Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Robinho 8/1 for Golden Boot

with Victor Chandler. Link.

What we need in January

In a rough order.
  • A centre forward. This has been a fantastic goal scoring season so far - 38 in 20 in the league, second only to Chelsea. But our centre forwards haven't been up to it. We've played Benjani, Sturridge, Evans, Jo, Caicedo and Vassell up front, and they have eight league goals between them. It's been even worse than last year, when Bianchi, Mpenza, Vassell, Samaras and Benjani took it in turns to prove they weren't up to it. The main name in the papers is Roque Santa Cruz, for now obvious reasons. It sounds as if he's almost nailed on to come. He would be perfect - having the physical presence to hold up the ball and bring Ireland, Robinho etc into the game, and also the instinct to get on the end of SWP and Petrov's crosses. Similarly, Craig Bellamy or Jermain Defoe could give us that goal scoring nous we're looking for.
  • A central midfielder. Given Hughes' adoption of a 4-3-3, there's no room for passengers in the midfield three. Ireland and Kompany have excelled so far (although both looked very tired in December), but they need top quality support. Hughes clearly does not trust Hamann, Elano or Fernandes, for various combinations of personal and tactical reasons. Having to play SWP in midfield was one of the worst aspects of our disappointing autumn. Given that Michael Johnson looks unlikely to return to fitness any time soon, we need one or maybe even two midfielders to provide us with some much needed strength and experience: Kompany and Ireland are both only 22. Scott Parker, Marcos Senna, Esteban Cambiasso - all good buys if we get them.
  • A centre back. Richard Dunne, Micah Richards and Tal Ben Haim - all worse than each other this season. Whichever combination we've gone for, it's been error after error after error. Ben Haim looks like he won't play for us again, any may well join Allardyce at Ewood Park as part of the RSC deal. Dunne has recovered some form of late, but was poor at Blackburn on Sunday. Richards was benched for the first time in ages, and has not looked fully focussed for some time. While club captain Dunne is an important mark of stability, and Richards is still an outstanding talent who should be given time, Hughes should at least have the option of not playing both of them (and, for me, Nedum Onuoha is not the answer). Kolo Toure (27) and Matthew Upson (29) are the names we see the most, and would both bring much needed experience to our defence.
  • A left back. Javi Garrido is the second most improved player at City this season, but still might not quite have it. His problems were always more physical than technical, being both too slow and too weak when he arrived here last summer. Hughes and Bowen's intensive fitness training has improved him significantly, and he is now a competent Premier League left back - something Michael Ball has not been for years. But we can still do better. Wayne Bridge would be perfect: we don't have time for allow for a 'bedding-in period', and so his Premier League experience gives him the advantage over, say, Taye Taiwo or Fabio Grosso. Bridge is also a very good player.
  • A goalkeeper. Regardless of what one thinks of Joe Hart, and I don't think he's had an exception 2008/09 thus far, Kasper Schmeichel is not a good number two. Having a 21 year old first choice keeper backed up by a 22 year old on the bench is not an ideal combination. Ideally we'd find someone experienced who would want to come in to mentor and compete with Hart - Brad Friedel would have been perfect. While we could easily go and buy Shay Given from Newcastle, it would be very difficult to pick Hart ahead of him. Which might not be a bad idea. But you can see the issue here: do we want to replace Hart, or improve him? Until Hughes knows the answer to this the next move is unclear.
  • A new contract for Danny Sturridge. His deal expires in the summer, leaving him free to negotiate a bosman transfer very soon I think. Talks are ongoing, but we saw on Sunday his prodigious talents - the volleyed finish and then the dribble and through ball for the second. Cannot be allowed to leave.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Bids for Parker and Bellamy

Monday's Daily Mail and Independent both carry stories on a £15m bid - £7.5m each - for West Ham's Craig Bellamy and Scott Parker.

We've been linked with Bellamy quite a bit recently but this is the first time I've seen Parker linked. He would represent the filling of as important a gap as Bellamy would - someone new to play central midfield to take some of the burden from Ireland and Kompany. As with Bellamy, I'd rather we went for other, better targets first but if we end up with those two (amongst others, of course) I wouldn't be too upset.

This bid's been rejected, but I'm sure we wouldn't have to go too much higher to get both of them. While we're there we should pick up Matthew Upson too, should Wenger refuse to let us have Kolo Toure.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

TLDORC December awards

A month that started with four atrocious performances (Fulham was ok), before a big improvement to 'quite acceptable' after Christmas.

PSG (h) 0-0 (thoughts, ratings)
Fulham (a) 1-1 (thoughts, ratings)
Everton (h) 0-1 (thoughts, ratings)
Racing (a) 1-3 (thoughts, ratings)
WBA (a) 1-2 (thoughts, ratings)
Hull (h) 5-1 (thoughts)
Blackburn (a) 2-2 (thoughts, ratings to follow)

Player of the Month

Pablo Zabaleta

Ireland's had a good month, but not as good as Pablo Zabaleta. After a bedding in period that only seemed to take a few weeks, now looks fully at home with the English game. I remember being distraught when Corluka left (or at least, when it was first news that he might leave), but I'm delighted with Zabaleta. Consistent and error-free in a way that Charlie never was, also quicker over ten yards and not afraid to get his shorts dirty. Started with a man of the match display at Craven Cottage, setting up our only goal with a Bosingwa-quality cross and twice nearly scoring his first City goal. For the rest of the month gave us strong, tough, 90 minute displays of defensive solidity and occasional attacking vigour. Finished the month hugging Hughes on the touchline after Robinho's equaliser at Ewood Park. If Hughes can pick up players of this standard from abroad in January we'll have a great 2009. If he spoke English he'd be nailed on for next captain.

PS Honourable mention to Felipe Caicedo, who summoned the spirit of Emile Mpenza with his new hair and bagged four (I'm definitely counting the backheel - fuck Gary Mabbutt) crucial goals. A triumph for Eriksson - an embarrassment for Jo.

Best Performance of the Month

Stevie Ireland v Hull

Probably even better than his Portsmouth, Arsenal or Schalke performances (although against by far the weakest midfield of those four games). Instrumental in almost all of our goals - crossing twice for Caicedo and putting Robinho in after winning the ball in the middle of the park. Capped it all with a great left footed strike for his seventh league goal of the season - now one behind Gerrard and Lampard - his competitors for Premier League team of the season. I'm starting to wonder that maybe, just maybe, if he carries on playing like this and stays here through the 2010s, he could be Manchester City's Paul Scholes.

Goal of the Month

This bit's contingent on my finding clips online to embed, which I can't really find. Our best goal was probably Robinho's first against Hull. My favourites were the Caicedo backheel in Spain and Robinho's equaliser at Ewood.

Blackburn 2 - 2 City

  • A comeback, at last. We have been the victim of too many this season: Liverpool was the most painful - but don't forget Chelsea, Spurs, Newcastle, Hull or Fulham. This was only our third point this season from a losing position (all 2-2 draws, interestingly enough), having been 1-0 down at Hull and 2-1 down at Newcastle. This is part of our long sought after but much required grit. Of course, real mental toughness would have meant taking one of our early chances and grinding out a 1-0 win. But for now, this will do.
  • At 2-0 it would have been very easy to criticise Hughes. Another weak display in one of these bottom of the table away games - we lost 2-0 at 'Boro and at Bolton, 2-1 at West Brom and Wigan and now this. But I don't think that's quite fair. In those games, we were useless, shapeless, spineless and - importantly - chanceless. Not today. With Caicedo's early chance and Robinho's header, we could have been 2-0 up very quickly. Robinho and Elano both ought to have penalties awarded. Defensively we were poor, and we struggled a bit after half time. But, as with the comeback, in creative terms this was not a performance to be bracketed with the above four.
  • So in that sense, Hughes deserves credit for sticking with the team that won on Boxing Day. It would have been easy to bring in Fernandes for Elano, or to bench Caicedo, or to resurrect the SWP in midfield, Vass on the right experiment. But he stuck to our sort of 4-1-5 and was almost rewarded in the first half. We didn't compete in midfield very well in the second half, and we still need Senna or equivalent (plus Johnson back from injury). But it seems like our 'home team' (the one with Elano in) is a bit tougher than it used to be.
  • With Micah Richards starting on the bench, and Tal Ben Haim nowhere to be seen (now that Elano is playing he's competing with Hamann to be top of Hughes' 'bad books') Richard Dunne took on the burden of being 'City's Comedy Centre Half of the Day'. He could have got sent off for tugging down Roberts on the edge of the box early on, and never looked very comfortable with McCarthy either. And when Blackburn put a long ball in late on, he headed the ball straight up in the air, before leaving Chris Samba to knock it on to Roberts. He's been our best centre back this season, but I'd still love to see us bring in Toure or Upson.
  • Both goals were scored by Robinho-Sturridge combinations. Our first started with a a nice flick and chip into the box by Robinho - which Ooijer (I think?) headed across to Sturridge, who took a quite difficult chance very well. The second goal saw Sturridge beat and hold off three defenders from a wide right position before finding Robinho with a perfect curled through pass. Most of our best play this year has been from Robinho-Ireland combinations, so it's nice to see another ludicrously talented Academy graduate link up with the £32.5million man to get us some goals.
  • Robinho now has 11 goals in 15 Premier Leauge starts. Nicolas Anelka has 14 in 18. Amr Zaki has 10 in 15. Gabriel Agbonlahor has 9 in 19. Cristiano Ronaldo has 8 in 13. There are other things that matter much, much more - Premier League survival would be nice. But what odds on a Manchester City Golden Boot this year?

Sunday papers: Owen and Senna

A few noteworthy articles on City in the Sunday papers today.

The News of the World says Hughes has identified Michael Owen as our main striking target, and is lining up a £4million bid. His contract expires in the summer, and it looks as if he won't be signing a new one. Joe Kinnear wants to keep him until May and risking losing out on a transfer fee, but the paper speculates we'll tempt Mike Ashley into selling now. The Sunday Telegraph has a similar story - but puts our bid at £6million rather than £4m.

I think Owen would be a great buy. Caicedo showed on Sunday that we provide good enough service for a relatively smart striker to flourish. Our problem was the laziness and imobility of Jo and Benjani, never been in the box when we needed them to be.

The back page of the Daily Star Sunday reads 'SPARKY IN £12M SENNA SWOOP'. The accompanying story tells us nothing new - its only quote is one from a named Villareal that was in the Mail last week. The story, should you want to read it, is here. The aforementioned Sunday Telegraph article also mentions Senna: apparrently he's "widely expected to arrive for a fee in the region of £3 million". Seriously?

Friday, 26 December 2008

A first, or not

Fagan's tap in today was the first goal we have conceded in a league win this season. They have gone 3-0, 3-0, 6-0, 3-0, 3-0 and now 5-1.

Given the state of the game though (4-0 up on 80 minutes) it was not a particularly meaningful goal. So the point still stands: we have not conceded a meaningful goal in a league win this year.

This could mean two things. Either that when we are good we are very very good, or that we are incapable of battling to a win. Both the statements are true, but the second more so than the first. We are clearly capable of wonderful attacking football, albeit only once a month.

But we cannot deal with fightbacks, nor can we mount any of our own. We were ahead against Chelsea, Liverpool (by two goals!) and Spurs and then lost. Against Newcastle, Hull (away) and Fulham we went ahead and drew. We equalised against Villa, Wigan and WBA before losing. We failed to mount any sort of comeback against 'Boro, Bolton or United.

Today was a fantastic display of football. But we've seen that already. Grit? Let's see how we do on Sunday.

City 5 - 1 Hull

  • While this was out of sync with the most recent trends of this season, there was much there today that we already knew.
  • Primarily, that we have attacking players of such quality that, when they are all playing well in unison, we are capable of exceptional attacking football. Today was very reminiscent of the 6-0 against Portsmouth, and, to lesser extents, the West Ham and Arsenal wins.
  • It was a further reminder that Steven Ireland is, on current form, one of the best central midfielders in the Premier League. He had it all today: dictating the pace of play from midfield, crossing from the right for both of Caicedo's goals, putting in Robinho for his first, and smashing home our fifth with minutes to go (with his left foot).
  • And alongside him, head and shoulders above the rest of our squad, is Robinho. Who could have predicted that it would only take fourteen Premier League starts for him to reach 10 league goals? It's the first time a City player's scored ten in the league since Fowler and SWP both got it (but no more) in 2004/05. And with half the season remaining, Anelka's 17 from 2003/04 is surely within reach. But it's not just about the quantity: his first today was magic - the pace, the flick onto his right, the finish across Myhill.

  • On the topic of quantity of goals, we're still flying. The current standings are: Chelsea 38, City 36, Villa 32, Arsenal 30, Liverpool 30. Our points tally is still atrocious, but this is cool nonetheless.

Hughes attacks Eriksson's City again

I wrote last week that the key narrative of the Hughes management is that it is the antithesis of Eriksson's. He has cast himself as the man to overturn and reverse all of the supposed laziness, complacency, weaknesses physical and mental which SGE brought to the club. All the incoherence and malfunction we've suffered on the pitch recently has been due to the impact of these changes.

Quotes carried in this morning's Independent further demonstrate this tendency. Hughes says that the side he inherited had a culture which was "nowhere near where it needed to be" to succeed in the Premier League. Our successful start last season (we were third or fourth at this point in the season) was something that "everyone in football knew wasn't going to be sustainable".

There were lots of problems with the Eriksson era: the last few months were as bad as the first few months of this season. And if Hughes feels he has to destroy much of the Eriksson system to succeed, that is entirely his decision to make. But at some point Hughes will have to offer us something constructive and positive, rather than this endless purge of all vestiges of the Eriksson era. Because at the moment I'd take a successful but unsustainable start over 18 points in 18 games quite willingly.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Senna interested in City move?

A good present for those sad enough to be checking newsnow on Christmas Day: there is a piece by Ian Ladyman in Boxing Day's Daily Mail (online already) which carries quotes from Marcos Senna expressing interest in a move to City.
'I have heard about the big project at City and I'm flattered by their interest. The Premier League is a big league and I am interested in the challenge. It is complicated leaving Villarreal because I am excited by the season and we are still involved in the league and the Champions League. It would take an enormous proposition by City for me to leave but it is not impossible.'
Senna, 32, is the man who, according to the Mail's sources (he was mentioned by Lee Clayton a few days ago), has replaced Lassana Diarra as Hughes' pick to reinforce our midfield. He is Villareal captain, a regular for the Spanish national side - he was in the Euro 2008 Team of the Tournament - and one of the best and most experienced around. Top level Champions League and La Liga experience and a European Championship medal don't come cheap.

The problem, though, is that Senna is not actually Spanish. He's a Brazilian who plays for Spain. In fact, he is from the city of São Paulo - which makes him both a paulista - like Elano, Jô, Robinho and Glauber (hailing from São Paulo state), but also a paulistano - like Jô, from the city itself. Isn't one of Hughes' main priorities breaking up the insular Brazilian clique?

Finally, this isn't what we're buying Senna for but it's still pretty cool. He did it in April 2008 against Betis.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Happy Christmas City fans

(And non-blues who read this anyway. There are some.)

While we can disagree about Hughes or Elano or Eriksson, we should use today to unite around more important things.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

A squad divided against itself cannot stand

The revelations in Tuesday's Mail and Indy about the players further emphasises a point I made in a piece called 'The Problem' on Sunday night.

The squad seems divided between the pro-Hughes and the anti-Hughes players. In the 'pro' camp are Kompany (our next captain, I imagine), Zabaleta, SWP and Ireland. They have no memories of the Eriksson era, or in Ireland's case, few positive ones.

The anti-Hughes camp is made up of various forces. There is primarily an attachment to the Eriksson era: its continental tactics, its laidback methods, its disciplinary laissez-faire. Then there is a old professional's distaste for Hughes' vigorous fitness regime. Finally there is the Brazilian clique. Hughes did not choose to have Elano or Jo at the club, and, according to whom you believe, neither was Robinho. Glauber was a Hughes buy, but presumably does not carry much weight.

The leader of the antis seems to be Elano - fulfilling all three of the above criteria. Hamann and Dunne are both Eriksson players and old pros who don't want to spend their days sprinting. Nor do Vassell and Ball - two Keegan buys (FAIL - both Pearce signings, sorry). Ben Haim is a Hughes buy but does not quite seem to fit in. Hart and Richards have not been as good as they were last year, but they're both here on long term deals and could well improve in time under Hughes.

But what of Robinho? The extent of his personal loyalty is going to be a big factor in our 2009 performances. If he thinks Hughes has a vendetta against his old friend from Santos and the Seleção he could well not meet the performance levels we've enjoyed for the last few months. He didn't show himself to be very mentally stable at Real Madrid - if he wants to cause a fuss when Elano's gone we could be in real trouble.

Of course, this doesn't cover everyone. There are certain players we can't be clear on. I imagine if we weren't about to buy Wayne Bridge then Javi Garrido would very much be a 'Hughes player', given his poor form last year and his striking improvement under Hughes. We can't be clear about Bozhinov, but he seems like a Hughes one to me. The other long term absentees, Johnson and Petrov both flourished under Sven, but have not been fit enough to take sides yet.

This is mainly conjecture based on what's readily available in the national press and my own interpretation of it. If you have any theories of your own, or, even better, evidence from inside, please let us know.

Big City day in the press

Tuesday is a big City day in the press, with a lengthy Ian Herbert piece, a rare Daily Mirror article, and two big ones in the Daily Mail: Lee Clayton on Hughes' view of the squad, and Lee Clayton and Simon Jones on Hughes' transfer plans. There's also stuff in The Sun and even The Star.

The most important articles are those written by Herbert and Clayon. They both give insights into Hughes' criticisms of the squad - much like Ian Herbert's piece on Saturday. The central points:
  • Elano is finished. His dropping against WBA was due to a poor performance against Racing combined with lazy training on Saturday. He and Hughes had words and he was out of the match day 18. It is unlikely he will play for City again.
  • Elano has a willing accomplice in Jô. The £19million man surprised Hughes in calling in sick on Sunday morning, before driving to the ground anyway. He could well follow Elano out in January. Tal Ben Haim is unpopular and could well also leave (as part of the RSC deal surely?)
  • One of the divisive issues is Hughes' tough fitness training. Some of the players (seen by Hughes as too comfortable under Sven) have not reacted well to it - and are falling ill under its strain. I imagine this means some of the older players: Hamann, Vassell and Dunne.
  • There exists a group of pro-Hughes players, with no emotional attachment to Eriksson: Kompany, SWP, Zabaleta and Ireland. The first three were bought by Hughes, whereas Stevie spent last year drifting in and out of games from the right wing. I guess whoever we buy in January will fit into this group.
  • Hughes has not given up on Micah Richards yet.
There is also a Daily Mail piece on transfers. It looks pretty authoritative, and provides a transfer list of four likely targets: Wayne Bridge, Roque Santa Cruz, Craig Bellamy and Marcos Senna (replacing Lassana Diarra on what was otherwise quite a common list). I'd love Bridge, RSC and Senna. And seeing how he and we played last weekend, I think Bellamy could improve our squad significantly. He's no David Villa, but he's also no Darius Vassell. The Sun thinks we're going for Kolo Toure, and has quotes from a City source, which is unusual. I'd take him.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The problem

I spend a lot of time thinking through what's gone so wrong this season. How can last years squad + Robinho = relegation fodder? It doesn't add up. Clearly, something deeper is wrong. We're suffering from a severe lack of confidence. I don't mean confidence as a function of results, either. There can only be something wrong within the club which is impacting confidence, which in turn damages results. So what is it? Why has the confidence been drained from the squad?

I think the root cause lies in Hughes' misunderstanding of our last season. He has cast himself, very publicly and consciously, as the anti-Eriksson. The complaints that the players were insufficiently fit, the taking of them all on that German fitness camp, saying that Sven had brought the wrong sort of players for the Premier League, the establishment of the 'football factory' - the expulsion of agents and girlfriends from Carrington - it was all part of one project: to define himself as an order-destroying manager.

Everything he said and did put out this message that the Eriksson regime stood for comfort, for laziness, whereas he and Bowen would introduce an era of discipline and rigour and physical fitness. I think that this overhaul of approach and methods at the club is the best explanation of the general decline in confidence: most noticeable in Dunne and Richards, but also to varying degrees in Elano, Hart, Gelson and Hamann. Not only is it a radical and disconcerting change in routine, it also quite insulting. For Dunne and Elano to be told that the Eriksson season, in which they played such big roles, was a failure and a bad example cannot be good for their confidence. The fact that the two players most improved under the Hughes regime, Ireland and Garrido, did not look fully at home under Eriksson further supports this point.

Based on this reading of last season, Hughes has torn down much of the Eriksson system, and tried to rebuild it in his own image. Such transitions are always painful in the immediate term. If our bad performances looked like a simple by product of these changes, with an improved team around the corner, I could accept them. But that's not how it looks at all. Today was an improvement on the last few games, but we still lost to West Brom. And it took a big change in approach - no Brazilians, no 4-3-3, just getting the ball quickly to Vassell and Benjani. It seems quite clear that the Hughes approach is nowhere near to reforming City into a quick, physical, fit unit, but has merely drained the squad's confidence.

The real shame of this is that the Hughes interpretation of 2007/08 is wrong. Yes, it wasn't a great season. It ended with the sort of shapeless, spineless, goalless shit that we've been enjoying this November and December. But before then we played some good football, and as the media love to remind us, we were fourth at this stage in the season. 9th place and 55 points is at least respectable. To get to 55 this year we'd need 37 from the last 20 games: an average of 1.85 points/game, which would translate to a 70 point season - somewhere between fourth and fifth place last year. On current form we're right on 1 point/game, which is enough to stay up most years but a total embarrassment for a 55 point squad + Robinho.

So where does this leave Hughes? I fear that after five months of fitness training, strict discipline and so forth we are too far down the Hughes road to simply bring back the Eriksson way. While SGE himself may be unwilling to return (although I'm not sure he's loving it that much in Mexico), there are other similar characters we could look to: if we want a relaxed, continental, multilingual manager of superstars we could surely tempt Frank Rijkaard: a coach who got lazy Brazilians to do special things. But that being the case, would we be wisest to stick with Hughes? While Hughes surely deserves the censure and humiliation of sacking, I still believe that his age, track record and transfer nous make him the best man for the job in the long term. Unless we can find someone to carry on down the Hughes path, without being the man himself - Martin O'Neill surely has too much honour to abandon Villa for our money - we may just be safest in sticking with Hughes.

Diarra to Madrid official

Confirmation from their club website. (English translation here)

The statement says that everything's agreed, the actual contract signing and medical are to happen tomorrow. His contract is for four and a half years, taking him to summer 2013.

I don't know how many of our recent games he's watched, but it's not a very surprising decision.

City vs WBA player ratings

Hart Not at fault for either goal. Almost scored a headed own goal in the first half. Must despair at the havoc Richards, Dunne and Ben Haim wreak in front of him. 6

Zabaleta Solid tackling, good distribution and some nice attacking play again. Crossing not brilliant but neither was Ireland's, SWP's or Vassell's. Caught upfield for West Brom's first. 6

Dunne Generally good, with one bad mistake in the second half. Not at fault for either goal, I think. Must hope he never has to play with Richards again. 6

Richards For 92 minutes it was his best game this season, he was quick and strong, first to everything and even offered a good attacking option at times. But then a looping cross came in, and he stood still as Bednar drifted off him and headed home. As bad as Dunne's gifted corner against Everton last week. 5

Ball An interesting choice over Garrido, but did his job well. Some pretty strong tackles, and got into good attacking positions. Lost Meite in the build up to WBA's winner, which was bad. 7

SWP Playing as a proper winger in a 4-4-2, he flourished. Some lovely runs and jinks. Crossing and corners never quite good enough though. 7

Kompany Got a bit bypassed in the first half by a very quick game. Improved later on, dominated possession well and caused problems in the box. Still looks tired though. 6

Fernandes One or two good touches, but should be chasing Koren and Greening around midfield. Allowed too much pressure on the back four. Out in January? 5

Ireland Looked refreshed after his (45 minute) rest on Thursday. Our best passer, would have got some assissts with better strikers. Brave tackling too. 8

Vassell A bit sharper than usual - made some good runs and caused a few problems. Still no end product and still no future at MCFC though. 6

Benjani Holds up the ball well but again just not good enough. If he doesn't cause Meite and Zuiverloon too many problems what do we expect to happen against the best? Eye for goal to rival Vass. 5


Caicedo His backheeled equaliser would be a candidate for cult status if it wasn't for Bednar's winner. The least bad of our fit strikers at the moment. 7

City 1 - 2 WBA

  • I'm not that dissapointed. At this stage of the season, with the league as close as it is, missing out on one point is not a massive issue. Of course, if we finish one point behind seventeenth place I'll look fairly stupid for writing this. But the main problem recently has been the woeful, incoherent, spineless performances. Today was very bad in lots of ways, but it was not a continuation of the trend that started in the derby and culminated against Everton last Sunday.
  • It was, in fact, a very different sort of performance we saw today, from a very different sort of City team. There were, for a start, no Brazilians. It was 4-4-2, with two holding midfielders, two physical strikers (one big, one small) and an old fashioned winger. It was how I always thought Mark Hughes' Manchester City would look. We played quick, direct and aggressive. Clearly it did not work - our final third quality was very poor, Gelson and Kompany did not give the back four sufficient protection, we made costly defensive mistakes. But the balance and the gameplan felt right.
  • They both worked hard today (Vassell had his best game since 2006), but Benjani and Vassell are nowhere near good enough. Not for our UEFA Cup campaign, nor for our assault on the top seven, nor even for the relegation battle we are now in. They're too cumbersome, too predictable, too Football League. We need lots of new players, but strikers should be the priority. I think we'd have won today with Craig Bellamy in the team. And Santa Cruz can't come fast enough.
  • We will go down if we continue to defend like that. I hope that Richards and Dunne as a centre back partnership will be constituted one last time at Ewood Park, and then never again in the top flight. Last year they were good, but since Richards' knee injury they have not looked the same. Moore's goal was probably the fault of the midfield - neither Kompany nor Gelson got back quick enough. But Bednar's was unquestionably the fault of Richards. Every game we lose there seems to be one big mistake - today it wasn't Dunne or Ben Haim or Ball's turn but Richards'.
  • I'm still not sold on whether Hughes should be sacked. I think that we're doing so badly that he deserves to be sacked, as a punishment for being literally half as good as Eriksson having criticised the ancien regime so much. However, desert is not the only criterion for decisions like this. The long term interests of the club have to be taken into account, and given Hughes' success at Blackburn and his nous in the transfer market I still think he can do a good job in the long term. But if we continue as we do, we'll have to get an Allardyce-type survival expert in. How much to buy out Gary Megson's contract?

West Brom preview

I can't remember being as worried before a City game as I am this morning. Maybe Middlesbrough away in March 2007. Our plummeting league position would be sufficiently disconcerting in itself, but given the hyper-expectancy around the club it is an embarrassment.

But league position is just a symptom of form, and ours is atrocious. I thought the derby was the worst midfield performance I'd seen from City for years - and that I would not see anything that bad for some time. But then there was PSG, when we were even more shapeless. A nadir, I hoped. Then Fulham, though, when we failed to win any balls in midfield or string passes together. Everton was as bad a performance as I've ever seen. I didn't see the 8-1. Racing Santander was not as consistently bad as Everton - but the first half could match any other forty five minute spell for incoherence and spinelessness.

Our recent form in all games is bad - but so is our form this season in difficult away games. This was the ultimate, and fatal, failure of the Eriksson era. Those losses at Birmingham, 'Boro and Reading - the draws at Fulham, Derby and Bolton - were what really cost us in the end. As an experienced Premier League battler, and the creator of such a side, I thought this was an area in which Hughes would excel. But no: we've lost at Wigan, 'Boro and Bolton already, and drawn at Hull, Fulham and Newcastle. Some change.

So our recent form in general, and our season's form in these particular sort of games, bear a doubly dark omen. Of course, West Brom are the worst team in the Premier League and themselves dreadfully out of sorts. But that hasn't stopped teams from taking points off us in the past. I am still of the minority of fans who don't want Hughes to be sacked. But if we lose today, as I imagine we will, I'll have to reconsider.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

In the zone

Newcastle 17, 19, -2
Spurs 17, 19, -2
West Ham 17, 19, -7
Man City 17, 18, +5
Blackburn 18, 16, -14
West Brom 17, 12, -20


A bad thirty minutes

Sunderland drawing, Blackburn resurgent.

If it stays like this we'll be 18th at 5pm, two points ahead of Blackburn.

And we're going there next week...

Must read in the Indy

Genuinely fascinating article by The Independent's City expert Ian Herbert here. It's mainly about Hughes' relationship with the players, but has interesting insights into transfer policy and so forth. It's so good and so new that I won't summarise it or quote from it, just link to it. Read it all, read it now. HERE.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Santa Cruz news

Two pieces of news today suggesting that one of our January buys is going to be Blackburn Rovers' topically named striker, Roque Santa Cruz. It's well known that we bid first £12m then £14m for him in August, and even without ADUG could well have gone back in January. There's been talk of it ever since the takeover, particularly since Sam Allardyce's becoming manager at Ewood Park.

But today we learnt (via the uncharacteristically useful M.E.N.) that despite Blackburn's claim that they don't want to sell, there is a clause in Santa Cruz's contract allowing him to talk to any club who makes an offer of €18m (£17m). Provided we're still interested (I know Caicedo was good on Thursday but still...) our meeting that release clause is a formality.

The second thing was a bunch of quotes from Santa Cruz himself about a potential move:
"I am happy at Blackburn but also I want to keep improving my football and remain ambitious...But I am looking to again play in a big side that is in Europe and trying to win their league...But, I don't want to miss the chance of playing with a big side. If a bigger club came in for me then I would like to take that opportunity"
This doesn't sound much like City so far (in what sense other than the most obvious one are we 'trying to win our league'? Presumably he didn't mean the UEFA Cup Group A...). It's only later when he talks of his relationship with Mark Hughes that City fans get can excited.
"It is clear that he got me back to my (best) football after my injury problems at Bayern...He gave me confidence to play football again. Of course it is always a nice feeling to have a manager who is always backing you and I will always appreciate what he did for me."
The disparity between Santa Cruz's career pre, during and post-Hughes is striking. In his eight seasons at Bayern Munich (he joined them aged 18 in 1999), he managed 31 goals in 155 league appearances (38 in 188 in all competitions). He did struggle with injuries, but is not a very impressive record. But in his year at Blackburn with Hughes he got 19 in 37 in the EPL (only Ronaldo, Adebayor and Torres scored more), and 23 in 43 in all competitions. (I have literally no idea when last a City striker scored 19 top flight goals.) But under the Ince regime he managed just two in eight.

So he clearly enjoys playing for Mark Hughes And we need a striker. And he wants to leave. And we can afford him. I'm not very proud to say it, but it looks like Santa Cruz is coming to town.

It's FC Copenhagen!

We did quite well out of the UEFA Cup last 32 draw: getting paired with Niclas Jensen's FC Copenhagen. They're currently in second place in Danish Superliga, just two points behind Brondby, with 17 of the 33 games played. They're six points ahead of fourth place Midtjylland. Copenhagen's top scorer is Morten Nordstrand, who has 8 in 15 in the SAS-Ligaen (plus one in the UEFA Cup).

But by far the most interesting player at FC Copenhagen though is Niclas Jensen. If anyone reads this under the age of 13, Niclas Jensen was City left back in the early Keegan era. KK bought him from Copenhagen in January 2002, and he played 16 games in our very successful Division 1 campaign. Jensen played most of the 2002/03 season, making 32 Premier League starts and three in the cups. In summer 2003 he was sold to Borussia Dortmund and replaced by Michael Tarnat. Given that he's only played three times this season it would be a suprise to see Niclas Jensen play at CoMS - but a very nice one.

Should we get past Copenhagen, we'll either face Aalborg or Deportivo. Aalborg would be the third Danish side in our long march to Istanbul. They're sixth in the Danish Superliga, eight points behind Midtjylland and fourteen behind Copenhagen. Depor are seventh in La Liga, just one place behind Real Madrid.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

City vs Racing ratings

Schmeichel At fault for the first goal and maybe the third. Could have got sent off had his attempted body check on Tchite made contact, and could have had a penalty awarded against him in the first half. Hart should be more worried about Buffon. 5

Zabaleta Struggled a bit in the first half, but was very good after the break. Put in some brave tackles, although was rightly booked for a late one. Performed the only 'Zidane spin' I've ever seen a defender do not on PES. Nice ball for Caicedo's goal. 7

Richards Had a difficult time against some good forwards. Could have done better for the third goal, perhaps. We missed Richard Dunne. 5

Ben Haim Gave away the free kick for Racing's first goal, easily exposed for pace for their second. The January spending spree will only push him further down the pecking order: could Allardyce want him at Blackburn as part of a Santa Cruz deal? 4

Garrido Good to have him back - solid defensively and was an attacking threat throughout. The second most improved player of 2008/09. 6

Hamann Passing and tackling as good as ever. Looked off the pace at times, but that should be no surprise. Still good for occasional deployment in matches like these. 7

Fernandes Tireless running and cavalier tackling, as expected. Spent about an hour chasing the ball until he got Kompany alongside him. His regression is one of the great mysteries of the last few years. 5

Elano Finally given his chance: two holding players, a UEFA referee and an opposition who allowed space in front of their defence. He could have written the context. But his performance was poor. Failed time and time again to produce an effective final ball for Evans. Was heading for a red card when Hughes took him off (remember Midtjylland away or Bramhall Lane). 4

Vassell Anonymous. Of course we got hard work and tackling, but the severe quality deficit was as obvious as it has been every other week for the last two seasons. If he survives January something's gone wrong. 4

Evans Very little reward out of Argentine international and Real Madrid owned Ezequiel Garay. Went through once but was cut down. Could have guaranteed himself a start for Sunday, but didn't. 5

Robinho Still not recovered from his ankle injury - barely got in the game today. A real problem for the next few weeks. 4


Ireland Deployed on the left of a 4-2-3-1 (think Craven Cottage). Improved our ball retention and passing no end. A shame we had to use him though - this was meant to be his day off. 7

Kompany Did a much needed job breaking down Racing's attacks. Should have got sent off for a nasty foul though. 6

Caicedo Samaras' (not Bianchi's - J) number, Mpenza's hair, and a great finish to open his account for the club, almost a whole year after his £5.3m move. A fairytale first league start at the Hawthorns? 7

Racing 3 - 1 City

  • The most important thing was to win the group - something we did comfortably. PSG went two ahead early on and never looked like letting it go. This is genuinely important to our future UEFA Cup progress. We now get one of Olympiakos, Sampdoria, NEC Nijmegen, Braga, Niclas Jensen's Copenhagen and Lech Poznan. Had PSG not won, we'd have faced one of Marseille, Bordeaux, Werder Bremen, Dinamo Kiev, Aalborg, Zenit St Petersburg, Fiorentina or Shakhtar. So in a very meaningful sense, we had a successful evening.
  • On the pitch though, we were really poor. It was the worst failure to keep the ball in midfield since the Everton game, or PSG, or the derby. We improved with the introduction of Ireland and Kompany, but the whole point of squad depth is that shouldn't always have to be bailed out by your best players. Fernandes, Hamann and Elano is not a midfield trio we should deploy again in a hurry.

  • The first half was as poorly as we've played all season. The defence was lazy, slow and comical. Ben Haim and Richards have not improved their communication since the West Ham game back in August when they went for the same header and Richards went off in a next brace being fed oxygen. They were torn apart for the second goal, and could have been sharper for the first and third. In midfield we were wholly dominated: Fernandes chased the ball, Hamann did not even have the legs to do that. Up front we offered nothing - the only chance being Garrido's freekick over the bar.
  • Robinho's form and fitness has to be a major worry going into the relegation six pointer with West Brom (for that is what it is) on Sunday. He hasn't shone since his great performance against Arsenal on November 22nd. He missed the Schalke game with injury, played in the derby, visibly unfit and ineffective, then missed the Fulham and PSG games. He was no better today than he was against Everton last weekend. We have three huge games coming up: West Brom, Hull and Blackburn. If we are to maximise our chances of success, we need Robinho to recover his form and fitness fast.
  • Another problem will be deciding who to play up front. Ched Evans worked hard today (he always does), but did not seem to cause the Racing defenders many problems. Caicedo was more of a threat, admittedly with the help of his fresh legs (his first competitive minutes since Brighton in September remember). Evans could have played his way into a start on Sunday, but did not. We'll have to wait and see whether Sturridge and Jo recover, but if they do not, how about a Robinho, Vassell, SWP front line?

Hart, Ireland, Kompany and SWP rested

It's Schmeichel in goal, with Garrido, Richards, Ben Haim and Zabaleta across the back. The midfield three is Hamann, Fernandes and Elano (the first time they've played together in midfield since Eriksson, at a guess). Up front Ched Evans leads the line, with Vassell and Robinho either side. It's good we've been able to rest Ireland, Kompany and SWP - all of whom looked exhausted in recent weeks. Let's just hope Robinho gets through tonight ok.

City set for sponsor switch

Our shirt sponsors for the last few years, Thomas Cook, are to end their deal with us this summer.
[Chief Executive Ian] Derbyshire said: "It's been great branding for us and we took the deal because it was the right deal at the right price. But it's different now."
Not very surprising, given the strength of the rumours about Etihad Airways (omg! it means 'united'! wtf!!1).

Diarra on the run

Something just popped up on (Spanish, English)

Since Portsmouth accepted Real's bid yesterday, Diarra has not been seen or heard from. Marca reports that no one knows where he is: he wasn't at Portsmouth v Heerenveen yesterday, he wasn't at training today, Marca reports that it is not even known which country he is in.

At least this prolongs the drama for a bit more.

Hughes refuses to concede Diarra defeat

Really interesting quotes from Hughes on Diarra in Thursday's The Sun.
Diarra is a player I like. He’s a good player but, at the moment, he’s still a Portsmouth one. Things may develop for him. But the window isn’t open at this moment so we’ll just wait and see what happens. You can make of that what you want.
I haven't seen Hughes comment in public like this on a potential signing since Ronaldinho, which was slightly different as it was an ongoing and public project when Hughes took over. Diarra's move to Real Madrid looks pretty much done so to see something as ambiguous, as 'wait and see' as this is a surprise. I guess we'll find out in time.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

What we could do with

Some of this...

That was Rolando Bianchi, scoring the only goal in Torino's 1-0 win over Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia today. Imagine that: a striker with the pace and awareness to get on the end of crosses and put the ball in the net. I'm under no illusions under Bianchi, but at least he could do that. That goal looked just like his one at Villa Park last December, when he slid onto a Martin Petrov cross. We could really do with him now (or at least until January 1st).

Santander preview

News today that Dunne is not travelling is not a disaster: we have Tal Ben Haim and Nedum Onuoha to fill in. More worrying is the Achilles injury to Danny Sturridge and Jo's new virus. This leaves Ched Evans and Felipe Caicedo as our only fit centre forwards.

Ideally we'd be able to rest Robinho, Ireland and Kompany for this game: none of them looked 100% for the Everton match but are all needed for our Premier League Christmas programme. But injuries in other positions, and Hughes' insistence that we need to win the group (true, but not as much as we need to beat West Brom, Hull and Blackburn) mean we might play something like this: Hart; Garrido, Richards, Ben Haim, Zabaleta; Kompany, Ireland, Elano; Robinho, Evans, SWP. To preserve Kompany, Robinho and Ireland I wouldn't mind seeing Hamann and Fernandes anchoring Elano in midfield with Vassell charging up and down the left wing. But we'll see tomorrow night.

Racing Santander are having an average season (certainly better than ours though): they're thirteenth in La Liga with 17 points from 15 games. Their top scorer is Mohammad Tchité, a 24 year old Belgian-Burundian, who scored a hat-trick against Valencia earlier in the season. Check it out here.

Their most high profile player, though, is Ezequiel Garay. The 22 year old Argentine centre back was bought by Real Madrid from Racing last summer, and loaned straight back to them. He played alongside Sergio Aguero, Leo Messi et al - under the captaincy of Manchester City's very own Pablo Zabaleta - in the Argentina's 2005 U20 World Cup winning side, and again in roughly the same team in the 2008 Olympics. Aside from being a good defender, Garay is a free kick specialist. Have a look at what he did against Almeria last Sunday.

If we want to do well in the UEFA Cup, we really need to win the group. Come second and we get a Champions League third-placer (Bordeaux, Bremen, Shakhtar, Marseille, Aalborg, Fiorentina, Kiev, Zenit) - most of whom will beat us. Win the group, though, and we get a UEFA Cup third placer, none of whom are nearly as good. We can win the group without winning on Thursday - we just need Twente to slip up at PSG.

Pompey accept Real bid

Not a big surprise, especially if Real went as high as £20m. We can only hope now that our absurd wage offers win this for us.

This does create a problem though: we desperately needed Diarra, and will now have to look elsewhere for a top class holding midfielder (preferably with Premier League experience). Any ideas? Could we get Cambiasso, or Frings? How about a £40m bid for Barry? I'm only half joking. Leave your ideas in the comments.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Diarra move 'decided on Wednesday'

I know this has been a day of constant Diarra news, but there's a new story on the website of Diario AS concerning Diarra which is of interest. (Spanish here)

The story says that City have offered €5m more than Real for the player. We have also offered more in wages to Diarra himself. Their article says that Diarra will decide in the coming hours, and that either way the deal should be finalised tomorrow (Wednesday).

City's increased offer fits with what Guillem Balague wrote earlier: that we would match and raise whatever Real offered as both the transfer fee and the player's wages. The issue now hinges on whether our extra €5m outweights Pompey's desire not to sell to a rival, and whether our increased wage offer outweighs the prestige of Real's 31 domestic titles and nine European Cups. If AS is right, we'll find out tomorrow.

Balague: City back for Diarra

This has been the most interesting transfer saga since, well, Robinho. Guillem Balague has an update on the 'Diarra to Real' transfer story which suggests it's not a complete done deal.
It appears that a late intervention by Manchester City could thwart the La Liga side from getting their man... Manchester City...have pledged to beat any offer and package offered by the Spanish champions.
I guess we'll find out what's happening pretty soon.

MailOnline claim Diarra to Real done

Bad news.

Balague: Real 'close to agreeing' Diarra deal

The transfer oracle has spoken. I don't know whether this is from his own sources, or just from reading the Spanish gossip papers. He says the fee would be between €15-20m. The sticking point, and City's great trump card, is wages though. Apparently they haven't been agreed yet, due to the generally inflated Premier League salaries. And whatever he's currently on, we can pay much more.

Diarra slipping away?

Spanish 'paper Diario AS writes today that Lassana Diarra will agree to join Real Madrid within 48 hours. (English translation here)

Juande Ramos was impressed with him whilst Tottenham manager, and sees him as a good replacement for injured Mamadou Diarra. Madrid are willing to pay the €20m fee - Portsmouth would much rather sell him abroad than to City - and Diarra himself sees this as a real chance to further his career.

Having read so many times that this is done deal, it would be soul-sapping to see it fall through.

UPDATE This is also in Marca, the main Madrid sports daily. Their article said that Portsmouth have dropped their asking price from €20m to €10m (presumably to avoid having to sell to relegation rivals City?). And, of course, Diarra is interested. (English here)

Cook backs Hughes

Garry Cook did a press interview yesterday: it's in the Mail, Independent, Times and Guardian this morning.

He seemed confident that we'd improve in the second half of the season (we can't really get much worse):
Mark and I have always said top 10 and ideally top six is what we are aiming for in the very short term.'In the back half of the year we believe there is going to be much improvement. Mark's plans and the way he is running the team are going to build and change and confidence will start to build. Once we get through the first window, when Mark's impact will be able to advance the future of the club, things will start to settle down.
Regarding Hughes' future management of City:
Sheikh Mansour made that statement in his mandate some time ago and clearly that mandate still exists - Mark Hughes is our manager. Did I expect us to be where we are? No. Did Mark? No. But you get back on the training ground and figure it out.
And on our transfer policy:
We are talking about 'balance' rather than building the Fantasy League team. We are building on the academy; we are looking at young talent breaking into the international scene and we will complement that with some great stars, the kind of stars whom City fans want to see.
The worst news is that Sheikh Mansour gets "emotional" about results. So do most City fans, but I'd like to think that someone with better judgement than an average City fan is running the club. Another interesting point from Cook regards the Santa Cruz transfer. Blackburn are asking for 'close to £20m', which is ludicrous sum of money, but something we'll have to get used to if we actually want to buy good players.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Espanyol want Elano on loan

According to Catalan daily Sport.

But Elano's wages (roughly €2m/year, apparently) are too much for Espanyol even over a six month loan and so they are asking City to help with the costs. The article also mentions that Lazio have made a bid.

Sport is the main football paper in Barcelona (along with El Mundo Deportivo), and their Espanyol sources proved to be ahead of the British press with the Zabaleta transfer.

English translation of the article here.

Has Benjani played his last game for City?

Even more bad news from Saturday: Benjani picked up a hamstring injury which will put him out for "a number of weeks". That's pretty ambiguous language, but I imagine it will take us through most of January at the least. With rumours that Roque Santa Cruz will be tied up soon after the window re-opens, and that Valeri Bozhinov should be back by mid-January, Benjani could find it difficult to get back into the team with those two ahead of him. In fact, the poor form of Benjani and Jo could lead to our buying two centre forwards in January: Owen, Heskey, Crouch or whoever.

Excited as I am by the prospect of having better strikers than Benjani, it does put in a difficult position for the next four games. The three in the league (West Brom away, Hull at home and Blackburn away) are really quite important. Benjani is probably our least incompetent striker. So we're left with Jo, Evans, Sturridge (illness permitting) and, I suppose Vassell to lead the line. My preference would be for a fit Sturridge, but I don't have much confidence we'll get that soon. Even then, the physical nature of our next three opponents suggests that Evans could be the best bet. Or could this be the chance for Jo to justify that obscene price we paid for him?

Raised expectations

Ian Ladyman keeps on writing that we're getting Diarra and Santa Cruz. In his report of the Everton game in Monday's Daily Mail - which contains a few interesting points - he writes that:
January, of course, will bring some relief in the form of Blackburn striker Roque Santa Cruz, Portsmouth midfielder Lassana Diarra and at least one central defender, with a bid for Arsenal’s Kolo Toure still in Hughes’s mind.
Now if this doesn't actually happen it would be such a dissapointment, having read Ladyman write it so many times.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Crunch time

We're coming into the most important fortnight in our season so far. A trip to Spain on Thursday night, to West Brom on Sunday, Hull at home on Boxing Day and then Ewood Park two days later. A good run of results, and we can still salvage our season. Bad, and anything is possible.

The tightness of the league (four points separate 9th from 18th) has allowed us to reserve judgement on our performance. No matter how close to the bottom we are (only Blackburn and West Brom have fewer points), we're still only a few wins from Europe. Hull, in sixth place, are just nine points away. Hughes, with some justification, has used this as a response to criticism: three good results, some new signings and everything looks better.

The problem, though, is actually winning these games to take us up the table. After the October international break, we faced this run of league fixtures: Newcastle (a), Stoke (h), 'Boro (a), Bolton (a), Spurs (h) and Hull (a). We should have taken at least ten, maybe twelve or even fifteen points. But we got five. That run is going to stand out as the great missed opportunity of the season. We have a chance in the next two weeks to put this right. A win in Santander and we get an easy opponent in the UEFA Cup Round of 32 (as likely a route into the 2009/10 Europa League as any other). Three league wins is unlikely (especially given Blackburn will be in a new manager bounce), but six or seven points would propel us into some sort of respectability.

I'm just resisting joining the 'Hughes Out' camp for the time being. Not that I don't think he's doing a bad job - he quite obviously is. But Hughes is the sixteenth City manager of my lifetime (and the eleventh that I remember). We know from Blackburn that he's not a bad manager - he just hasn't quite got his head round our squad yet. And the quality of Kompany and Zabaleta demonstrate what we knew from Samba and Santa Cruz, that he is exceptional in the transfer market. Given the ludicrous sums of money we're about to spend, I back Hughes over anyone else to bring in the right players for the club. And, most importantly, I really don't see us getting anyone much better in the immediate future. But a failure to exploit the remaining games in 2008, and the jokes about being the richest team in the Championship get much less funny.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Lower scorers

Despite our early season reputation as a team that guarantees goals at both ends of the pitch (a quite fair reputation), our last few games have shown a rather different trend.

Cahill's header today was only the third goal we've conceded in six games. Our defence still isn't great, but these numbers suggest we're not that bad. At the other end, though, we're not as potent as we once were: we've scored one goal in the last four.

It's like we're replaying the Eriksson era in fast-forward: from free scoring entertainers reminiscent of the Keegan team to dour, goalless battlers more like the Pearce side. But we've gone through this transformation in half the time it took us last year.

Real in for Diarra?

As I've written before, I think the success of the second half of our season is largely contingent on our signing Lassana Diarra or someone just like him. As we see every week, Vincent Kompany is asked to do too much in midfield. Ireland is looking tired and Elano can't compete in a midfield three.

We've been linked very heavily with Diarra. Ian Ladyman wrote last week that a deal is 'in place'. So what we really don't need is another club coming in and spoiling this. But today we hear that Juande Ramos was so impressed with Diarra that he wants to take him to Real Madrid. A serious injury to Mahamadou Diarra (no relation) has left Real rather light in central midfield and so they need someone new. Real are more likely to be able to match us in the transfer market than, say, Tottenham Hotspur so if this story is true it could mean a bit of a re-think. Frings?

UPDATE 00.03 Something in the Mail on Sunday relieves my fears on this. Apparently Hughes "will make Portsmouth's £20million midfielder Lassana Diarra his first signing of the new window", because Real Madrid can't meet the asking price. The article also claims that Hughes wants to sell Elano and Jo, which sounds reasonable enough.

City vs Everton player ratings

Hart One exceptional save in the first half, and generally competent for the rest of the game. Could not have doen much for Cahill's goal. 7

Zabaleta Another strong performance. Brave tackling, good forward runs and a few important interceptions. One fantastic header - directing a Phil Neville cross in between Tim Cahill and our goal. 7

Dunne Up against two attacking midfielders, Arteta and Cahill, he didn't look particularly sharp. Dominated by Fellaini at set plays. 5

Richards Better than he has been recently - won his share of headers. An improvement on Ben Haim, but not on Upson or Kolo Toure. 6

Ball Much better than his Craven Cottage catastrophe. Not really troubled defensively, and put in some Garrido-like crosses. Neither him nor Javi will survive January though, surely. 7

Kompany Asked, yet again, to hold back the hordes as Ireland and Elano were off trying to make magic. Was left out-numbered and lost out to Castillo and Fellaini in midfield. Could do with Diarra to give him a hand. 6

Ireland Increased workload and increased expectations look to be taking their toll. Some nice touches and good tackles but not enough given we were playing with a two man midfield (see below). Had our two best chances - could have done better with the first. 6

Elano In a three man midfield everyone has to do their bit. Elano, however, jogged around and lost the ball. Not quite our most anonymous Brazilian today, but close. Will not survive the return of Johnson? 4

SWP Our best attacking player. Always alert and eager - his duel with Lescott was as close to quality as the game got. Hit the bar with our best effort of the first half. 7

Benjani Not good enough. Size is not enough - his link up play offered nothing to the three behind him. Touch, vision, passing all off. The time when he was through on goal but could not control the ball summed up his problems well. Another one who has to watch for those returning from injury and coming in next month. 4

Robinho Did not look 100% fit - struggled to get into the game. We really need him to be there at the Hawthorns in eight days time. 5


Jo (well done to greenblue for pointing out I forgot to rate him initially) Looked no more effective than Benjani. Drifted around the Everton half, failed to stand up to Yobo and Jagielka, never really got in the box. Everton apparently want him on loan - on today's evidence they're better off with Cahill. 5

Vassell I never, ever thought that I would one day be pleased to see Darius Vassell come on for Robinho. But this afternoon, that moment came. Ran admirably around alot - didn't play much football. 6

City 0 - 1 Everton

  • A bitter dissapointment. Not a great performance - Everton were the better team - but we looked increasingly comfortable as the second half went on. Conceding late winners is less bad than conceding late equalisers, but this was still pretty painful. Our improved defensive solidity is the only good part of our Novemeber/December form, so to have got this far and then to lose really hurts.
  • Regardless of the result, our performance was not good enough. For the first half in particular, we didn't look like the home team: Castillo, Fellaini and Osman controlled possession - Kompany and Ireland were left chasing after them. We got a better hold of the play as the match went on, but never looked like creating much.
  • Given that Ireland, Robinho, SWP and Elano all started, we created nowhere near enough. Our good attacking play was limited to occasional sparks of passing and movement - but they only ever fizzled out thanks to the incompetence of our centre forwards. In the second half we only really had long balls to Jo and ineffective set piece after ineffective set piece. The presence of Fellaini, Lescott and Jagielka means that doing much from corners was always going to be difficult, but I didn't expect them to be that useless.
  • So much of our good play this season has come from the midfield dominance of Kompany and Ireland. But the number of games they've played (41 between them, in all competitions) has left them looking rather jaded in recent weeks. United, PSG, Fulham and now today - neither of them has looked 100% for the last four. With Johnson injured, Hamann ageing and Elano ineffective that leaves us terribly weak in central midfield. How soon can we get Diarra?
  • I can't decide whether we need a central midfielder or a centre forward more (ultimately, it doesn't matter because we'll get at least one of each). Neither Benjani nor Jo looked anywhere near good enough today. Benji was slow, cumbersome and poor with his feet. Jo looked lost: wandering around while the game went on around him. We do have some very talented attacking midfielders (and I'm sure by February 1st we'll have some more), but until we get a centre forward who meets basic competency levels we're not going to do much. Come back Rolando Bianchi, all is forgiven.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Thiago Silva set for Milan move

Turns out I was wrong to trust the Spanish press so much: I wrote on Tuesday that Thiago Silva was on the brink of a move to Villareal. This is the 24 year old Brazilian centre back, playing for Fluminese, who Robinho recommended to Mark Hughes. Anyway, he's agreed a move to AC Milan, according to Gazzetta dello Sport. And this is an actual agreement, not a 'on the brink of' one.

UPDATE 08.30 Thiago Silva in the Daily Telegraph today - apparently 'Chelsea and Manchester City [are] poised for battle' over him. Which goes to show that even the serious press can get caught out on stories like this.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

More Balague on Villa

Quotes from Revista de la Liga. He doesn't think a move is very likely.
It's false that David Villa's agent has met Manchester City; it's false that there is an agreement with the club and a figure for the transfer; it's false that there is an agreement in terms of wages.

Good Bozhinov news

Mark Bowen tells the M.E.N. that Boj is making good progress from his Achilles injury. I spent most of 2007/08 waiting for him to come back - so his August return was the culmination of months of hope and expectation. His breaking down at Villa Park was a real blow. And with Benjani and Jo playing as they are, we could really do with another good centre forward.

UPDATE Not just Bowen but Hughes, talking to Sky Sports News about it:

Boj is doing really well. We are really happy. We are hopeful we will get him back for mid-January, if everything goes to plan. He has been out training on the pitches looking like a footballer again.

Elano talking about Lazio?

According to one of the coaches at Shakhtar, Carlo Nicolini. Not very well sourced article saying as much HERE.

Potential last 32 opponents

Those teams finishing 3rd place in the Champions League group stages (who UEFA Cup Group stage 2nd placers get):

Bordeaux, Werder Bremen, Shakhtar Donetsk, Marseille, Aalborg, Fiorentina, Dinamo Kiev and Zenit St Petersburg.

To be honest I wouldn't fancy us against any of those teams, with the possible exceptions of Aalborg (who themselves looked very good at Old Trafford last night) and the two sides from the Ukraine. So we really need 1st place in our group. For that we need to beat Santander or rely on PSG getting something against Steve McClaren's FC Twente.

Two West Ham players linked

Thursday morning's papers link us with moves for two West Ham players, Matthew Upson and Craig Bellamy.

The Upson story apparently started in the Daily Express, but their website is terrible so I'll link to the story in the Daily Telegraph instead. (UPDATE Express story here). It's not big news that we're looking for a centre back, but to be able to get someone of Upson's age (29) and experience (200 Premier League and football league matches, 12 England caps) makes this is a good option. Apart from anything else, he's a very good defender. Of course £10m is a silly fee, but that's just something we'll have to get used to.

The Daily Mirror says that we're going to go for Craig Bellamy for £6m. This I'm less enthusiastic about. It was mentioned back in August, and I wasn't too keen. On the other hand, if Hughes and Bowen think they can the best out of him we have to respect their judgement. But with all the strikers we're seriously linked with (I include Villa in this, plus of course Henry, Podolski, Santa Cruz etc), surely we can do better than Bellamy?

But given the relative state of our and West Ham's finances, we can pretty much take whoever we want from the Boleyn Ground.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Balague on Villa

Valencia's financial crisis - they need to pay €50m by December 31st - may force them to sell. David Villa's not very enthusiastic about moving to England but realises it may be the best option.

Money quote:
David Villa's agent knows that the player is in demand and realises that he must wait and until all of the potentially interested clubs – essentially those with enough money to even consider signing a player with a €150 million buy-out clause - have made their intentions clear. We are clearly talking about a very small number of clubs that includes the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Milan, Real Madrid, etc. So, until all of the options are clear, Villa will not be signing for Man City and in spite of what several newspaper reports have claimed, no final decisions have been taken.

Read it all HERE.

di Natale agent denies link

Bruno Carpeggiani, the man allegedly in England talking to MCFC representatives, has completely denied the allegations on

He said:
"I was in Italy on Monday and everything that has been written is false. The news is without foundation and I would like to make this clear. Di Natale has renewed his deal with Udinese and we have not had any contact with any club."

Thiago Silva close to Villareal move

According to Marca. This is the Fluminese defender that Robinho recommended to Mark Hughes.

Interesting Daily Mail article

Ian Ladyman is probably (pace Ian Herbert and Danny Taylor) the best in the business for MCFC exclusives, and his Tuesday Daily Mail article covers two big City stories.

The first concerns Michael Johnson. Ladyman claims that the management team is worried by his work rate and lifestyle:
The official line from City is that Johnson is only a fortnight away from
returning to fitness, which would be a huge boost to manager Mark Hughes as he
looks to reverse his team’s slide down the table. But Sportsmail understands the
real concern in the long-term is Johnson’s mental approach and his fondness for
a night out...

Hughes is taking his time to make a decision over Johnson but he has not
been particularly impressed so far and the youngster has been made aware that he
faces a critical few weeks once he is fit to return to action.

At the end of the article, Ladyman is very confident about two future transfers:
They will definitely land Portsmouth’s Lassana Diarra and Blackburn’s Roque
Santa Cruz — as well as being hopeful of prising Thierry Henry from

Both the nature of Johnson's personal life (and the possible impact its having on his recovery), and the fact that the Diarra and RSC deals are as good as done are topics that have been covered in length on bluemoon in recent weeks. Which shows that it's not all bullshit and arguments about Munich.

Monday, 8 December 2008

City move for di Natale?

A new transfer rumour this evening: a move for Udinese's Italy international striker Antonio di Natale.

The story's from Italian football website (if anyone knows how reliable this website is, please leave it in the comments). The story claims that di Natale's agent, Bruno Carpeggiani, is currently in London talking to people from MCFC. Apparently we're looking for a move in January, to replace Jo. (English translation here). The story has since shown up on Channel 4's Blog Italia and the Setanta website.

The most fun I've had doing this blog was looking up players we were linked with over the summer. I did Diego Milito, Thiago Neves, Jo (here, here and here), Pablo Zabaleta and, er, Michael Chretien. And given what's about to happen, I'll try to do the same for this January's alleged targets.

I don't know an awful lot about di Natale. I saw him play at Euro 2008, and once or twice for Udinese, but not enough to have a serious opinion about him. His record is not one of a very prolific scorer. He has spent most of his senior career at Empoli and then Udinese.

He had five full seasons at Empoli, starting from 1999-2000 (aged 21). In total there he scored 49 in 158 in the league (55 in 178 in all competitions). Those five years in Empoli, though, included only two in Serie A (2002/03 and 2003/04), in which he scored 18 in 60.

In 2004 he moved to Udinese, where he has now completed four and a bit seasons. His league scoring record is 48 in 141 (59 in 163 in all competitions), close to his ratio at Empoli. He has been improving, though. In 2006/07 he scored 11 the league (in 31 games), and last year he scored 17 league goals - finishing joint fourth in the Serie A top scorer charts (joint with Mutu and Ibrahimovic), behind only del Piero (21), Trezeguet (20) and Borriello (19). So far this year di Natale has five in eight.

At international level, he has 25 caps and 9 goals. His biggest moment was taking a penalty in the Italy v Spain quarter finals in Euro 2008. Play the video below from 5:35 to see how he deals with pressure.

So we're looking at someone with experience, and a good but not exceptional goal scoring record. Wikipedia suggests that he's 5'7", and that he is generally played as a second striker, known for his 'pace, creativity and for scoring impressive goals'. Isn't this not really what we're looking for? From a cursory look at a YouTube compilation, he looks quick, technically proficient and with an eye for goal. But then YouTube led me to the same conclusions about Samaras and Castillo.

Lazio after Elano?

A story in the Corrierre dello Sport today suggests that Lazio might go for Elano in January. Lazio President Claudio Lotito is in the market for a defender and a midfielder (Ousmane Dabo clearly not quite doing the business), and sees Elano as the perfect man to dictate the pace of play from central midfield. Given the pace of the Italian league, this role does sound perfect for him. (English translation here, and of another piece on an Italian site here)

Lotito is said to be pursuing a deal like the one he did for Bianchi this time last year: a 6 month loan with a view to a permanent deal in the summer (although, of course, he decided not to pay up for Rolando).

As long as we're bringing in two more midfielders, I can't see Hughes resisting this too much. Robinho, on the other hand...