Saturday, 13 September 2008

Expectations, Chelsea preview

Even before September 1st I was excited about this game. Two consecutive 3-0 wins (not since 1994 in the top flight), the return of Wright-Phillips, the gradual embedding of Vincent Kompany, and the arrival of a top quality front man in Jô pointed to an exciting time.

Then we became the richest club in the world. And with minutes remaining in the transfer window, we broke the British record to buy Robinho from Real Madrid.

Any August optimism was tempered by fear over the financial future. Delighted with the Kompany and Wright-Phillips deals, but worried where the money was coming from. Relieved that Corluka's sale fell through, but disconcerted that Cook had tried to sell him behind Hughes' back. And not only embarrassed by our Chairman's legal situation, but genuinely fearful of Premier League punishment.

Now this has changed: the worry is not of a lack of funds, but of the corrupting influence of morbid affluence. Profligacy, rather than prudence, is what we have to avoid.

And expectations have soared. Before the takeover I had the flicker of a feeling that we could finish fifth. Villa had lost to Stoke. Spurs had lost to Sunderland and Middlesbrough. Everton has stuttered. Portsmouth looked like contenders, but nothing special. Of course, I didn't write this. It would have looked thoughtless, hubristic: a silly over-reaction to two good performances (the reason City fans were so angry with Phil Neville's comment about us being an emotional club is that deep down we all know it to be true.)

But now? Top Four is being talked of, by those inside and outside of the club. Our current squad will only be augmented in January. Fans are already discussing whether Liverpool or Arsenal are more likely to make way.

Such events naturally generated hope and expectation. But thanks to the international break, City fans have had twelve days to think these issues through : Dr al-Fahim or Sheikh Mansour? FA Cup or UEFA Cup? Huntelaar or Podolski? The upshot of this is the most fevered atmosphere for years going into the match.

But what of the match? Last time we went into a game with Chelsea overconfident after a good start to the season, we lost 6-0. And that was only eleven months ago! It should go unsaid that a point would be a great result. Yes, Robinho and Wright-Phillips may cause Chelsea problems. But what of Joe Cole, Lampard and Deco? Injuries to Essien and Ballack reduce the steel available to Chelsea, but with Kompany, Hamann, Dunne and Richards we were never going to get outmuscled. It's Chelsea's movement and guile that may do for us.

Hughes seemed to suggest on Thursday that Richards would play but Johnson and Petrov would not. Taking that to be true, I imagine the only defensive change from the Sunderland game would be Pablo Zabaleta in at right back (although a reliable internet source says that Zabaleta did not train on Friday). The nature of the match would recommend keeping the 4-3-3 system rather than the 4-4-1-1.

A front line of Wright-Phillips, Jô and Robinho is most likely, although Elano or Ireland could start if Robinho is unready. Equally, an unfit Jô could see a second consecutive CoMS start for Danny Sturridge. In midfield, Vincent Kompany's place is assured. The experience and know-how of Dietmar Hamann should see him start with the task of thinking one step ahead of Deco. Unless Hughes goes ultra-cautious and picks Gelson Fernandes alongside them, August player of the month Steven Ireland should play in front of them. Elano is another possibility, for the not trivial reason that he is the only person at City who can translate for Robinho.

The West Ham and Sunderland games I predicted 1-1 and was rewarded with 3-0. Don't expect me to change that today.

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