MANCHESTER CITY play Arsenal tomorrow in a ‘high noon’ shoot-out that must qualify as the match of the season, with my title favourites City in a position to either grow or blow their claims to the crown. Victory at their Etihad fortress – City have battered Manchester United and Tottenham there and inflicted the only defeat of their season upon Everton – would lift Manuel Pellegrini’s all-stars to within three points of the Gunners. Defeat would leave them nine points adrift and with a mountain to climb. Put it this way, it must be many a year since a team which lost five times before Christmas went on to win the league. It will be a battle of the midfield magicians, fit again David Silva, Yaya Toure and re-energised Samir Nasri pitting their wits against Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta. And will Jack Wilshere, such a potential big player for England at the World Cup, rise to the occasion? It is a mouth-watering prospect and it should be quite a spectacle.
It will be intriguing to see what team Pellegrini picks for, surely, he must name what he considers to be his best eleven for this fixture against the league leaders. That being the case, the continuing exclusion of goalkeeper Joe Hart for Premier League matches would be significant, a major blow to the player and a big worry for England boss Roy Hodgson who needs his No 1 keeper to be regularly employed between now and the World Cup Finals next summer. Another England player who has been in and out of the City team but who must merit serious consideration is the much underrated James Milner, who can play either side of midfield and who was, for me, the man of the match in the magnificent midweek win at Bayern Munich. I presume that skipper Vincent Kompany, rested in Munich, will be adding his considerable presence to the defence, where I would like to see him partnered by Joleon Lescott. Arsene Wenger will play his usual five-man midfield behind lone striker Olivier Giroud – and I can’t wait to see how the drama unfolds.
Let us hope Pellegrini avoids any further embarrassment with regards to information black-out. I refer, of course, to the ridiculous situation in Munich, where the City boss and, it appears, his players were unaware that they required just one more goal – i.e. a 4-2 scoreline – to top their Champions League group and thus avoid the minefield they now face in Monday’s draw for the knock-out phase. It seems Pellegrini thought City needed a 5-2 win to secure first place and, as a result, did not deem it worth the risk of top scorer Sergio Aguero coming off the bench and getting injured in the chase for two strikes, keen as he was to keep his star striker fit to face the Gunners. Pellegrini has taken a lot of stick in the British Press, but I think City’s army of back-up technical and statistical staff must carry as much of the can. Why wasn’t the manager made aware of the precise requirements? In the event, second-placed City will go into the hat with giants of the game like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and big-spending Pars Saint Germain. Pellegrini can only pray his ignorance of the facts doesn’t come back to bite him. And I can only think that the back-up people have been made aware they need to smarten their act.
ON the subject of draws, England’s World Cup group is just about as tough as it gets. Uruguay – their line led by the prolific Luis Suarez – are ranked six in the world, Italy, such a competition-hardened nation down the decades, are seventh and Costa Rica have rocketed through the list from 66th in January to 31st. England, who are 13th, are really up against it and I urge the staff and players to focus on the fact that, in the humidity and the heat of Brazil, and against such opposition, possession of the ball will be crucial to their hopes of progression. Keeping the ball has not been a feature of England’s displays in recent years and, if they don’t improve that side of their game, they will struggle to emerge from the group. The best players, Joe Hart, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard must be at their best and I think Gerrard, currently sidelined at Liverpool with a hamstring injury, will have to be cherished. If we are winning a particular match, it might be that the 33-year-old midfielder will need to be substituted and cotton-wooled for the next encounter.