More of the same, please City

MANCHESTER CITY restored their dented pride and their credentials as potential multiple trophy winners with the impressive revenge win against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Now, I want to see manager Manuel Pellegrini keep up the good work against Barcelona tonight by again making the right selections. For me, Joleon Lescott has to stay in the team in the centre of defence, alongside the towering figure of captain Vincent Kompany. I have said often enough that Lescott, whose natural left foot gives the centre-back pairing a marvellous balance, would always get my vote to partner Kompany over Nastasic and, most certainly, over Demichelis.

Also, I think the excellent, hard-working and versatile James Milner showed against Chelsea – as he did when starring in the early-season return leg victory over mighty Bayern Munich – that he is the man for the big occasion. Milner was terrific in that wide right role that also sees him tucking in and lending invaluable support to Yaya Toure who, clearly also comforted by the presence of Garcia – who had his best game for City in the holding role – was at his rampaging, belligerent best as Jose Mourinho and his players were well and truly put in their place. It might be that Garcia will be unlucky and make way for Fernandinho, and you couldn’t argue with that, but I hope Pellegrini sticks by the other guys who did him proud on Saturday

With Sergio Aguero again ruled out, it will be interesting to see who plays at the front. I suspect that Jovetic, who reminded me so much of my former City front-runner  Paul Dickov in the way he tirelessly harassed the Chelsea defenders, will again start with either Dzeko or Negredo as the focal point of the attack. Against Lionel Messi and the Barca all-stars, City will need to produce another disciplined, all-round performance and I suggest that unsung heroes Lescott and Milner, Pellegrini’s foot soldiers if you like, need to be there to help ensure that is just what they do.


Match of the season

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.



Papering over the cracks

A night of mixed emotions for David Moyes as he watched his much-changed Manchester United beat Liverpool in the Capital One Cup, exacting revenge for the recent Premier League defeat in the process. The win, against a pretty much full-strength Liverpool, gives Moyes a little breathing space amidst the welter of criticism in the aftermath of United’s 4-1 derby-day thrashing by Manchester City. But, last night’s display merely papered over the cracks of the most pressing problem the new United manager faces, namely the shortage of invention in midfield. It is a tribute to Ryan Giggs’s fitness, desire and quality that he is still playing at this level on the eve of his 40th birthday. I am afraid it is also a stark indication of United’s urgent need of reinforcement in that vital area. The 1-0 win was a much-needed morale-booster for Moyes and his players, and yet another example of United’s ongoing never-say-die spirit, but the display did not address the big issue of the team’s shortage of ideas in midfield. You could see why Moyes wanted to sign Cesc Fabregas, from Barcelona, in the summer.

The warning signs were there last season when golden oldies Giggs and now-retired Paul Scholes were figuring so frequently. Tom Cleverley is an England international but still has to fully convince that he can be a major influence at Old Trafford. Antonio Valencia does not look 100 per cent confident after coming back from serious injury, Kagawa is quality but possibly lightweight, Nani continues to excite and exasperate in equal measure – you could see Wayne Rooney waiting for the simple pass that did not come, then watching, perplexed, as Nani did something extraordinary – and Ashley Young does not seem to have made the transition from Premier League to Champions League quality. In short, Moyes needs someone to complement the excellent Michael Carrick, United’s most consistent player last season, who was rested against Liverpool. The deficiencies highlight the absence of ‘forgotten’ man Darren Fletcher, the often unsung hero in whom Sir Alex Ferguson placed so much faith. Fletcher has been struggling with a health problem for the past two or three years and his continued absence has been a big loss, for this excellent athlete and fierce competitor, a player who is decent on the ball and who scores goals, was en route to being top class. Moyes said this week he needs two players – and you can bet that, come the January transfer window, the targets will be midfielders.

A big plus for Moyes was the return to starting action of the excellent Jonny Evans at centre-back. He and Chris Smalling did a good job against one of the league’s most dangerous attacking duos, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, who was back after his 10-game suspension. Evans, still a young man but already an experienced player for United, is very quick and I can see him putting huge pressure on Rio Ferdinand to be first choice alongside Nemanja Vidic. Even Vidic may have reason to start looking over his shoulder if Smalling gets the opportunity to play regularly. Lack of first team action is, it seems to  me, all that is holding him back. It will be interesting to see who plays at centre-back at home to West Brom on Saturday, and even more so, who figures in midfield.

I was delighted for the Liverpool fans that they got to see Suarez in action again, even if the controversial Uruguayan looked a little rusty. I did not agree with the FA when they hit Suarez with the 10-match ban after his bite on the arm of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not condoning such behaviour, far from it, but I believe it was more of a social, rather than a football, offence and, as such, should have been met with a social punishment i.e. a lengthy period of community service, working with kids in Liverpool and setting a better example than he did on the pitch that day. Fans of my old club Everton may find it ironical that I speak out in sympthay for Liverpool supporters. However, my view is that the hard-working, hard-up folk who shell out for a season ticket should not have been deprived for so long of the sight of a player who can go on to rank alongside Liverpool’s legendary strikers, Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish. For me, the most serious offence on the pitch is the blatant, over-the-top, potential leg-breaking tackle. Ask any player which he’d prefer, a bite on the arm – and Suarez’s misdeed was more of a petulant gesture than a vicious act, he didn’t even break Ivanovic’s skin – or a smash from behind against his knee and he will opt for the former. What Suarez did was distasteful – no pun intended. It was a red card offence and that, in itself, brings an automatic three-match ban. Had he served that ban and been ordered to spend time with the people of Liverpool, hopefully showing the better side of his nature, then I think justice would have been better served.




City slickers

Seven days to go to the big kick-off in what promises to be one of the most exciting Premier League campaigns in many a year…and I’m tipping Manchester City to reclaim the title that they surrendered so tamely last season. The competition from current champions Manchester United and Chelsea – both clubs under new management – Arsenal and Tottenham will be intense but, if City perform to their capabilities, they will be top of the pile next May.

While United and Arsenal have been embroiled in protracted transfer sagas this summer, City have flexed their unrivalled spending power with a near-£100million splurge on four top class players, midfielder Fernandinho, winger Jesus Navas and forwards Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic. Controversial strikers Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez are gone and, if the men who have come in are of a more harmonious nature, then City boss Mario Pellegrini will parade a formidable unit when City start their campaign against Newcastle at home. These new signings embellish a squad containing many players who would grace any team in the Premier League, such as goalkeeper Joe Hart, centre-back Vincent Kompany, strikers Kun Aguero and Edin Dzeko and midfielders David Silva and the awesome Yaya Toure.

Now, this guy Toure, for whatever reason, did not perform to his best last season, certainly not on a consistent basis. If that was because of the alleged lack of communication between players and former manager Roberto Mancini, then City fans must hope that mutual respect has been restored with Pellegrini. If all is well in that respect, then I suggest that Toure can once again be the catalyst for a title triumph, just as he was two seasons ago. Make no mistake, when this beast of a player is at his buccaneering best he is virtually unstoppable. Toure’s style is unique in the Premier League, for he can sit in midfield or bomb on with equal ease and he scores goals as well as makes them. And, when surging forward, the man is a rampaging force at the heart of a team which has match-winners in several positions. I believe that winger Navas will be in that category, for he has the speed, skill and confidence to cause chaos.

If I were Pellegrini my concern would be that the defence, which is shorn of the services of the injured Matijia Nastasic for six weeks, does not repeat the generosity it showed when allowing AC Milan to hit back with three goals after being 5-0 down in a pre-season match. That was a bit disturbing! However, I’m sure City will have been working hard on efforts to ensure there is no repeat when the action gets under way for real next weekend, or, in City’s case on the Monday night. As I say, they start with a home fixture against Newcastle, then play two of the promoted teams, Cardiff, away, and Hull City. No disrespect to any of the aforementioned, but it is not difficult to imagine City getting off to a maximum nine-point start from their first three matches. And you can’t underestimate the value of a good start to your campaign.

If City step up to the plate, which they too often failed to do last season – when they were again my tip for the title – I can’t see Chelsea, despite being re-energised under Jose Mourinho, Arsenal, with or without the tremendously talented Luis Suarez, or even Manchester United stopping them from winning the title. David Moyes has a big, big challenge at Old Trafford, where his early days as successor to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson have been dominated by the ongoing Wayne Rooney situation. Rooney apparently wants out, Chelsea apparently want to sign him and United don’t want to sell him. The fans are frustrated, not least because United have yet to make a big signing and because the player Moyes coveted, Cesc Fabregas, says he is staying at Barcelona. Fabregas would do wonders for United, whose winning of the title at a canter last season with a team short of top quality midfield talent was, in my view, one of the most remarkable of Ferguson’s many achievements. I will be surprised if Moyes is able to replicate that in his first season in charge.