.

I think Liverpool will still run everybody close. With players like Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano, they still have the armoury and steel capable of hurting anybody in the League. But they are much weaker at the back now, as shown with the recent pitiful display against Wigan, and will always leak goals.

Villa have had a strong season: reaching the League Cup final, now in the Semis of the FA Cup, and of course still vying for fourth. Their cup runs could impact on the League in one of two ways. Performances like the one O’Neill’s men gave against Reading in the second half of their FA Cup Quarter final can galvanise squads into giving that little bit extra as the final straight emerges. On the other hand, Villa are playing more games. Plus, if they get to the FA Cup final, they’ll have that game in the back of their minds until the end of the season.

Spurs have had a similar season to ourselves. Whilst they are at the right end of the table, you feel they’ve never really got into top gear. Fourth position may prove to be just out of their reach, but with the firepower they have up front, you cannot write them off.

On the record

Our record this season against these opponents has been average to bad. Probably our best performance in this department has come at Villa Park early on in the campaign. Everyone can remember our dismal showing at White Hart Lane, definitely one of our worst three showings all season and for me one of the most disappointing. We failed to capitalise on Liverpool’s weaknesses both home and away. After coming back from a goal down at Anfield to lead 2-1, we cheaply allowed Liverpool to nick a draw. I didn’t see the 0-0 at Eastlands, but by all accounts it was a damp squib, devoid of the fire that Bellamy’s big four marketing campaign seemed to promise.

Looking at our remaining fixture list, the two games that really stand out for me are the home matches against Spurs and Villa. If we can win these two encounters then we will certainly not be far away when we reach game number 38. Aside from these, other tough games are on the horizon. Everton at home, Arsenal away, and of course United still have to make the journey to the Eastern side of Manchester – a match that could eventually turn out to have massive implications for both clubs. I really feel that for one of the Mancunian sides this derby will be the real icing on the cake of a season that has played host to the most epic set of derby encounters I can remember. There’s certainly a twist to be had here.

The recipe for fourth

To finish in fourth position, we need this man to come back on song. So far Adebayor has been disappointing, coming far short of the fee we paid for him. For whatever reason, the spectre of Arsenal has consumed him for the best part of this season. The trauma of Angola certainly hasn’t helped. But Adebayor is a footballer, and play football is what he must now do.

Then come the vital ingredients. Tevez needs to continue the brilliance that he has shown pretty much all season. He missed games through family commitments in South America, but his return against Chelsea was a real shot in our arm for us, no doubt about that. It just underlines how important Carlos Tevez is to this club.

As is his team mate Craig Bellamy. It has been a groundbreaking season for the Welshman. Having seen off the challenges of Martin Petrov and Robinho for the left flank attacking position, Bellamy has simultaneously underlined his own talent and illuminated the good judgement of Mark Hughes in bringing him to the club. There is always going to be questions over Bellamy’s fitness, the condition of his troublesome knee, his ability to handle two games in the space of a week. But the fact remains that without him, without his pace, aggression and tenacity, our attack is severely blunted.

At the back, a defensive partnership of Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany present until the end of the season would be nice. It has taken a while for Lescott to settle, but finally I think we are seeing the signs. Toure’s captaincy has never felt right to me. The guy might be just going through a bad patch in form, but he has not impressed me this season. I think its always hard for a player to sign for a club and become the captain immediately. Toure may well be a talker, a good leader, but his form has been so inconsistent this season that I believe it has hampered his ability to lead credibly.

Mancini also needs to find the right midfield balance. If we play with Vieira, De Jong and Barry in the middle then I believe fourth place will be elusive. There needs to be more creativity coming from behind the front men. Ireland has had the form knocked out of him through his switches of position and injury. Adam Johnson could be an option here, but he has the potential to be so explosive from the wing that it might be an injustice not to have him attacking from wide positions.

Fourth place is there for the taking, or losing, beginning with tomorrow’s trip to Sunderland. Coming off the back of our best away win for a while, the expectation is for us to confidently dispatch Steve Bruce’s men. Somehow I feel we must be at our best if we are to gain anything from tomorrow’s trip to the North East.

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