Monday, 23 January 2012

Thief or saviour?

The eternally combustible Mario Balotelli was centre stage yet again yesterday as City almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against a Spurs side that will feel that they were robbed.

No one at all will remember the first 45 minutes of football. City looked the more likely to score, with Sergio Aguero producing a good save from Spurs keeper Brad Freidel. But that was largely it, as both sides weighed each other up.

The second 45 minutes was a goal fest, as the tide swept (not ebbed) one way and then swept back the next, almost with disastrous consequences for the Blues.

Once again, it was the man of the season David Silva that first picked the lock, splitting open the Spurs defence with a pass of great vision to Samir Nasri, and the former Arsenal man’s shot flew into the back of the net, leaving Friedel no chance.

Three minutes later and City were two up, this time with a goal that was the polar opposite of the first. A great flick on from Edin Dzeko saw Joleon Lescott scramble the ball over the line.

Led by the impressive Aguero, who was probably City’s best player all afternoon, the Blues were cruising, but not for long.

I’ve written recently about giving younger players a chance as we experience our so-called resource crisis. Mancini once again placed his faith in Stefan Savic here, and once again the younger clearly was the weak link. A nervous defensive header back to Joe Hart did not have the power to reach the England number one, and Jermaine Defoe pounced, rounded Hart, and made it 2-1.

You had to take your hat off to Gareth Bale’s equalizer. The Welshman’s strike was a perfect combination of precision and power, as the ball looped over Hart’s head and into the back of the net. That goal made up for a shocker of a mis-kick earlier in the half, where Bale got his feet all wrong and ended up scuffing his shot in the box.

From here on in, you felt it was damage limitation for City.

Defoe gave Savic a torrid time. Spurs were looking increasingly lethal on the counter attack after that goal, and there were a few backline misunderstandings between Savic and Lescott. But the young Serbian is learning all the time, and I back Mancini’s decision to put him in the firing line.

The same cannot be said of Dzeko, who is hardly green, either to first team football or to the Premier League now. Aside from his fantastic flick to allow us to score the second, he seemed to get in the way and slow play down for us, with not much of an understanding with the fiery Aguero and quick-witted Silva. He looked the odd man out going forward.

At any rate the game boiled down to two late events. As the game came to a close, Spurs broke once again with intent. Defoe was whiskers away from winning the game, almost getting to Bale’s crossed, but City escaped, seemingly with the draw.

But yet another twist saw Balotelli, on for the substituted Dzeko, brought down in the area by Ledley King. The Italian slotted home the penalty and the win was ours.

Of course the controversy is now turning on whether Balotelli should have been on the pitch. Already booked for a challenge on Benoit Assou-Ekotto, the Italian challenged Scott Parker for the ball in what looked like a fair coming together. However, upon the replay you can see that the Italian, unexplainably, did stamp on Parker.

We should accept the incoming FA ban and get it over with, rather than appealing and incurring an extra game. He might well miss the Carling Cup Semi against Liverpool but we need him for the league.

At any rate, it was a remarkable victory by the Blues. We let Spurs back into the game, but we were seriously understrength whereas they pretty much were at full tilt. Still, the match turned away from Spurs.

At the end of the day we did what could to win, and we did. The omens are good. Maybe we didn’t deserve to win, but to do so in the manner we did just underlines the threat that we have now become.

But we can be our own worst enemy. The unpredictability of Mario Balotelli is the stuff of titles, but it is also the stuff of madness and the unexplainable. In him, we have a weapon that no other team possesses. Unfortunately, sometimes that weapon has a tendency of hurting the hand that controls it.

However, you do sense that it will be our own actions, and not the actions of others, that will either win or lose us this title.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The kids are alright, surely?

Vincent Kompany’s enforced absence from the side has increased calls for us to sign new players – particularly a defender – in the January transfer window. But do we really need to bring in new faces? And would it be prudent to bring in new faces given the incoming FIFA regulations?

It has not helped that the team appear to be going through an inevitable slump. If we’d have beaten Sunderland, United and Liverpool in the Carling Cup, I’m sure the call to sign more players would have been much quieter. But we lost those games, and naturally the manager and (some) fans alike are clamoring for new faces.

To be fair to Mancini, he called this situation a couple of months ago, citing that we would need reinforcements in January given the departure of the Toure brothers to the Africa Nations Cup. He must also have known that David Silva could not keep on performing to the level that he has. 

Also, managers will always be managers. Mancini lives and dies by what happens on the pitch, so it is only natural for him to push for new faces and maximize the impact we can have on the pitch. But I'm not sure whether the board will sanction any new additions in this window.

Kompany KO?
Whilst unfortunate, the Vincent Kompany situation is not the end of the world. Of course Kompany is a massive player for us, definitely one of the top three defenders in the world at the moment, but no-one is more important than the club.

The Belgian will miss four important games, no doubt about it. It will be very difficult for us now at Anfield, as we will certainly be put under the cosh there. The Spurs game also cries out for his presence – Redknapp’s men are as much a threat to our title ambitions as are United.

But at the end of the day, these are only four games. I am certain we can do without our captain – we proved as much in the second half against United.

Other options
We should balance the clamour of rushing into signing new players with a look at what we already have: Bridge, Kolarov, Clichy, Lescott, Savic, Onuoha, Richards and Zabaleta. At a pinch Barry and Milner can come back to fill in full back positions. That’s 10 potential options, without mentioning the untested Karim Rekik.

Of course, its 10 options in theory, but fans would argue the reality is leaner. Bridge and Onuoha appear to have been frozen out. Barry and Milner are emergency options. Playing them at the back would not just be playing them out of position but playing them in a different sector of pitch with different requirements.

But that still leaves us with seven options at the back, including the young Dutchman Rekik. Mancini has proved in the past that he is not averse to throwing in a youngster when it matters. He did so with Dedryck Boyata in the Carling Cup Semifinal second leg at Old Trafford a couple of years back. The Italian has hinted that he may turn to Rekik. I’m not sure whether that’s a ploy to alarm the owners or not.

In the end, this is the reason why we have a squad. Is this not the perfect opportunity to call on the likes of the EDS squad for a couple of substitute appearances? Isn’t football just as much about instilling confidence in younger players to go out and do the job as it is about identifying and signing established players?

In terms of resource issues, the same can be said of midfield, in fact perhaps here we have even less options on the table: Barry, Hargreaves, Johnson, de Jong, Milner and Nasri. Why not introduce the likes of Gai Assulin or Denis Suarez here?

If we know anything at all about Mancini, it is that he is a pragmatist. We have seen little of the likes of Rekik (17) Assulin (20) Suarez (18) and Savic (21 - although Savic has come right into the first team squad) probably because the Italian and his back room team do do feel these players are fully ready. 

Mancini placed Savic at the centre of our defence yesterday, directly replacing Kompany. As Savic gave away the penalty, and was probably the weak link at the back, this may well now lead to Mancini taking even fewer risks in the youth department. But where else will the likes of Savic learn other than as part of the first team? Sometimes I think you have to accept the mistakes of younger players to allow them to grow into solid performers.

Financial fair play
We’ve had it good for the last couple of years in terms of signing players, but we’re going to have to get used to not getting out the cheque book every time we hit an injury / suspension crisis, and now is the perfect time to do that.

By 2013 we will have had to curb our spending on transfer fees and, most importantly, wages. Placing our faith in young players is the key plank of this effort. The club has already acknowledged as much with its plans for the Etihad Campus.

Blooding younger players is a habit, and we have to get into the habit of doing it. We’ve brought these younger players to the club, so someone must have shown faith in them somewhere along the line. Why don’t we now throw some of this talent into the mix?

Monday, 9 January 2012

The strength of 10 men

It could have been a mauling, instead it turned into a cup tie and a half. City ultimately lost their FA Cup crown amidst a first half that was not good enough, whatever is said about the sending off of Vincent Kompany. United will gloat, but they will kick themselves that they did not push the sword in further.

The Blues started well, forcing their opponents back, but there was really nothing they could do against United’s opener, a top drawer header from Wayne Rooney, who seems to save some of his best performances for City.

We were down but far from out, and then came the sending off. The club will appeal the decision but I can’t help thinking there’s no point in doing that. The officials will close ranks and back Chris Foy, but really, there was nothing in the sending off at all, apart from a referee that appeared to be trying to make a name for himself.

With our captain and best defender off the pitch, we went to pieces at the back and United capitalized. We couldn’t clear the ball out of the area, and when we did, we couldn’t hold it long enough to give our defence a breather. It was classic United and there was no doubt that with a man less, it was going to be difficult.

United pressed and Wellbeck’s goal came as a result. I have to commend the strike, taken at an awkward angle and with perfect precision, the young striker showed great athleticism.

But the truth is, he was allowed to do this because we were soft in the area – in this case Nigel de Jong was the culprit. If you are de Jong in this situation, you have to be putting extreme pressure on the man, but instead, de Jong appeared to duck out of the challenge. It might have been out of fear of fouling Wellbeck, it might have been out of fear of deflecting the shot. Whatever it was, it gave the young United striker the window he needed to execute, and suddenly we were flapping.

There can be no qualms over Alexander Kolarov’s tackle on Wellbeck for the penalty. Costel Pantilimon did well to save Rooney’s penalty, but could do nothing with the rebound. It was a baptism of fire for our Romanian stand in keeper, a strange game to rest Joe Hart in.

But it was a credit to the Blues that Wellbeck’s second was the last United scored in open play. In the second half the ten men regrouped, got our heads right and Mancini got the tactics right. We were too belt and braces in the first half, even after we went behind. We needed to slow things down, have a bit of possession, wait for them to come at us, and then hit them. And that’s exactly what we did. Replacing Adam Johnson and David Silva with Pablo Zabaleta and Stefan Savic, we were much more able to repel United’s attacks.

It was the classic dilemma of playing against 10 ten. United were unsure what to do. Do you go for the fourth and kill the opposition off? Or do you wait and allow them to come onto you? The strength of ten men here cast doubt into United's overall play in the second half.

Ferguson helped us with his substitutes. Subbing Nani and Wellbeck took the edge of United’s offensive play. Introducing Paul Scholes particularly slowed things down for them, and as the game wore on, United surprisingly became less of a threat.

Kolarov’s sublime free kick was just was the doctor ordered, the first chance of the second half in the back of the net, start-as-you-mean-to-go-on stuff. Kolarov needs to start weighing in with a few more of these. We all know his defensive frailties – for me he still isn’t cut out for the position of left back in this league – but if he can bring goal scoring free kicks to the table then that weighs things out a bit more.

The game then changed. United continued to have possession but our counter attacking became more effective. Sergio Aguero was ploughing a lonely furrow for the majority of this encounter, but he did what all top strikers do and immediately switched on when he was needed. A brilliant cross from James Milner (who is probably having the season of his life) found Aguero unmarked in the box and the Argentinean scored City’s second, forcing the ball home after Lindegaard had parried his first effort.

Things were looking particularly dicey for United at this point. That is the central difference with Ferguson’s men this season. They are showing a brittleness at the back and throughout the spine of the team. Most sides are sensing blood and exploiting it, and that’s what we did here.

We on the other hand are showing steel, and our character came through.

As things became increasingly tense, too good penalty decisions were turned down. Kolarov brought down Valencia and then Phil Jones handballed inside the penalty area. On another day both could have easily been given.

A late, late Kolarov free kick, parried away by the United keeper in a penalty area full of players, could have gone anywhere. We threatened yet again with a corner, with Micah Richards attempting a scissor kick, but the ball could not be scrambled home. Instead, United scrambled away with a victory. It was a far cry from the thrashing they were surely expecting to give us. Nowadays, its a different City. It wasn't inconceivable that we could have won the game if some more decisions went our way - and all this with a man less.

There is something strange about United this season that I cannot quite put my finger on. There seems an air of capitulation about them, something rarely found in the Ferguson era. The script of this match started as a potential rout for United, but it ended with them on the back foot, exiting stage left as quickly as they could as they hung on while we ended the match heroically. Perhaps it is this inability to keep to the script that is now troubling Ferguson’s squad?

United will take the victory, but with 10 men, and a comeback that was almost United-esque in its manner, City will take the psychological edge.