Thursday, 14 October 2010

The first quarter

With another international break now over and the Premiership ready to begin, it’s a good time to reflect on how the first quarter of the season has panned out. Firstly, a word on our two encounters with the black and white shirts of Juventus and Newcastle.

Life in the Old Lady yet

They may not be the force of old but I was mightily impressed with Juventus. For me they were probably the best team to arrive at Eastlands so far this season and this encounter was probably the most interesting game to grace the pitch since the 2010/11 campaign began.

Juventus seemed well up for the game and pressured us on the ball at every opportunity. We couldn’t seem to get a grip on the game at first but gradually came into proceedings. Although Juventus seemed to have more control in the first half, it was still a surprise when Vincenzo Iaquinta powered them into the lead with a blistering effort from some way outside the area. I believe the shot was slightly deflected off Kolo Toure’s head, but nevertheless Hart was at fault here. England’s number one should not be letting in these kinds of speculative efforts. To be fair to him though, Jerome Boateng was the real culprit, standing off Iaquinta and allowing him sight of goal for that split second. In retrospect, the warning signs were there when the Italian striker had a powerful shot from a difficult angle saved by Hart in the opening minutes.

Our other dependable Argentinean Pablo Zabaleta, later injured with hamstring trouble, simply could not deal with Milos Krasic. The Serbian winger rampaged down the right wing for the entire first half. Although he was eventually booked for diving in the area (the referee could’ve easily caved in here) he was easily the most dangerous player I have seen at Eastlands this season. Mancini must take the credit for gradually nullifying the Krasnic threat, switching Boateng over to left back in the second half to keep the Serbian quiet.

Flashes of the potential brilliance of our attacking play shone through with Adam Johnson’s goal. An excellent through ball from Yaya Toure connected perfectly with Johnson veering run, and the winger took his goal fantastically well.

In the second half we had our chances but as the game approached 60 minutes Juventus had already decided upon their strategy. Playing against a bank of four and five is hard at the best of times, but it was made even harder against the defensive discipline of Luigi del Neri.

And then of course came the biggest let off of the night. Alessandro Del Piero is a player who needs no introduction, and whilst he is far from the player he was, he was a central element of Juve’s strategy at Eastlands – defend to the hilt, counter attack when possible and if the opportunity presents itself, draw fouls around the edge of the penalty area – then give the ball to Del Piero. So it was that this scenario played out in the dying embers of the game, with Del Piero’s resulting free kick smashing against the bar and crashing onto Joe Hart’s line in the style of Geoff Hurst 1966. Replays confirmed that the ref had got it right. Looking at the game as a whole, we had certainly got away with a point.


We didn’t really perform well against the Geordies either. Early on, after Tevez had once again stepped up to the plate by converting a penalty, it had looked like Newcastle were going to be on the end of a hammering. But credit must go to the Tynesiders in the way they fought themselves back into the contention and levelled the score line with a strike from Jonas Gutierrez. Defensively I felt we were looking a bit like we did in the Hughes days, when the team was unbalanced and schizophrenic.

With a forward quartet of Tevez, Silva, Milner and the supporting Yaya Toure, we lacked ideas. At this stage in the season I can only put this down to lack of understanding, with Yaya had a particular off day. I have written previously of my concern that we don’t have enough versatility up front and that a quality target man might give us this. But still, with the quality of that forward four we should be doing better against a team like Newcastle.

It was left to our boy wonder of the moment, Adam Johnson, to provide the answer. Benched after the Juventus game, he came from the sidelines into the limelight seconds after being introduced by Mancini, driving a low shot from the right into the corner of Newcastle’s goal, giving us the victory we required to build on the Chelsea win.

Adam Johnson

Mancini may well focus on Adam Johnson’s shortcomings, but the Italian must also admit that the winger has saved our blushes on a number of occasions this season. After Tevez, and in the absence of a second striker, Johnson represents our next best goal threat. And although his crossing is not yet the best, his trickery often unsettles teams and ups the tempo of our play. The crowd also love him. And given his recent 1st half England performance against Montengro, the nation is growing to love him as well. All players need to improve but we should be careful not to dim the glow of Johnson’s start to the season

‘Winning ugly’

When all is said and done, we cannot complain too much about Mancini either. Seven games into the season and we are a clear second in the league, having already played Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea. I know a lot of City fans grow frustrated with the Italian’s approach. You can hear the frustration in the post match phone ins and I do agree with some of it. I agree with the charge that we should be going for it a bit more at home. Sometimes we’ve too many defensive minded players in midfield clogging up our play, sometimes we’re not able to give enough support to Carlos Tevez.

Mancini’s caution may well be because of injuries, and with Kolarov, Boateng and Balotelli firing on all cylinders we could see a more adventurous approach. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that as we turn our attention to facing Blackpool, we are second only to Chelsea in the league – a much better return than at this point last season. Brian Kidd talked of ‘winning ugly’ against Newcastle. Whilst this may not be the traditional City way, it is something we may have to do for a bit longer in order to keep in touch with the leaders – at least until personnel return from injury and the team begins to gel.

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