Sunday, 31 January 2010

A dangerous stroll in the park

If there ever was a damp squib of a football match then this was it. Passion? Skill? Drama? Today’s 2-0 win over bottom of the table Pompey simply had none. The biggest plus must be the three points that see us move back up the table into 6th place.

A tonic of sorts
Let’s face it, it’s been a crap week. The Derby loss to United was a real blow to everyone associated with the Club. This was closely followed by the inevitable departure of Robinho, a setback of a different kind in my opinion, although I’ll talk about this more in my next post.

So first and foremost we needed a good, solid result against Portsmouth today, and partly, we got that. But there were a few negatives to be drawn from the game all of which I hope we can put down to being hangovers from the events of Old Trafford in midweek.

Poor, poor Pompey
The atmosphere at the ground was flat from the off, even before a ball was kicked. In a sense this can be put down to the opposition. Poor old Portsmouth, worse off in more ways than one these days, offered little in the way of making it a hotly contested game. Propping up the Premier League table at the beginning of the day, they are no nearer changing that situation at the end of it.

A shot that hit the cross bar in the first half and a shot off target from point blank range in the second showed that Pompey did at least have something to offer. But when your luck is down, your luck is down, and Lady Luck is certainly nowhere near Portsmouth Football Club at this moment in time. Avram Grant will of course want to take the positives, but the sad fact is that there were little. Pompey are bottom of the table because they are a poor side.

Fortunate City
Portsmouth’s strife turned out to be in City’s favour today. In fact, if Pompey had been any better then we would’ve been in trouble for sure.

I am glad that Emmanuel Adebayor got his first goal since returning from the African Nations. His was an excellently taken strike, executed to perfection from Stephen Ireland’s through pass. Vincent Kompany’s commanding header minutes later gave the Blues a welcome two goal cushion going into the second half, a cushion that – looking back on the game – we badly needed given our own lacklustre play.

The root of our problems today were both of a physical and mental nature. The many Blue passes going astray told of a tired team. People talk of squad depth at Eastlands these days, but in some areas of the team – particularly the more industrious areas – we have not got it.

Central midfield immediately comes to mind. Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry get through a lot of work in this department, but Barry particularly I think needs a rest. The lad has more or less been an ever present since the beginning of the season, only missing three games. Of course, this is one of the reasons why we have brought cover into this area in the form of Patrick Vieira, but we have yet to see the Frenchman as he continues to recover from a calf injury he sustained during his last appearance for Inter Milan.

And looking around the squad, there aren’t many more options in this department. Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta are the most obvious replacements, but defensive injuries and international call ups have meant that this duo have been needed elsewhere.

The result today was a tired midfield which lacked drive. We were not helped by Ireland once again playing out of position, being asked to play on both wings as opposed to his favoured central position. We were also not helped by a poor performance from Martin Petrov. The Bulgarian seemed to spend a lot of time complaining about not being in the side under Mark Hughes. The departure of Robinho and fitness of Shaun Wright-Phillips have since gone in Petrov’s favour, but today he did himself no favours: spraying balls around aimlessly, afraid to take people on down the right (albeit his weaker) side, shooting wildly, and of course doing what he will always do and never making strong challenges.

Mentally too, I felt that we weren’t in the game. The crowd was flat partly because of our opposition, but it was partly because of the lackadaisical way we went about the game. It almost seemed as if we expected to turn up and win. I know that we more or less did that in the end, and I know that developing the expectation to win is a major part of what we are trying to do here. But that expectation must be backed up with the work rate, concentration and the creativity. Clearly these three things were not always in the mix for the Blues today, and that can be a dangerous concoction from which to drink. All the crowd needed was a strong, committed tackle or a spurt of pace going forward, but it rarely got that, aside from the usual exemplary efforts of Carlos Tevez and, when he entered the fray, Craig Bellamy.

Taking the long view
Come April or May, no-one will remember the nature of this result, but they will look back and remember the win. It is of course only the points that count, and today we bagged all three. It shows how far we have come in the sense that we have won this game without really expending much effort. But we won’t be able to win many more games in this fashion from now on.

Indeed, the fact that we did not do more to try and annihilate Pompey and clock up a drubbing of a score line may count against us at the finish line if goal difference comes into it. That certainly would be hard to take. Sometimes, strolls in the park do not turn out to be as pleasant as they may at first seem.

Today's match day programme

All those who buy a programme at today's game against Portsmouth will see a page-long feature about Without a Dream in Our Hearts.

A big thanks must go out to the Club and to fellow blogger Lloyd over at Man City Issues for making this happen.

After the disappointment of this week let's hope the Blues get back on track with a solid win against Pompey!

In other news, check out an interesting new addition to the City blogosphere: The CarlosTevBlog, which aims to focus on all things to do with our attacking man of the moment, Carlos Tevez.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The terrible truth

It was always going to be a contest of epic proportions, and it didn’t fail to disappoint. The second installment of City's League Cup tie with United was another gem of a spectacle, cut from the same cloth as the first leg. Something tells me that it is a match that I should privileged to have been a part of. It’s certainly a night that I will both always remember and always want to forget.

Above all things, this result was a true measure of City’s current position. I’ve said in the past, that because of the volatile nature of Derbies, they are never good tools with which to measure progress. For the first leg, and for much of the second, this was a Derby contest, but after Carlos Tevez scored to make it 3-3 on aggregate, the tie took on a European-esque feel. It became more about concentration than passion, more about footballing savvy than fire.

And it was in this climate where United succeeded and City ultimately failed. The former has, after all, had a lot more practice when it comes to these high pressure moments.

The match itself
If we look at it as a game of football, it certainly wasn’t as disastrous as the result feels. Before the game Mancini would’ve taken 0-0 at half time, so in a sense City did the job in the first half. Of course, we could’ve played the first 45 minutes better. Once again I felt we gave United too much respect, too much time on the ball. They used the wide positions well and for once Nani looked like a dangerous prospect on the right. Perhaps this was more to do with the space he was afforded by Javier Garrido.

I gasped when I saw Dedryck Boyata’s name in the starting eleven. His selection was arguably an even bigger gamble than playing him in the first leg, but it certainly paid off for Mancini. For one so inexperienced, the young Belgian put in a good performance, making an unbelievable goal mouth clearance in the second half.

But he and his fellow defenders / defensive midfielders were neither exceptional nor flawless. If we take each of United’s goals, none are a reflection of the sublime attacking talent that Ferguson’s men possess. Instead they are an indictment of our own rear guard action.

Sadly, the Scholes and Carrick strikes were both as a result of a string of defensive mistakes. We couldn’t clear our lines quick enough and we paid the price. I don’t know how many bites of the cherry we were thinking of giving the oncoming Red shirts, but balls in the box against United have to be dealt with quickly, efficiently, at the first attempt, otherwise it’s a goal scoring opportunity. The first goal was vital in the sense that it opened up the game. The last person we wanted that ball to break to on the edge of the box was Paul Scholes.

Rooney’s winner was more of the same. How, in the 92nd minute, we can allow the Premiership’s most in form striker a free header in front of goal is beyond me.

The keys to City’s defeat
We showed flashes of what we can do going forward, but it was never enough. For me, the level of our attacking threat was always going to be one of the keys to this game. United’s weak spot is the centre of defence, and I always felt that if we got at this then we would be rewarded. Getting at United’s backline would’ve had the added advantage of taking the pressure of our own defence. This I think was the only way to victory.

But for great swathes of the game we were under pressure, forever chasing down the ball and standing off. And this was another key to our defeat: lack of possession. Any team would’ve tired in this environment. As with the 4-3 defeat earlier in the season, for the Blues it once again all came down to not having the ball, and struggling to find outlets to release the pressure once we did have the ball.

Underlying all of this was the difference in mentalities. Tevez’s goal came at a fantastic time. I must admit that at 2-0 down, I thought we were in danger of conceding a hatful. But that was not to be. City certainly did not go quietly, with the little Argentinean’s deft flick – again evidence of his sheer quality –completely changing the outlook of the game. Suddenly City were in the ascendancy. This was the key period of the game for me. If we’d have scored again in this window I feel we would’ve closed the game out.

But we didn’t score, and in not doing we allowed United to wrest back control of the game as it ran into injury time. Our mentality suddenly became one of retreat, one of battening down the hatches, one of desperation. This allowed United to enter a comfortable and familiar scenario – that of a team pushing for the winner amidst the dying embers of the game. Rooney’s winner came as much from our defensive suicide on the pitch as it did from our failure to win the mental battle that was taking place in those final minutes.

The truth hurts, but it will get better
I will never forget how the game ended and the sequence of events afterwards. We were made to wait in the ground until the United fans had filtered out. Of course, most Reds took the opportunity and baited the City fans, many of whom either stared out towards the Stretford End or down towards the floor. And then came the ordeal of walking back to the car, surrounded by buoyant Reds chanting songs about laughing at City. It was a nightmare-ish experience.

This was backed up by the fact, however hard it is to accept, at this moment in time we are just not quite good enough to match a team like United over two legs. United have that extra factor, the winning mentality that only comes from – yes you guessed it – winning. In the end, their winning experience told.

We are still building our winning experience. This will be small comfort to many City fans, but this defeat, as terrible as it feels, should be seen in perspective. Five years ago, could we really have hoped for a UEFA Cup quarter final birth, a League Cup semi final against United, and to be still knocking on the door of the top four by February? Of course not, but we should remember that these kinds of things are becoming a regular occurrence.

This is one of the worst defeats I have ever experienced, but it makes me all the more eager to put one over on the Reds the next time we meet, and the time after that, and the time after that.

Indeed, the rivalry is increasing, entering a new phase, and both sides know it. One only had to look at the celebrations of the United players, at the expressions on the faces of the United fans, to know how much this victory meant to them. The level of abuse being thrown across the stands was stark.

It may well be a scar for the Blues, but United fans should remember that this result – far from being the end - is part of a new beginning. City are not going to go away. To me, it represents an early skirmish of a wider war that is now opening up across Manchester.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The battle of Manchester begins

It was a special night. On a personal level, this first leg League Cup victory over the old enemy was one of the most memorable City matches I have witnessed.

Build up to a spectacle
The drama of last season’s UEFA Cup quarterfinal against Hamburg was a hard act to follow, but this match surpassed that in every way. In large part that was down to both the quality and, of course, the identity of our opponents.

From the second the lights were dimmed, bathing the stadium in light blue, it became one of those nights. United fans played their part, upping the ante by setting off a couple of red fire crackers in retort. City fans responded by belting out a rapturous ‘Blue Moon’ Already electric, the atmosphere thickened as the pressure flowed from the stands onto the pitch.

After all the debate, Ferguson emerged from the bowels of Eastlands with a strong side, arguably his strongest available. No Wellbeck, no Macheda, no Gibson, no Obertan, no De Laet. Rafael Da Silva was the nearest United got to fielding inexperience, and that young full back is certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to Premier League football.

United’s team selection revealed much. Most tellingly it spoke of Ferguson’s true perception of the City threat and of his desire to defeat it. The fierce rivalry that has simmered and burned across Manchester for decades remains as bright as ever, indeed perhaps as close to boiling point now as it ever has been.

Roberto Mancini deployed the best team available to him on the night. There were always going to be clear weaknesses throughout the team given the injury situation and international duties. No Bridge, no Lescott, no Toure, no Ireland, no Santa-Cruz, no Adebayor. Dedryck Boyata came into the defence to partner Kompany at centre back, Zabaleta moved to the left side of midfield whilst Bellamy was pushed up front with Tevez.

The battle is joined
For the first 30 minutes or so, we did not show up. It was no surprise when United opened the scoring on 16 minutes with a Giggs tap in.

The bad start may have been partly down to Mancini getting the initial formation wrong. Bellamy is at his best when marauding down the left flank and Zabaleta was certainly no match for the tenacious Rafael. But it is more likely that we started the game in the wrong frame of mind. We seemed far too nervous and gave the United midfield far too much time on the ball when we should have been pressing.

We were generally wasteful in possession, with Kompany, Wright-Phillips and Boyata being particularly slack. The post match reaction of certain elements in the media seemed to heap praise on the young Belgian, but I felt he was a little out of his depth. He obviously has a future and will benefit greatly from this derby experience, but his selection represented a massive gamble on the part of Mancini. Perhaps a better option would’ve been to place Zabaleta at right back, move Richards across to partner Kompany with Bellamy replacing Zabaleta on the left flank.

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. The main positive we can take from analysing the manager’s performance is that yet again he changed things quickly, moving Bellamy to the left wing, dropping Zabaleta back into a defensive midfield position which gave us a physically small but highly mobile three pronged attack of Bellamy, Tevez and Wright-Phillips. This allowed us to get at what continues to be United's weakspot - the central defensive partnering of Wes Brown and Jonny Evans, a weakness that is cleverly masked by the potency of United's forward play, which takes pressure off the backline.

At any rate, it was from Bellamy’s left side that we gained a penalty just before half time, justifying Mancini’s realignment. In some sense the successful penalty strike from Tevez represented a sucker punch for United, who up until this point had seemed relatively comfortable.

The second half was much better from City. Every time a Red shirt came into possession he was quickly pressed, none more so than by the magnificent Carlos Tevez. In the 65th minute, the Argentinean slightly rose to head Kompany’s hooked cross past Van Der Sar to give City a 2-1 lead. It was nothing more than the Blues leader striker deserved. His goals apart, Tevez’s contribution was that much more impossible to ignore because of his overall play. This above all remains the most important element of Tevez, not only because it helps the objectives of the team but because it sets the right message to the team that this is the level of work rate they should all be hitting.

It is the kind of message that should be specifically getting through to the likes of Robinho. In congratulating Tevez on his December Barclays Player of the Month award, Mancini’s programme notes could easily be interpreted as containing a veiled warning for the Brazilian:
“He [Tevez] is a player I have admired from a distance for many years, and it is a delight to work with him on a daily basis. His form speaks for itself, but his success has come about through hard work on the training ground allied to his outstanding talent. He gives everything he has for the team, and works just as hard without the ball as when he has it. That is something that I always look for in a player, but the bonus with Carlos is that he is such a threat in front of goal.”
The final quarter of the match
This may be hard to stomach for some readers, but there is no doubt that United are a slick and potent attacking machine, the best I have seen at Eastlands all season. The quality of their offensive play reminds me of an animal that senses blood. This was evident as the final minutes closed in. We were under siege with very little outlet, in fact the pattern of the game was reminiscent of the dying minutes at Old Trafford earlier in the season, when our failure to clear our lines and retain possession ultimately resulted in our late, late demise.

Once again, I commend Mancini. Boyata was rightly substituted just before the 70 minute mark, replaced with the more experienced Nedum Onuoha. Then came another defensive substitution on 84 minutes, with Sylvinho replacing the tired Wright-Phillips. I’ve heard a lot of criticism about these moves but I back the manager 100%. The alternative would’ve been to bring on more attack minded players to relieve the pressure, but I believe the likes of Robinho and Petrov would’ve been muscled out in this environment. Mancini well may have invited more pressure by bringing on extra defensive capacity, but we were in a much better position defending to the hilt rather than thinning out our defence by going for another goal.

After all, we must remember that this tie was always going to be a tight affair. And whilst City are an excellent counter attacking side, we must also remember that at this point in time United are better. Their brand of quick, precise one-touch football is based entirely on the mutual understanding of their forward players. This should be no surprise because Ferguson has had a great deal of time to engrain this philosophy into the club. All the more reason why bringing on an attack minded player and thinning the defence was the wrong way to go.

Looking towards the next leg
Whilst we take a slender lead into the next leg, it is nevertheless a lead. It may seem like a strange comment, but I feel more comfortable with a one goal lead rather than to be up two or three. The latter scenarios just seem to invite defensive collapse. Perhaps that attitude is being far too ‘typical City’ for anyone’s liking.

But now, as we stand on the cusp of a League Cup Final, attitude is the vital word. We may well be able to field a stronger side at Old Trafford if the recoveries of Wright-Phillips and Ireland go according to plan, but we also know that United are strong, and that United will come knocking.

In these situations it is belief that matters. And ultimately, it will be belief that dictates whether this City side can deliver itself, and its fans, onto the hallowed turf of Wembley.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Enter Vieira

This week has seen the first transfer of the Mancini era. Patrick Vieira, 33 years old, signed from Inter Milan on an initial six month deal, is a player most English fans remember well. His return to the Premier League has already sparked a great deal of debate, with the main concern being that the Frenchman isn’t getting any younger. So why exactly has Mancini turned to Vieira as the next piece of the Eastands jigsaw? I think four central reasons stand out.

The winning mentality
Mancini has already gone on record as stating that Vieira’s mentality is important for the team. It’s clear that Vieira is a winner: three Premier League titles, four FA cups, three Serie A titles, two Italian Super Cups, a World Cup winners medal, a European Championship winners medal. The honours do not come much higher. Only reaching the heights of European football seems to have eluded the Frenchman.

Having these kinds of winners in the dressing room and on the training pitch I think is a positive thing. Approaching a match in the right frame of mind – a winning frame of mind – is what Vieira will bring to the table here. This will be especially vital for our younger players, but also will come in handy for the more established members of the team. Everyone can learn from a World Cup winner that played and won alongside the likes of messers Lizarazu, Blanc, Deschamps, Desailly and Zidane.

Searching for leadership
Having captained Arsenal to several trophies (replacing the formidable Tony Adams I might add) and throughout the ‘Invincible’ run that saw the Gunners go unbeaten during the 2003-04 season, Vieira is an obvious born leader. Tevez, Barry and De Jong have all demonstrated leadership qualities, but I feel none of them have the authority to command the wider squad. And from what I have seen so far, Toure doesn’t instil much confidence in this area.

I’m certainly not arguing for a change in club captain. For the moment I think it should remain as Toure – everybody has dips in form and the Ivorian should be given the chance to pull himself out of it when he returns from Angola (hopefully with an Africa Cup of Nations winners medal). But until that upturn materialises, I think a player like Vieira can only serve to address any deficiencies in leadership that we might have.

Talk can be cheap, but so far I certainly like what I hear from the ex-Gunner: “The squad is packed full of quality, that is why I believe the ambition should be high. We should not be afraid to say that we are good enough to win the league because we are and as a team we should believe we can do it.”

Tactical awareness
Heavily linked with Vieira’s leadership qualities is the Frenchman’s tactical ability in the heat of a game. If we could rewind the fixture list, it would be interesting to see how many games we would’ve drawn with Vieira’s involvement. Clearly, you do not go a whole season unbeaten without knowing how to shut teams out. This kind of experience will certainly not go amiss when we are under the cosh, away from home against lesser teams that engage in awkward tactics.
Vieira will also bring something new to the City midfield – height. This physical presence is vital, especially now that Kompany has moved to central defence to plug the gaps left by injuries and international duty.

Vieira’s personal motivations
Finally, and perhaps most important, is the fact that far from returning to England for one last big payday, Vieira is returning with the objective of breaking back into the French national squad for this summer’s World Cup. Vitally for City, this should mean that the Frenchman will be just as competitive as he ever was. Hopefully, that passion to win will also rub off on a few of the other players.

I am certainly not saying that Vieira is the best thing since sliced bread. At one time he was, certainly, but we are now in 2010, not 2004. We all know that the central worry has to be his fitness. Lee Dixon, Vieira’s old Arsenal team mate, recently spoke of how Vieira was not a naturally fit footballer and how he often required longer than most when recovering from games. This is certainly alarming given that the Frenchman is now 33 years old.

Only two people really know whether Patrick Vieira still has the legs for English football: Vieira himself, and Roberto Mancini. Both clearly think in the affirmative. For Mancini, it goes much further than what Vieira can give him on the pitch, with the manager already referring to the advantage of Vieira being familiar with his working methods off it. The Frenchman might well find himself being a tactical communicator at Carrington just as much as he will likely be on the turfs of Premier League grounds across the country.

Signing Patrick Vieira is certainly a gamble, but one I feel where the odds are stacked in Mancini’s favour. In footballing terms, Vieira does resemble an elder statesman. But the Frenchman, who is also (rather pleasingly) an old enemy of Manchester United, may well have a few tricks up his sleeve yet.

City go Arabic

In a move that shows the growing global appeal of City, the club has recently built on the successes of its revamped online presence by launching an Arabic version of its website.

The website can be found at the following address:

Sunday, 3 January 2010

And now for a real test

With City despatching a woeful Middlesbrough side 1-0 to go through to the 4th round of the F.A. Cup, its three wins out of three for Roberto Mancini. I’ve been impressed with the new manager so far. It is easy to minimise his achievements and point to the lack of quality of opposition he has faced. But the Italian can only beat what is put in front of him, and more importantly for me, he has done so each time of asking without conceding a goal.

Nevertheless, we all know a much sterner test now lies in his immediate path.

Using the squad at the Riverside
Due to Hughes insistence on playing a full strength side in the League Cup, we have yet to really see a second string City team take the field in competitive competition this season. Yesterday saw us come closest to this, with Vladimir Weiss, Dedryk Boyata, Javier Garrido and Benjani all making their first starts of the campaign.

Boyata looked like he settled well, making a particularly important tackle in the first half. Weiss, although less impressive going forward than he has been in previous games, just needs more and more first team football in my opinion. Garrido and Benjani seem to be serving us well at present, and whilst I don’t think they are the future, they have certainly proved themselves useful to Mancini as squad players over the last couple of games as the Blues’ injury worries have increased.

I credit Mancini with his wider use of the squad. The match certainly didn’t sound pretty to watch and the highlights confirmed this, but another clean sheet just adds to the momentum we seem to be building up at the back. If Boro had been luckier, they might’ve drawn level. If City had been luckier, they might’ve had a hatful. The main thing is we won again, and without conceding.

The League Cup semi: will Mancini bringing back ‘the big guns’?
Of course, Mancini’s squad rotation is all in preparation for the biggest game of the season so far – next week’s League Cup semi final with Manchester United. Bellamy and Tevez are sure to return to our attack, as is Gareth Barry in midfield – and potentially SWP. The defence remains the big question for me, especially given the recent injury to Micah Richards and the question mark over the return of Nedum Onuoha. I personally think Stephen Ireland will be a big miss, as these are the kinds of games where we need players who understand what it means to play in a Manchester derby. Whatever happens, I think Mancini would be a fool not to turn to his strongest eleven available on the night.

Will Ferguson bring in ‘the kids’?
There’s been much talk of what team Ferguson will put out at Eastlands next Wednesday. Whatever team he puts out, it will certainly not be one that exhibits inexperience. Look at the team sheet for the last League Cup tie against Spurs: Kuszczak, Neville, Brown, Vidic, De Laet, Anderson, Park, Gibson, Berbatov, Wellbeck and Obertan (with Carrick, Macheda and Tosic all making substitute appearances). I’d highlight only De Laet, Obertan and to a lesser extent Wellbeck as the real ‘kids’ here. Moreover, Spurs played pretty much a full strength side that night. This tells us something of the quality of United’s depth.

Given the recent team against Leeds today, I expect the likes of Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia to come back into the team. If they don’t, then I’d watch the bench.

The result?
For the die hards, there will be no question of a City win over the two legs. They will demand victory from this City team – now more than ever because the two squads have never been as close in terms of quality as they are today. The realists will point to the fact that this is United, and that the Blues need to be even more wary now that Ferguson’s men have tasted the bitter pill of defeat to lowly fierce rivals Leeds United.

No question about it, the Leeds defeat adds spice. Ferguson will have wanted to show Leeds the back of his hand, but with today’s blow he will now surely do everything in his power to avoid defeat at the hands of his club’s oldest rival – the Blue shirt of Manchester.

For City, the recent derby loss will still be clear in the players’ minds. Not many teams come back three times against United at Old Trafford, which makes our eventual demise to Michael Owen’s winner all the more difficult to stomach. Irrespective of the amount of injury time played, we should be using the notion of being ‘robbed’ at Old Trafford to our own motivational advantage.

And of course, notwithstanding the fact that this is cup tie, we have to add to the mix the unpredictability of what will also be two more Manchester derbies. Over the years these games have tended to run more on passion and drive rather than sublime pieces of skill. In this sense there is an air of irrelevance as to whether Mancini opts for ‘big guns’ of City or whether Ferguson starts with the ‘kids’ of United. It is about who keeps their nerve best and who is the more motivated to win at any cost.

Whatever happens, the whole tie is a tantalising prospect.