Friday, 18 March 2011

An opportunity lost

It was a night that started so brightly. City came out of the blocks all guns blazing for the second leg of our last 16 Europa League clash with Dinamo Kyiv, and you felt that it was going to be our night. An eventful 90 minutes later however, and we found ourselves out of the competition, defeating Kyiv 1-0 on the night but not being unable to overturn a 2-1 aggregate scoreline. I am sure we will look back on this European adventure as a major opportunity lost.

Somehow we have managed to crash out of Europa League not even matching our quarter final appearance in the UEFA Cup competition two or three seasons ago. And of course our squad back then was a shadow of what it is now. We have achieved less with more resources, more talent, more firepower at our disposal. It is just so frustrating.

The blame game

There are of course many reasons why we lost against Kyiv. Mario Balotelli is likely to come in for the most flak. The young Italian’s actions were rash, stupid, brainless, call them whatever you want. His sending off undoubtedly made it hard for us, but he alone did not single-handedly lose us this tie. Mario Balotelli is not as important as that. Instead we lost this tie with woeful defending in the cold night of Kiev, and in the wasteful finishing on show at Eastlands in the return leg. Preparation also seems to have been an issue – Vincent Kompany has spoken of how the squad were shocked by how good Kyiv were. That’s not acceptable in today’s game, and certainly not in knockout football. We all know of Dinamo’s Champions League pedigree. Plus, they didn’t exactly sneak past Besiktas in the last round. Either the players weren’t briefed well enough or they failed to listen to the advice of Mancini and his backroom team. Maybe some were too busy trying put on their training bibs.

That we were the better, more purposeful side for the vast majority of the second leg speaks volumes for the 10 men who were left with the seemingly insurmountable task of overcoming Kyiv without a full contingent of personnel. Dinamo Kyiv hammered Besiktas 8-1 in the previous round, but in truth over the two legs we should have dispatched them with ease. Two glaring defensive errors in Kyiv, combined with Balotelli's mindlessness and our own poor finishing, have more or less ended up handing the tie to the Ukranians.

Nullifying Kyiv

The threat of Shevchenko never materialised and he was more or less nullified by the excellent Kompany and Joleon Lescott. Tellingly, the former Milan and Chelsea striker was substituted at the midway point of the second half.

Kyiv were limited at best to counter attacking football. That is of course, when they weren’t diving around the pitch and trying to get City players booked. I have never seen a referee be sold on so many occasions during 90 minutes. But I have no complaints here – this is something we have to put up with in European football. Besides, the referee got the biggest call right, with Balotelli quite rightly being sent from proceedings.

Chance after chance

At the other end of the pitch though, we were woeful. To be fair, Kolarov took his strike well, but we had much clear opportunities to score that we didn’t take. From point black range, Balotelli sent a shot sailing over the bar in the second minute of the game. In the second half, a wicked deflection almost crept into the Kyiv goal at the near post. When he was introduced, Edin Dzeko had an excellent chance but shot directed at the keeper. Then, as the game reached its conclusion, we had the chance that could have forced extra time, with a shot coming through a crowded penalty area only for Tevez to miss the vital flick that would have sent it beyond the keeper and into the back of the net.

Its no coincidence that our attacking threat has diminished as there have been slight declines in the form of Carlos Tevez and David Silva. You can’t play well all the time, but at the bare minimum – at this point in the season – you must ensure victory. We have not had a good performance against credible opposition since we dispatched West Brom 3-0 back at the start of February. This needs to change soon, because we have Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs on the Premier League horizon, whilst United lie in wait in the FA Cup semi final.

Manchester City FC – Europa League Winners 2011’

Although this reality is now beyond us, the title nevertheless has a very believable ring to it. You look now at the strength of the competition – PSV, Benfica, Braga, Dinamo Kyiv, Porto, Spartak Moscow, Villareal, FC Twente. We have more than enough in our locker to beat this lot. I sense an excellent opportunity to get the 35 year monkey off our backs has gone begging.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Mancini’s day of judgement nears

As City approach the business end of the campaign, on what basis will the club’s supporters – and perhaps more importantly the club’s hierarchy - judge Mancini and his squad to be a success? The Italian’s bedding in period has long gone. This is Mancini’s squad, with Mancini’s mark all over it. The time is fast approaching where we can begin to make some sort of reasoned judgement as to whether the Mancini way is the right way for the Blues. The Italian will live on die depending upon how we fare on three fronts.

The hallowed turf of the Champions League

The bottom line is that we will fight it out with Chelsea and Tottenham for Champions League football next season. There are three teams and only two places up for grabs. Its going to be tight.

Chelsea are on the way back. They have wobbled this season, that much is clear, but they have a squad whose steel was forged together by Jose Mourinho, and in many ways are still a side fashioned in the image of the Portugese. They know how to win things and when the pressure comes they will know how to step up to the plate. As Ferguson suggests, the League might well be beyond them now, but they will be prepared to do whatever it costs to finish in the top four – to finish outside is simply not an option for them. They may not be firing on all cylinders but with the ‘failure is not an option’ mentality, and with the Essien’s, Lampard’s, Terry’s, Drogba’s, and Torres’ of this world within their ranks, you do feel that they will secure Champions League football.

Spurs are more or less neck and neck with us. I hope they go as far as possible in the Champions League because I feel that this may be their Premier League undoing. Van Der Vaart has proved an exceptional buy, and Gareth Bale has been a revelation this season. With Lennon on the opposite flank and the aerial threat of Crouch, Spurs remain a force to be reckoned with. They still have to come to Eastlands of course – a match that may end up becoming Part Deux of last season’s encounter. But we have vastly improved upon last year. Spurs will come and play football, and we all know that when this happens at Eastlands our chances of victory increase. You just hope that we can approach this game as full strength as possible, with the likes of Silva, Tevez, Balotelli and Yaya on song.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League this season will be a big blow to Mancini’s hopes of staying in the job. A 5th place finish will be unacceptable - we will have spent around 140 million on players only to replicate our efforts of last year. The counter argument will be that players need time to gel. There may be something to this, for me though it is no excuse. The spine of the team has been pretty much the same for quite some time now – Hart, Kompany, De Jong, Barry, Tevez. The additions have added talent, not taken it away. In many ways I think Mancini has tweaked rather than employed a wholesale revamp of the squad.

If we fail to secure 4th place then it will once again be down to our inability to defeat mediocrity. Too many draws against average but workmanlike sides – it will sound a lot like last season. And then the vultures will swirl once more.

But secure fourth place and we will be on target. It might sound arrogant to say, but the Champions League is now where this club belongs. Everything is being geared towards this aim, both on and off the pitch. It is so obviously the next step to take, but nobody allows you to take that step for free, so we must make ensure we take it.

Our continental adventure

Its been relatively plain sailing in the Europa League so far. At the group stage, the obvious threat of Juventus (including Del Piero, Krasnic, Iaquinta et al) surprisingly never materialised, and aside from getting ourselves turned over against Posnan we qualified for the knockout stages comfortably. The last 32 saw us come away with an awkward draw in the first leg against Aris FC, but we swatted the Greeks aside 3-0 in the return fixture.

Up until this point in the competition we have by and large played within ourselves. You sense that as long as we keep our concentration, we have enough to get by. Into the last 16 though and a tricky tie awaits. Our opponents, Dinamo Kiev, drilled Besiktas in the last round and have Shevchenko in their ranks (I believe he doesn’t have a bad record against us). So not only will be have to be on our guard, one senses that we might have to be closer to our best.

On the plus side, its clear that if we can navigate our way past Kiev then the road to Dublin will begin to pave itself. Juventus aside, some half decent teams have already gone out of the competition: Athletico Madrid (last year’s winners), Sampdoria, Borussia Dortmund, Rubin Kazan, Sporting Lisbon, Napoli, Young Boys, Sevilla and Besiktas. The last 16 will eliminate more quality, with Bayer Leverkusen facing Villareal, PSV facing Rangers, Benfica facing PSG and Twente facing Zenit.

The Europa League may well be a good opportunity for Edin Dzeko to build up his confidence. The Bosnian is still adjusting to the rigours of Premier League combat and has still to find his feet on the domestic front. But the European stage, with the slower, more considered approach that teams often bring to the table, may suit Dzeko better at this point in time.

This is a real opportunity to secure some European silverware. It will not be easy – anything can happen in knockout football – but we have the strength in depth and the right players with top level European experience to do the necessary damage. I would be satisfied with a semi final birth at the bare minimum, but even then, if we do not reach the final I’m sure many will feel that this is an opportunity lost for a squad that could punch its weight with many Champions League teams.

A top four finish and Europa League glory will strengthen Mancini’s position at the club considerably if not for any other reason than that it will prove that the decision made by our Arab owners to jettison Mark Hughes for a more nuanced and experienced manager was the right one make. And there’s nothing better than having a controversial call proved correct. This return will be solid, watertight, irrefutable evidence that the Italian is moving us in the right direction.

Romance in the FA cup

The glory and romance of winning the FA Cup will be difficult to surpass. Providing we avoid an almighty cock up against Reading, then we stand an excellent chance of reaching the final and winning it. The FA Cup is so special to English football that perhaps even in the disastrous scenario of finishing outside of the top four, the board may choose to give Mancini a reprieve in the event that he guides City to victory at Wembley. This would be not only be a victory of course, but would represent an end to the 35-year albatross that has hung around the club’s neck. Manchester United are still in the hunt for the cup, which also provides that little bit of ultra-explosive spice should the two clubs meet at Wembley.

Mancini’s window of opportunity

Perhaps not even a 5th place finish and Europa League glory will keep Mancini in the job - the thinking being that it will have been unacceptable to have had so many opportunities to make sure of Champions League football and failed yet again.

Chelsea’s wobble, Liverpool’s non-season, and Spurs’ unexpected Champions League charge have all created a window of opportunity for Mancini to achieve real success with City this season. Entering the Champions League clearly has long term benefits to the club – you feel that if Mancini comes through this test, then the board will have little reason to grumble. For unlike Mark Hughes, the factor that goes most strongly in the Italian’s favour is that he is the board’s man. Sacking Mancini will be as much an indictment on his performance as it will be on their judgement. After all, nobody likes to admit that they got it wrong.