Tuesday, 19 April 2011

They don’t come much sweeter

It was a glorious day in every sense of the word. The sun was shining, the Blue Moon rising as we issued United their first proper derby defeat since Arabian riches flowed into Eastlands. Oh how long this victory has been coming.

Build up to a spectacle

Obviously no Tevez for this encounter, I when I saw the City team I feared the worst, - no Micah Richards and the inclusion of Alexsandar Kolarov. United have serious pace from wide positions, and with the selection of both Nani and Valencia I thought we were going to be in for a rough ride. The omission of Anderson gave me hope that we would give as good as we got in the middle of the park.

The City fans though had clearly brought their voice with them, contributing to a fantastic atmosphere that saw us rarely hear our opposite numbers (although I’ve since spoken to some of those and they assure me the feeling is mutual). The majority of City fans had taken their seats well before kick off, indicative of what this day meant to the hordes of Blues that had come down from Manchester. For United the enthusiasm was less – Wembley is obviously less of a novelty for them than it is for us.

An encounter to remember

It’s a cliché but this was indeed a game of two halves. United were the quicker out of the blocks but by the 90th minute there was no doubt who had stamped their authority on the game. Credit should go to the players for their mental strength. It’s never easy to start off on the wrong in any game, never mind in an FA Cup Semi Final against our greatest rivals. But Mancini’s men pulled it around in stellar fashion – a complete reversal of our endeavours at Anfield the previous Monday night – and proved Ferguson wrong along the way.

City grew into the game and by the end of the first half were beginning to make real headway on the United goal. This was all not before Dimitar Berbatov had missed two glorious opportunities to score in quick succession – the first producing a magnificent save by Joe Hart, the second miss more down to Berbatov’s inept finishing.

No doubt though we had got away with it here, but this is football, and chances must be taken. As the half came to a close, Gareth Barry lashed a shot into the side netting and Vincent Kompany – my man of the match – curled a shot just agonisingly wide from the end of the area.

Into the second half, and we came out all guns blazing. With Yaya Toure pressing higher up the pitch, he dispossessed Michael Carrick and bore down on Van der Sar, slotting a neat shot under the Dutchman to draw first blood. I will never forget the reaction in the crowd after that goal had gone in.

As for the players, they had started to believe. We began to dominate and swarmed forward, winning 50-50 balls all over the park. The desire that had evaded us completely against Liverpool was with us in abundance here, as we pushed United back for a good 15 minutes after Yaya’s strike, and indeed could have had more goals if it were not for some poor crossing from SWP.

The sending off of Paul Scholes was correct, but I felt we would have held out at any rate. This was our day, and this was certainly not the United of last season, where they swarmed around us in the dying embers of the Carling Cup Semi Final. There was a sense that United could have played for much longer and still not have scored, so blunt was their cutting edge. Uncharacteristically, as the game wore on, United lost more and more attacking rhythm. All the talk beforehand was of us missing our talisman. In the end, United missed their much, much more.

Tougher tests

This victory will count for something even if we are unable to return the FA Cup next month. United were building up a worrying string of victories against us, but to defeat them in a game of such magnitude has exorcised the ghosts of last year (the 4-3 and the second leg Carling Cup Semi). This game mattered to Ferguson’s men, as could be seen so clearly when the toys came out of the prams after the final whistle. Of course defeat hurts, but defeat to City is still worse, even now, after all the success that they have had.

But United are small fry compared with what we have to face. This victory should give us great heart, and we should bask in it, but we should not allow it to detract from the major tasks that are still at hand – winning the FA Cup against a talented and stubborn Stoke side (the manager of which will surely want revenge for our exploits against him in the 1999 Division 2 playoff final!) and of course securing Champions League football. These will be the real victories of this campaign. Only then will we be able to say that the squad of 2010/11 was the one that really began to change the history of our club.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

We’ve seen the worst, now let’s hope for the best

And so we arrive at the biggest weekend of our season so far - an FA Cup Semi Final against the old enemy. Some might even say this is the biggest game in City’s recent Arab-centric history. Of course, in true City fashion we prepared for this test in the worst possible way.

Despair at Anfield

What happened? We can talk about line ups and formations – and they do play their part of course – but I can’t understand the abject performance of the 11 players on the pitch. Absolutely unbelievable in a game of such magnitude. Significant for the ‘Mancini out’ people – I think this is the first time under Mancini’s leadership that I’ve seen us completely unable to live with the opposing team. The positive is that we don’t do this very often. The negative that now Spurs are within three points of us with a game in hand. Not what we want at this stage of the season.

We were weak defensively, particularly in full back positions. We were second best in midfield and we were blunt up front. Adam Johnson provided us with little outlet. Edin Dzeko’s touch looks to have deserted him. In fairness we got away with 3-0. It could have been a hammering. We were overrun.

We shouldn’t be rotating selection on games like this, and for this Mancini must take the blame. At the very most perhaps I would’ve rested Silva, but for me De Jong was vital to give us that extra cover. Mancini admitted he made mistakes after the game – uncharacteristically unsavvy of him to do so I think as this just heaps more pressure on him keeping his job. Perhaps he was trying to take the pressure off the players, who knows.

Saturday, 5.15pm

Just as this Saturday represents a massive chance for Mancini to redeem himself, it is also an opportunity for him to fall further. Defeat to United could well hinder our push for forth, but victory…well, that could change things significantly. It’s a fine line, and Mancini could well live or die on these next few days.

The injury to Carlos Tevez is a severe blow, there is no point in masking it. His loss means more to us than United losing Wayne Rooney to suspension, no doubt about it. Micah Richards seems to have made an unlikely return – if he plays it will be a boost for us defensively, allowing us to switch Zabaleta to left back and shore up our suspect full back positions. Due to United’s considerable threat from wide positions we need to be watertight at full back – and show a bit of footballing savvy. Richards and Zabaleta are our best bets here.

Up front though, the worry remains that without Tevez we will struggle. Mario Balotelli has yet to put in a performance worthy of his own boasting mouth. To start with the enigmatic Italian would be a gamble in a game of such magnitude, but then again, at the moment Dzeko doesn’t foster confidence. The unpredictability of Balotelli could be a factor here. He is somewhat of an unknown quantity against Ferguson’s men, and he is capable of producing the bit of magic that we need. The question is whether the lad can keep his head in such a super charged game. I want to believe in him but he gives us little to go on.

‘Changing history’

Mancini has talked about the opportunity to change the club’s history through arriving at the final of a major cup competition. Of course he’s right, but in this semi we also have the opportunity to change our recent history – and here I’m talking about our record against United since the Arabs took over. Strangely we’ve yet to defeat our rivals since we started signing top quality players. I’m sure there’s a typical city angle on that somewhere. Bring back Shaun Goater and Benjani.

I’ve always thought that the winners of the FA Cup this year would have to defeat United, and now that task has fallen to us. Lose - and the mental block will go on. But there’s always two ways of looking at it. Win – and we claim the scalp of our greatest rivals at Wembley. This is a massive opportunity. They don’t come much bigger than this.