Monday, 23 August 2010

Arabian eyes are smiling

If City really are on the cusp of a new winning era, then when the history books are written tonight’s game against Liverpool will surely go down as an early sign of that epoch’s birth. Tonight the Blues were irrepressible, winning 3-0 as Liverpool were driven into the floor.

Dominant City

This was the most convincing win I’ve seen at Eastlands in memory. We bossed the game and dominated for large periods. Soon after kick off, our patterns of play showed positive thinking and a willingness to go forward at every opportunity.

And not only were we positive in an attacking sense, but we did the job defensively too. When we lost possession, we were quicker, sharper and more tenacious in the tackle than our opponents. As we increased our tally we gradually sapped the fight out of a Liverpool side that certainly were no pushovers – and this makes the victory even sweeter.

The central reason for this victory was our utter endeavour and commitment, and these attributes flowed from an unbelievably strong team core. At the back, Vincent Kompany was particularly imperious, executing numerous tackles to perfection. His partner and former captain Kolo Toure was very solid and added to the calmness that seemed to engulf the team when it was called upon to defend. In midfield, Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry in particular were equally commanding as they fought tool and nail to break down Liverpool’s patterns of play. The distribution of De Jong and Barry was also particularly impressive – nothing flashy, just winning the ball and then getting rid of it efficiently.

The strength of our core enabled us to go forward with more confidence, and this we did. Deploying Adam Johnson and new signing James Milner on the wings, Mancini opted to play Captain Carlos Tevez alone upfront. Yaya Toure was the joker in the pack, the link up man between midfield and attack – essentially the position that Stephen Ireland coveted. Perhaps this will be a pattern in Mancini’s team selections. Assuming Yaya is in favour, at home he can be played in advanced positions whilst away he can drop back into a defensive midfield comprising of De Jong, Barry and James Milner.

And what of our new signing? There’s no two ways about it – James Milner impressed magnificently. I believe Stephen Ireland will be a good servant to Aston Villa, they certainly got a good deal. But so did City. Above all things, the strength, determination and cunning nature of Milner makes me think he is going to be a great asset to this Manchester City squad. He certainly made a great start, setting up the first goal for former Villa team mate Gareth Barry to place past Pepe Reina.

Tevez and Adam Johnson continued to impress. The Argentinean once again proved his mettle by scoring two goals, the first bundled in off a Micah Richards header, the second dispatched from the penalty spot after Adam Johnson was brought down.

Chances not taken

Hodgson’s men will surely rue a five minute period just after half time when they should have produced the equaliser were it not for the excellence of Joe Hart. Gerard, Ngog and Torres all went extremely close, produced two saves in quick succession from the new England No 1. I felt the game really turned on this sequence of play, and having missed the chance to level, soon the game was out of Liverpool’s reach.

A performance fit for a Sheikh

City fans were finally treated to their first glimpse of Sheikh Mansour in person. The Sheikh, who had temporarily jettisoned his Arabian garb for a Westernised suit and tie, sat in between the other two cogs of the club’s power axis – Khaldoon and Cook. Whilst Mansour may have been mightily impressed with what he saw, the latter two must have breathed a sigh of relief that this evening’s Merseyside opponents failed to spoil the Sheikh’s big introduction.

On the pitch though, the early signs are good, but at present I want to keep on looking at them as early signs. Nevertheless, it is hard to be negative. For this was a victory achieved without the likes of David Silva, Mario Balotelli, Emanuel Adebayor and Shay Given. The depth of the squad is now formidable, and so was the nature of this performance.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Does Balotelli’s promise outweigh his risk?

In what has been dubbed the greatest gamble in football history, City last week signed 20 year old Mario Balotelli from Inter Milan. At £24m the Italian does not come cheap, especially for one so young. But whilst the Club can afford to gamble financially, Mancini certainly cannot afford to gamble in terms of performances on the pitch.

Dangerous for all the wrong reasons

By now surely, we all know that the forward comes to Manchester with a controversial reputation in tow. He clearly has problems with his temperament and attitude. It is rather worrying that the great man manager himself Jose Mourinho couldn’t figure out a suitable way to deal with the troubled Italian. Whilst at Inter, Balotelli apparently reacted very badly to being criticised by Mourinho and was dropped from the squad as a result, only being reinstated after making a public apology to his manager.

The relationship with Inter fans and players seems to have been equally turbulent. He made angry gestures during last season’s Champions League tie with Barcelona, throwing his shirt down in disgust. Apparently, Marco Materazzi attacked Balotelli in the tunnel afterwards. Then there was that interesting scenario where the Italian chose to wear an AC Milan shirt on a TV show.

The forward has shown immaturity in his personal life. He appears to have had disagreements with the authorities on more than one occasion, one of the most notable being caught along with three of his friends for fooling around with a toy gun in the centre of Milan.

Aside from Balotelli’s volatility, another problem will be fitting him into the attack. The media are all over this at the moment, especially with the departures of Ireland and Bellamy underlining the fact that we are getting rid of good quality players who have spoken of their loyalty to the club in the past. They will be on the lookout for any cracks appearing within our forward line.

So where will Balotelli fit in? I’ve never been convinced about Adebayor, and with Santa-Cruz looking like he is on the way out, we certainly need a target man to accompany Tevez up front. Whether Balotelli is that player I am not sure. I see him as more of a forward than an out and out striker, perhaps supporting a target man, or attacking from wide positions – similar to Tevez now I come to think of it. In fact the more our attack shapes up, the more it seems that we are destined to play without a target man.

So how to accommodate the likes of Tevez, Silva, Adebayor, Adam Johnson and now Mario Balotelli? This is a conundrum for Mancini to solve and it has the potential to be a volatile situation. Given Balotelli’s combustible personality, how will he react when he does not play every game, and is not first choice?

‘Crazy’ abilities

Aside from the well publicised controversial elements to Balotelli’s game, there seems to be a consensus already built that the Italian could be brilliant in the English Premier League. Carlo Ancelotti has gone on record as saying that the forward is a ‘crazy’ talent and that City will challenge for the title with Balotelli, not just simply forth place.

For Balotelli’s talent is said to be explosive. Quick, exciting from dead ball situations, technically gifted, and at 6 ft 3”, seemingly built for the rigours of a physical league. On the surface an excellent signing for all Premier League sides, but for his unpredictable temperament.

Mancini’s wild card

Balotelli could be brilliant, that much is clear. And perhaps Manchester City were always going to be the only club for him join, both in a financial and psychological sense. Roberto Mancini credits himself with giving the Italian his first big chance in football. Like Balotelli, Mancini was at one time a huge, underachieving talent, so perhaps there is some sense of mutual understanding there – it is well documented that the two supposedly have a strong relationship.

Initial reports are encouraging. Balotelli’s 57th minute introduction during last night’s first leg tie against Romanian minnows Timisoara turned things in City’s favour, with the Italian himself marking his debut with the winning goal.

But only Roberto Mancini can know whether the odds of the Balotelli ‘gamble’ are stacked in his favour. If Balotelli is as good as they say he is, and if Mancini can stabilise him in the way he says he can, then the fortunes of City’s season, and indeed of Mancini himself, could begin to look very positive.

For all things Mario Balotelli be sure to check out fan site

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The darker side of progress

Its been coming for a while but now, as the spending really begins to take affect, we are seeing traditional club heroes – and good players - being forced out of the club. Why? For the sole reason that we can buy better players who can do more things, more consistently and to a higher quality. Like the laws of nature, at Eastlands these days we increasingly see a situation where only the strong can survive and the weak must fall by the way side. This is the price fans must pay if they want to challenge for the Premiership title.

The imminent departure of Stephen Ireland

It now looks increasingly likely that Academy product Stephen Ireland will leave the club as part of a cash plus player deal for Aston Villa’s James Milner. For the sentimental fans amongst us, the departure of Ireland will be a sad loss. Ireland was voted player of year for the 2008-09 campaign, impressing in the League and in City’s UEFA Cup run to the Quarter Finals. After emerging from the Academy, Ireland broke into the first team but always seemed prone to acting unusually, for the most part off the field of play and sometimes on it. But he grew up and learned to banish that side of his game, becoming the accomplished player we all hoped he would be, providing the link from midfield to attack, providing the creation and guile from central midfield positions. Fans labelled him ‘Superman’ because of his performances. The club placed a banner over the dugouts to show this appreciation. And I wrote of his great talent, determination and new mental toughness. We all hoped he would push on from there and become a top class midfielder.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Mark Hughes, who I think got the best out of the Irishman – was sacked. Ireland has argued otherwise, saying that Hughes played him out of position, and speaking indirectly to his manager’s preference for Carlos Tevez in the attacking midfielder / deep lying forward role.

After Hughes’ sacking came injuries and more loss of form, resulting in time on the substitutes bench. The appointment of Roberto Mancini tightened the screws on Ireland’s City career. The Italian proved to be much more cautious than Hughes, preferring two – and at some times – three defensive midfielders as opposed to an attacking mindset in the engine room. Once again, threats from central positions tended to emanate from Tevez. And so when Ireland was called upon, he continued to play out of position, exacerbating his loss of form and probably sending his morale to lower depths.

In truth, Ireland’s central weakness was that he did not have enough tools in his locker. Of course he was good, and he proved this by linking well with exceptional players such as Robinho. But perhaps he was never good enough to the level where Mancini would allow him the freedom to play the central role that he wanted. And then, he was never flexible enough to warrant selection in other positions, such as holding midfield, left wing, right wing. We now have the De Jong’s, Silva’s and Adam Johnson’s of this world to do those jobs for us.

This I feel was the real nail in Ireland’s coffin, the simple fact that he could not do it all. Mancini has looked at the midfielder, asked whether he is good enough for where we are headed, and has answered in the negative

It is a sign of the club’s sheer ambition that, even for all the Irishman’s talent, for all his endeavour, and for all of his unquestionable commitment to the Blue shirt of Manchester down the years, he has – in effect – ended up being used as bait. This is ruthless, but this is where we are at Eastlands now. Holding out for a £2m payout will ensure that the Irishman is not remembered fondly, but the Club does not want the player, and so the player will do all he can to get the best deal for himself. Moreover, this is far from the point, but £2m is a drop in the ocean for the Club. He and his agent both know that.

Sadly, this is the detritus of a once fruitful relationship, and for the latter I thank Stephen Ireland. He gave us some great memories and I wish him the very best for his future.

No room left for Craig Bellamy

The flying Welsh winger, who last season enjoyed probably the best campaign of his career, is also on the verge of an exit. Personally, I have always thought Bellamy’s future to be welded to that of his fellow compatriot, Mark Hughes. When Hughes left the club the winger’s days were always going to be numbered no matter what he did on the pitch.

And on the pitch, I felt Bellamy’s form dipped slightly towards the end of last season, but not by much. He was still playing at a relatively high level, but he started the season on such a rich vein of form that there was only ever going to be one way to go.

But form is not the problem nor the issue. Bellamy’s enemies are now age, injury proneness and personality - the latter of which we found out a little bit more about this week. We all know that it hasn’t been plain sailing between manager and player. Screaming rows over the treatment of Bellamy’s knee, the player’s refusal to train, an internal investigation over comments Bellamy allegedly made in support of David Moyes after Everton’s defeat of City at Eastlands, and most recently, claiming that Mancini hadn’t spoken to him since February and doesn’t speak to Carlos Tevez.

Wherever the blame lies for Bellamy’s disgruntlement, a stream of discontent has trickled – and sometimes flowed – throughout his career. At City it now appears to have caught up with him again. This Wednesday he was left out of Mancini’s 25 man Europa League squad.

Much like Ireland, despite his excellent performances and stated commitment to City, Bellamy is another gifted player that appears to have been cut away from the hull of a club where competition for places is now fast on the increase.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Hart drags City through the opening day

Tottenham Hotspur were always going to provide stiff opening day opposition for Mancini’s men and they didn’t fail to disappoint, but somehow the Blues managed to come through unscathed to produce a 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane. They owe it all to their keeper.

Joe Hart steps up to the plate

One of the most pressing pre-season questions has been who Mancini would opt for on the opening day of the season. Would he go for the experience of Shay Given or the youthful promise of England’s new no.1? Hart got the nod and was called into action perhaps a lot sooner than he would have liked as Spurs laid siege to the City penalty area in the first 20 minutes of the match. The likes of Defoe, Assou-Ekotto and in spectacular fashion Huddlestone all had a go but were denied by the City keeper. Bale finally managed to beat Hart but was denied by the far post, with Defoe unable to force home the rebound. With a mixture of luck and skill, we weathered the storm of the first quarter and made sure we got into half time all square. Centre back pairing Vincent Kompany and Kolo Toure were particularly impressive. Kompany was imperious in some of his tackles, but I think Kolo had one of his best games for us so far. Perhaps stripping him of the captaincy has been a good thing.

The roots of Spurs’ siege

We did not help ourselves. Micah Richards in particular had a woeful opening game, ripped to shreds by Gareth Bale every time the Spurs winger attacking. Not too long ago, Richards was harping on about how he had taken Mancini’s words to heart and accepted that he must improve his concentration levels if he is to warrant a place in the starting eleven. He may be able to talk a good game but there was zilch evidence of his improved concentration at White Hart Lane today. Richards also had no answers when it came to dealing with Peter Crouch, our nemesis of recent times. To compound matters, he gave away the ball far too much.

It would be unfair to just slate Richards with giving away the ball when this right through the team, meaning that we had little time to develop the composure in order to build attacks. Shaun Wright-Phillips was once again wasteful in possession, but Yaya Toure and David Silva and even Carlos Tevez were guilty of aimless balls.

Of all the new signings, I thought Alexsandar Kolarov had the most solid debut, dealing well with Aeron Lennon and getting forward himself, only to be nullified by the England winger. An injury to Kolarov during the first half saw him substituted at half time.

Second half revival

Things couldn’t get any worse after the break, and they didn’t as we came back into the game. I completely back Mancini’s decision to give Carlos Tevez the captaincy. Whilst the Argentinean’s English may not be the best, he leads by example on the pitch. He is still our best player, still at the centre of most of our attacking play. He was much more able to effect our game in the second half, coming deep to find the ball, buzzing around the edges of the area, drifting to wide positions. He was our all action hero and a constant menace to Spurs.

No matter how much of a battering you take in these kinds of games, if you can keep things all square, there will always be something that falls to you. That chance fell to SWP just after the restart, with Yaya dropping a perfectly flighted ball behind the Spurs defence to set up Shaunie one on one with Gomes. Unfortunately though, the little winger wanted too much time and the defender managed to get back into position and clear the lines.

Taking the positives

A special mention for Yaya Toure, who I think could well become a unique player for us. On the surface he is a defensive midfielder, but underneath this exterior there is a wealth of attacking potential. We saw elements of this against Valencia. In a midfield that will sometimes be packed with holding players, he is the dark horse that could be much more destructive than teams think. He is Vieira – with legs. I just hope that this does not stunt the development of Michael Johnson, who is another box to box player that has the tools to the whole job.

But for their wastefulness and Hart’s brilliance, Spurs should’ve been at least 2-0 up at half time. Prior to the game I had defensive concerns – particularly Kolo and Richards – but in the end our resilience enabled us to hold off Redknapp’s men, something we could not do last season. Whilst we didn’t look at sharp as our opponents, we kept on going. We gave away possession too much and were too often second to the ball, but this sharpness will come with more games.

I also had concerns over communication and team cohesion. David Silva started slowly and was caught in possession on occasion, but by the second half he looked far more comfortable and the signs of a good understanding with Tevez were there. The Spaniard has a fantastic touch.

We looked like half a team and half a group of talented individuals, but the fact that we kept Spurs out showed that we fought well. In the long run, I think this draw will serve us well.

This was a better point for us than it was for them.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Comments on a curtain raiser

The new season is finally upon us and we couldn't have a more taxing start to the season than making the journey south to White Hart Lane.

As a preview to the opening day fixture against Arry's men, Without a Dream in Our Hearts agreed to be interviewed by Ryan over at Can't Smile Without You, an excellent and informative Spurs blog.

Click here to read the interview and also here to hear Ryan's thoughts on an intriguing curtain raiser.

Lets hope Mancini and lads can evoke the spirit of 2004 on Saturday with a performance full of belief and determination!