Sunday, 28 March 2010

Now its win or bust against Wigan

To say that the next game is always the most important is to repeat an over used phrase in football, but that phrase applies to Manchester City now probably more than at any other point this season.

Everton and form

Whilst far from being our worst performance of the season, the Everton defeat felt very much like the defeat against Spurs at White Hart Lane earlier in the season. As a supporter, there was very, very little in the way of positives that you could take from the game. There is no other way to say it other than to say that we were just well beat. Everton more than matched us in every single department. When it doesn’t go for our two talisman – Tevez and Bellamy – we fast run out of attacking ideas.

The outcome last Wednesday was a frustrating and alarming result. Frustrating because we never really got a grip of Everton – even more so because we allowed the dreaded head of Tim Cahill to deflect a free kick beyond Shay Given and we should’ve been all over Cahill in the box. Alarming because the defeat once again demonstrates that we are clearly not the form team going into the 4th place run in. The last convincing performance I can think of was the win at Stamford Bridge, and even then we weren’t at the races in the first 45 minutes.

In some ways this has been a strange season. We certainly haven’t been consistent, we’ve never quite got it right at the back and I don’t believe we’ve hit the heights of our attacking talent – we’ve not given anyone a good hidingfor example - but we are still up there in the European places with a chance of Champions League football, and in terms of our final points total, the result will probably be a lot more rosy that previous seasons’ efforts.

For all our talent, there is still something missing within the team, something that is very difficult to measure and put your finger on. Its probably something like togetherness. David Moyes spoke about our deficiencies in the team spirit department. I think he’s right. Who has a real affinity for the club? I don't want to sound negative but there can't be that many, if for no other reason than that we are still a relatively new team.

Togetherness and spirit are things that are developed over the long term, through thick and thin but always on the basis of stability. The trouble is, we still don’t have stability at the club. There’s been a lot of personnel changes, and equally worrying is the growing sense that Mancini will fall by the wayside if we do not make fourth place. I think its highly likely, given that the Board sacked Hughes because they thought he was unable to deliver this finishing position.

Implications of yesterday’s results

This weekend’s games have gone both for and against us. Villa’s drubbing at the hands of Chelsea was a welcome surprise. I’ve had O’Neill’s men as favourites to land that fourth spot for a while now, but this 7-1 defeat makes me not so sure. The margin of loss speaks of a team that gave up, unusual for this Aston Villa side, which I have always associated with endeavour and steel. There is still a stretch to go of course, but they may now be out of the mix. Even if they claw it back, goal difference will also now count against them.

The more troublesome result was Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Portsmouth. It opens up a five point gap between ourselves and Redknapp’s men. I didn’t think Spurs would have the mettle to keep going at this stage of the season. Portsmouth are dangerous opponents these days – whilst not outstanding they are men who have nothing to lose, but Spurs despatched them easily.

And of course this now means that we have to take three points when we meet Wigan at Eastlands on Monday night. If we win, the pressure on Spurs will be kept up, and the longer we keep the pressure on the Londoners, the better chance we will have to succeed. If we are still in touch by the time they come to Eastlands, then 4th place will be ours to lose – I am sure of this. But I am equally sure that should we fail to despatch Wigan (anything less than a win is failure), then we will crash out of the race for 4th place on Monday evening.

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.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Get myself connected

I must apologise to readers for there being little activity over the last couple of weeks. I've had no internet recently, but hopefully that should change next week when I get myself connected. Last week's unbelievable victory at Stamford Bridge sets up a fascinating end to the season, so they'll be plenty to write about!