Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Whom to drop?

Mark Hughes has a big decision to make. For all our appearance of a settled side in recent months, various injuries, suspensions and regulations have combined to save the manager from dropping a front line player. We are yet to have a match when all of these players have been available: Bridge, Dunne, Onuoha, Richards, Zabaleta, de Jong, Kompany, Ireland, Robinho and SWP. I've not included Given or the strikers, because their positions are self-contained - there's only slot in the team, they can't play anywhere else in our current system, and no-one else can play there.

I know this sounds unlikely but it's true. To move backwards in time since :

Sunderland - Bridge and Ireland injured.
AaB (a) - de Jong ineligible.
Chelsea - Kompany and de Jong injured.
AaB (h) - de Jong ineligible, Kompany injured.
Aston Villa - Richards, Robinho injured.
West Ham - SWP suspended.
København (h) - de Jong ineligible.
Liverpool - SWP suspended.
København (a) - de Jong ineligible.
Portsmouth - Richards injured, SWP suspended, Dunne suspended.
Boro - Dunne suspended.
Stoke - Dunne suspended.
Newcastle - Dunne suspended.

So as you can see, one key absentee in each of the last thirteen games has allowed Hughes to rotate the players (principally by moving Zabaleta and Kompany between midfield and defence as appropriate) without dropping a big name. But for the Arsenal game on Saturday, we may well be in the position of having all of those ten players available. And providing that we stick with Bellamy or Bozhinov alone up front, we can only pick nine of them. So who will it be? Here are the options. (I've used Bellamy rather than Bozhinov up front, but naturally you could switch Boji in and everything else would still hold):

1) To drop Richards


Maybe harsh on Richards, who has played well. But Zabaleta is probably a better right back than he is. And this allows us play three specialist central midfielders.

2) To drop Kompany


He's had a fantastic first season in England, but has noticeably struggled for form and fitness recently. Zabaleta, Ireland and de Jong are all in better nick at the moment. But leaving him out gives us a midfield lacking height though - it's the middle three from the Fratton Park defeat.

3) To drop Onuoha


This is probably quite unlikely. Onuoha is having his best ever sequence of games at the moment, at centre back alongside Dunne. The only reason to do this would be if Hughes fancied Kompany ahead of Onuoha at centre back, which is questionable on current form.

4) To drop Zabaleta


Moving Zabaleta into midfield was done, amongst other reasons, to help get the best out of Richards. And it may be that Richards has done so well that he can't be dropped. And if Kompany and de Jong are preferred to Zabba in central midfield, he may well find himself on the bench.

5) To drop de Jong


This is the UEFA Cup team. But it would be stupid to miss the chance to rest some of our UEFA Cup-eligible players in the league when we have an £18million Dutch international on the bench.

6) To drop Robinho


Heavily rumoured in the press, but generally in conjunction with 'Petrov to return' stories. But how about doing it without Martin Petrov? It's the team from Anfield but with SWP in for Robinho. Could be an option at the Emirates?

As you can tell, none of these options are much better than the others. They all involve leaving out a player who deserves to play, while maintaining a similar quality and balance to the side. It's for this reason that I don't think Hughes will reach any long term decision to this question. There will be games when certain options are better than others, players who will need a rest, and all that. It's called rotation: Sir Alex Ferguson does it quite a lot, and he seems to know what he's doing. For the Emirates on Saturday, I suppose it depends on the fitness of SWP, Kompany and Robinho - all away on international duty. But should every one come back 100% fit, I imagine I'd go for option 2, and give Vincent Kompany a rest. He's looked tired for some time, and we really need him fresh for his return to the HSH Nordbank Arena next Thursday. And Arsenal are not a side against which a big physical presence in midfield is a must to compete. But for Fulham the following Sunday? Who knows.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Squad love continues

With the international break now half way through, City players and staff continue to spend their time saying nice things about each other: first it was Hughes about McGivern, then Hughes about Kompany, then de Jong about Hughes, and Hughes about Zabaleta. But this time it's Pablo Zabaleta talking about Shaun Wright-Phillips:
"I enjoy playing with Shaun so much because he makes life easier for the full-back," said Zabaleta, who was named Blues player of the month for January.

"He is very quick, works all the time and helps me on the pitch which is important. The winger must help the full back or there will be problems.

"He is a top player and has helped me settle in well. I like to get forward too, and when I do, I know he will be covering for me. Hopefully we have developed a bit of an understanding even if we have both played in different positions at times.
And then on his versatility:

"I am used being moved around the team in Spain and Argentina. I can play wherever I need to - midfield is no problem and it adds to the experience of my first season here. Right-back is my natural position but I have no problem in midfield even if it means a different workload. I enjoy it.

"It is the first season for me in England and that is always the hardest at any club abroad. I hope to be even better next year when the number of games, the intensity of the games and their frequency, the training, and the opposition - and language - will not be new to me.

"I want to be at City for a long time, and if international recognition comes with that, then perfect."

Hughes questions Zab's absence

From Mcfc.co.uk:

Hughes said: "I'm surprised, given the season that he has had. He's been outstanding ever since he's come here from Spain. He's also shown his versatility for us, something that I feel is a real asset in a player.

"He's able to adapt to a variety of positions. So sometimes you can change formation without having to make substitutions if you have a player of Zaby's flexibility on the pitch.

"That's a good trait to have, and Pablo is a great help in that respect. His performances levels in midfield this season have been excellent, while his performance at full back goes without saying."

I wrote about Zabaleta's absence from this squad when it was announced here. It is a surprise that he should not make the squad, for exactly the reasons Hughes mentioned. I suppose one thing counting against Zabaleta is that Maradona has got Argentina playing 3-4-3, and with Mascherano and Gago in central midfield there is little place for Zabaleta to play. But not to make the squad? This is a surprise. I'm sure it won't be long before he does.

de Jong: 'I like playing for this manager'

Well he would say that, wouldn't he?

Nigel de Jong is the paradigm Mark Hughes signing: in his early twenties, but with international and European experience, athletic, competitive, physically imposing and capable of running all day; the perfect player for the Premier League.

That said, it is still good to hear him so behind the whole Hughes project, to which he is integral:

"I like playing for this manager. He has given me a lot of confidence since he brought me over to Manchester City," he told Sky Sports News.

"He said he likes a player like me for my defensive qualities in the midfield. I am happy to play at Manchester City and I hope we can be successful.

"He knows how it is with big clubs so he will try and put his vision on this team, to become a good team.

"He is being given time to build a good team. I hope with his experience and his abilities we can drive forward and become successful in the future."

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Elano and Robinho play in 1-1 draw

City's Elano and Robinho played in Brazil's fortuitous 1-1 draw away to Ecuador. They both started behind Luís Fabiano in Brazil's 4-2-3-1 (Ronaldinho was the other attacking player), anchored by holding midfielders Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo (with whom City were recently linked).

But Ecuador were much the better side throughout the first half, pressing Brazil and denying them any time on the ball. Elano and Robinho saw very little of the play; the most active City player on the pitch was Felipe Caicedo, who led the line for Ecuador with good help from the very able Christian Benítez. Big Phil could even have scored one or two in the first half, putting a header and a low shot narrowly wide. The frustration got to Elano, as it often does, and he was booked late in the first half.

The second half was similar: Ecuador were again the better side, and Elano was replaced by Josué to firm up the Brazilian midfield after 61 minutes. But it was another Brazilian substitution which turned the game: with nineteen minutes remaining Ronaldinho was taken off for Júlio Baptista. With Baptista's first touch he laid the ball wide to Robinho and continued his run. Robinho returned the ball to Baptista, whose shot cannoned off the post, onto the back of Ecuador keeper José Cevallos and into the net. 0-1 Brazil, 'smash and grab' doesn't quite cover it.

But Ecuador continued to press; Caicedo went close once or twice but could never quite get on the end of balls into the box. He was substituted on 92 minutes, but not before Ecuador scored their much deserved equaliser. In the last minute of normal time, the impressive Benítez shot from close range and Júlio César (without doubt Brazil's best player) could only palm the ball into the path of Christian Noboa, who scored from three yards out. 1-1 wasn't exactly fair, but at least Ecuador got a point.

Maybe Dunga now knows what Hughes has done for a while: that building a team around Elano and Robinho is fantastic for home games, but when you go away to a physical side - it's not always so good.

Hughes praises VK

There's quite an interesting interview with Mark Hughes on mcfctv.com this weekend. There's some general stuff about the need to gel and how our January buys have improved the team but then quite a good bit about Vincent Kompany:
Yeah we've been delighted with him. I think people forget he's a young man as well, he's only twenty two, and he's got a really old head on his shoulders, and a lot of experience for the amount of years he's been in the game. He's got a real presence, he's a big guy, but he has a sense of leadership about him as well. He takes on that mantle very easily, and on occassions obviously when Dunney hasn't been available he's come in and been a very good captain for us. And given his age I think that shows the quality of the player and the person. So he's had a real impact in his first season and he's only going to get better.
I think Kompany's been one of the big finds of the season, and at £6million represents fantastic business. He's faded a bit in recent months - the toe injury looks like a symptom of general wear and tear. Kompany has started thirty six games this season, which is a lot for anyone's first season in English football but even more given his recent injury problems: he played eighteen Bundesliga games in 2007/08 and only six in 2006/07. We may see him increasingly rested in the league (because we really need him for the UEFA Cup) but his overall contribution this year has been excellent. Next season could well be epic for him.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

International round up

  • Richard Dunne scored a diving header in the first minute, putting the Republic 1-0 up against Bulgaria. He and Given could not hold on to the three points though, as Bulgaria equalised with a 74th minute Kevin Kilbane own goal. Maybe with Petrov and Bozhinov it would have been different.
  • Another City player scored a header: Gelson Fernandes nodded in a corner in stoppage time, as Switzerland won 2-0 in Moldova. This puts the Swiss joint top with Greece, only one point ahead of Israel in what is the most open group at the half way stage.
  • Nigel de Jong played most of Holland's 3-0 defeat of Scotland in the Amsterdam ArenA. He came off for Stijn Schaars with eleven minutes left. He was booked after eighteen minutes.
  • Craig Bellamy was on the losing side though, as Wales lost 2-0 at the Millenium Stadium to Finland. He worked hard but with no reward, and then made the news with his post-match reaction.

Good news

Wales may have lost 2-0 but Craig Bellamy is looking very fit and very sharp. Running with and without the ball, he's as quick and intelligent as before his injury. And Chris Coleman just said that his movement is 'as good as any other striker in Europe'.

Hughes pleased by progress

I think one of the key themes of the season has been the club finally being able to engage in serious behind the scenes improvements. Driven by Hughes, paid for by Sheikh Mansour, the club's medical, training and now office facilities have been upgraded. The manager is impressed:

"The way the club's set up now in terms of its structure and the people in key positions means that City can only get better and be driven forward at pace," Hughes said. "I was very encouraged by what I heard at the get-together and the plans and structures that are in place for the club for the future that will ensure that when success comes - and it will do - it will be for a long time.

"I am part of the team that will drive this club forward and it is up to us to make sure that we are successful. I'm very impressed by how much progress has already been made throughout the club."

"It's been a huge year for everybody at the club. There have been brave changes when we could have pottered around and remained as we were.

I think this sort of thing is crucial. As a friend put it to me, the key fact of the Shinawatra/Eriksson era was that, for all its turmoil and tumult its changes were essentially cosmetic. There was Elano, and Martin Petrov, there was a relaxed approach to training, but at heart the stagnation and slight amateurism of the Wardle/Pearce was still there. We saw this in the second half of last season: Elano and Petrov stopped performing and it was the core of the Pearce team (sans Distin and Barton) putting in Pearce-era performances. It is only now, with a driven young manager and limitless cash that the internal structure of the club can be brought to where it should be. And from there, we should improve on the pitch. But the importance of shedding the dead wood (not just players but also structures and attitudes) of the Wardle years should not be underestimated.

McGivern moved up pecking order?

From mcfc.co.uk

Full-back Ryan, who has signed a new three-year deal at the City of Manchester Stadium, was a target for Hartlepool but is needed by Mark Hughes for the Premier League run-in in case Wayne Bridge is ruled out by injury...

Hughes said: "Ryan is progressing really well and I'm delighted we've signed him. The initial idea was that he would go on loan before the end of the season or we'd possibly get him out there next year.

"But it's better now to keep him closer to the first-team squad until the end of the season and see how he does. There may be more of an opportunity for him than he thinks, because he's a promising player who's doing really well. Next year we'll be looking to get him a decent loan period with a good club, but for now we'll keep him close."

Does this mean that he is close to taking Javier Garrido's place as understudy to Wayne Bridge? He has just signed a new three year contract, so he can't be too far from Hughes' plans. And Javi Garrido is rumoured to out in the summer; Bridge was injured against Sunderland and Zabaleta played there instead. May we even see McGivern in the first team before the season is out?

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Richards out of U21 squad

From TheFA.com:
Gabriel Agbonlahor and Micah Richards have been forced to withdraw from the England Under-21 squad.

Both players were carrying hamstring injuries when they met up with the squad and will return to their respective clubs as a precautionary measure.

No replacements will be called up ahead of the Norway fixture and a squad of 17 players will now travel to Sandjiford later today.
So Micah's added to the list with Vincent Kompany and Valeri Bozhinov of City players who aren't playing their international game on Saturday. I guess I need to find something else to do with my weekend now.

'I truly dedicate myself to my club'

So says the £32million man:

"Sometimes I am questioned, asking why I play better for the national squad than at Manchester City. I am the same at both places, but Manchester City is one team and the Brazil national squad is another.

"In all respect to Manchester City, who have good players by the way, here I play with Kaka and Ronaldinho - it is totally different.

"Here I can play well, but I believe I am playing well at City. I have scored 11 goals in the Premier League."

I just wish he'd try a bit more.

Times : Robinho out, Henry and Ribéry in.

There's two fascinating articles by James Ducker in Thursday's Times, both about City's alleged transfer plans. The first, a news piece, claims that Hughes is keen to sell Robinho in the summer, and has four main transfer targets: Thierry Henry, Franck Ribéry, John Terry and Roque Santa Cruz. Ribéry would come in as a direct replacement for Robinho:

City have not approached Ribéry or Bayern directly, but they have registered a tentative interest through third parties, just as they have been working behind the scenes since January on a deal to bring Henry back to the Premier League. While a move to City could present Henry, 31, whose contract expires in 2011 and would cost about £10 million, with a massive final pay day, Ribéry may take more persuading, especially as he would have to forgo Champions League football for at least one season and is likely to field offers for his services from Barcelona, Real and possibly Chelsea.

The second comments on why Hughes wants to make these changes, picking up on themes I've mentioned before - the desire to create a fit, consistent squad with a winning mentality - something that Robinho does not always bring:

It is Robinho’s performances on the pitch that are of most concern to the manager, however. The Brazilian could be on the substitutes’ bench for the league game away to Arsenal on Saturday week and will face a battle to retain his place for the remainder of the season with Martin Petrov, the Bulgaria winger, who is about to return from a knee ligament injury after six months out.

Ribéry, by contrast, would represent a significant step up in class, although what has struck Hughes is that his talent and flair are matched by a fierce workrate....

Hughes wants to reshape City’s squad, allying talent with character in the hunt next season for Champions League football, although as critical to his game plan as four or five high-quality signings is a drastic downsizing of a squad populated by players who are out of contract in the summer or surplus to requirements. At least 12 are expected to leave.

These are both interesting pieces in themselves, and the story is a fascinating one. What is curious though is why this is only being reported by James Ducker in Thursday's papers. When big City stories come out of the club, and James Ducker gets them, he is usually joined by Daniel Taylor (Guardian), Ian Herbert (Independent) and Ian Ladyman (Daily Mail). That no other papers should carry this story is interesting in itself. Whether it makes it more or less reliable, I'm just not sure. It does sound very believable though.

City on 5Live

I've just finished listening to the BBC Radio 5Live programme 'Abu Dhabi Blues', a fifty minute discussion programme about City. Chaired by Brian Alexander, it featured former chairman David Bernstein and City fan and author Colin Shindler as guests. There were interviews with Mark Hughes, Garry Cook and Steven Ireland. You can listen to it HERE.

The most interesting part of Hughes' interview concerned his relationship with Khaldoon al-Mubarak. He said that while he has only met Sheikh Mansour once, he speaks to Khaldoon two or three times weekly, and mentioned that Khaldoon has once eaten at Hughes' house. Khaldoon calls Hughes before games, but does not phone immediately after defeats because he 'very much understands' how Hughes feels. There was then the standard defence of Robinho - it's hard for attackers to adjust, he's not the only one to disappoint, and the denail of any personal problems between player and manager.

While discussing this David Bernstein appeared thoughtful and considered, saying that Hughes had 'a very difficult to play', and, in mentioning that different levels of management required different skils, implying that Hughes may not be the man to take us to the top level. (He also said of two managers he employed that: 'Joe Royle was great to deal with, Kevin [Keegan] was easy on a good day.') I'm a big fan of Colin Shindler's books so was disappointed that he chose to buy into the whole 'Sheikh Mansour = Florentino Pérez' discourse of which we hear so much. He suggested that Hughes was fighting a losing battle with the owners, and that the board are set on assembling a team of Galacticos over Hughes' head.

Garry Cook spoke about the Kaká, saying that the public criticism of the move was more to do with the fact that it was Manchester City rather than the sheer volume of money we offered. Which I don't think is at all true. Regarding why the deal failed, he said that 'there was a defining moment when it became public space and the agendas changed a little bit.' Bernstein said that it was 'the wrong move at the wrong time', and 'out of sync with wider social issues.' He voiced the criticism that we were too early in our progression to go for Kaká, which I do agree with. Shindler suggested that there ought to be more 'football people' involved in the running of the club. Brian Marwood wasn't mentioned.

They finished with a brief interview with Stephen Ireland (he really loves 'the gaffer', apparently) and a comparison of Sheikh Mansour and Randy Lerner. Shindler would rather the former was more like the latter. I can see his point, but I'm not going exactly upset with the whole ADUG project thus far.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Irish press: Bozhinov injured

The Irish Independent:

BULGARIA have been plunged into further crisis ahead of Saturday's Croke Park date with Ireland after losing the two main alternatives to the absent Dimitar Berbatov.

Manchester City striker Valeri Bojinov is out with a hamstring problem and has gone to Munich for treatment, while Hertha Berlin have refused to release Valeri Domovchiyski for duty on the basis that he was not called up in time under FIFA regulations.

And the Irish Times:

He can count himself lucky for Stoilov’s problems were mounting over the course of yesterday as the loss of Dimitar Berbatov was compounded by the near certain withdrawal of Manchester City striker Valeri Bojinov and the refusal of Hertha Berlin to allow one of their frontmen, Valeri Domovchiyski, to join the squad because they had not been given the required notice.

If, as expected, Bojinov’s hamstring problem does rule him out then Stoilov will have only two strikers...


City 'offered €20m' for Clichy in January

I was reading about Gaël Clichy on FranceFootball.fr earlier and was very surprised to read that City bid for him in January.
Cet hiver, Manchester City avait mis 20 millions d'euros sur la table pour tenter de s'attacher les services du « frenchy ». Sans succès.
In English, 'This winter MCFC had put €20million (£18.7m) on the table to tempt Clichy to the club, without success.'

If true, it's an interesting insight into our January targets - suggesting that Wayne Bridge was not always our top target. Although given that we agreed a fee with Chelsea on January 2 we must have moved swiftly on to him after Arsenal's rejection.

European quarter final + £5 tickets = Chaos

Who could have predicted it?
TICKET sales to non-Seasoncard holders for the Hamburg UEFA Cup second leg on April 16 are temporarily suspended as Blues fans have rushed to snap up our £5 a head and a kid for a quid special "thank you" offer today.

There have been unprecedented scenes at the City Store in the Arndale Centre as well as the City of Manchester Stadium Box Office, where the queue stretched into the stadium itself as stewards endeavoured to protect our fans from the worst of the inclement weather....

Executive chairman Garry Cook said: "We are delighted by the response, which has been absolutely magnificent even by the standards of our loyal supporters. The phone lines were jammed and the ticketing website was simply inundated. We would like to thank them all for their patience, not forgetting our ticketing staff who have worked tirelessly to keep things running as smoothly as possible."

I've got mine. And my inflatable banana.

Kompany out of Belgian game on Saturday

A slight tear of a muscle in his hamstring has put Vincent Kompany out of Belgium's game with Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday. The injury was sustained against Sunderland last Sunday and he has returned to City for treatment. He may play for Belgium next Wednesday away in Bosnia but they have called up Jeroen Simaeys as a precaution.

This is only good news for us: Kompany has been struggling for some time with his toe injury, and has looked in recent weeks like he's running on empty. And with Nigel de Jong ineligible for the UEFA Cup games, we desperately need Kompany fit for the last four steps of our road to Istanbul.

Dunne on Given

From M.E.N.:
Dunne said: "He has done really well since he has come in. I don't think anyone has really been surprised - everyone knows how good he is.

"Obviously, he is a big loss for Newcastle - their fans and their players will know how good he was - and he has come in and just carried on.

"He is just doing the exact same things. Just the way he walks around and the confidence he gives off has been great for everyone."

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hughes: Robinho going nowhere

From BBC:

"He is in my plans long term. People who say otherwise are just being mischievous," said the Welshman.

"He is an outstanding player who wants to be part of what we are doing, but he is also a professional football player and he doesn't enjoy getting beaten."

This is interesting because it contradicts what Daniel Taylor, who gets much more right than wrong, has twice written about Robinho in recent weeks. On February 27 he first broke the story that Hughes was considering selling Robinho:

Manchester City are giving serious consideration to selling Robinho at the end of the season and have hatched a remarkable plan to offer him as bait in a player-plus-cash exchange for the Chelsea captain John Terry. Robinho joined City only seven months ago but the club have begun to think of him as a problem player and intend to use the Brazilian to try to pull off one of the most remarkable pieces of transfer business in the modern game.

And then this on March 16:

City have reluctantly taken the decision to listen to offers for Robinho at the end of the season, although Hughes is still open-minded and hopes the player will show a greater desire. Failing that, one plan is to offer him as bait to Chelsea in a possible player-plus-money exchange for John Terry despite the England captain's insistence that he wants to stay at Stamford Bridge for the remainder of his career.

See the discord? I can see why Hughes would defend Robinho in public (as he always does) - we have at least eleven very important games this season (fourteen should all go to plan in Europe), for which we certainly need our most talented player. But why then is someone close to the club briefing the press that they're thinking of getting rid of Robinho? I guess we'll find out over the next few months.

Zabaleta as a left back

Here's something I picked up on the Guardian Chalkboards. Pablo Zabaleta stepped in for the injured Wayne Bridge at left back on Sunday, for the first time this season. And while I'm a huge fan of Zabaleta, the chalkboards suggest that he offered nowhere near the attacking threat that Bridge does from the role.

This graphic is a comparison of Zabaleta's and Bridge's attempted passes in the Sunderland and Aston Villa home games respectively. The main difference between the two seems to be in their attacking play: due to both a difference of caution and in success of crossing. Bridge regularly advanced into the final third of the pitch (within 30/35 yards) down the left hand side, attempting sixteen (by my count) passes from within the final third. Zabaleta however, attempted only one pass from within the final third. There was also a difference in success of balls into the box: Bridge made four successful passes (from ten attempts), while Zabaleta didn't make a single successful pass into the box (from three attempts). I guess this is to do with Zabaleta being less proficient with his left foot, and therefore less confident in getting down to the byline and crossing with it. In Zabaleta's defence, he made more successful passes than Bridge - most of them in the middle third of the pitch. But as an attacking left back, Bridge is demonstrably superior. The question for Hughes, then, is where to play Zabaleta now that Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong are fit?









 by Guardian Chalkboards

Melo claims City interest

Fiorentina's Brazilian midfielder Felipe Melo has said this week that we're interested in signing him, according to the Mail:

The Brazil international, 25, has been monitored by Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger since his days with Almeria and his form in Serie A this season has also attracted City's interest.

Melo said: 'Yes, I know that Arsenal, Manchester City and Juventus are following me, but my agent is dealing with these issues. I only think about playing.'

These quotes were apparently given to Italian football website ITASportPress - I found the original source here. I don't know how reliable it is though.

Melo is a 25 year old holding midfielder who moved to Fiorentina last summer, having spent three years in La Liga (two at Racing then one at Almeria). He's had a good season with the Viola and was called up to make his Brazil debut in the famous Manchester City 2 - 0 Italy game at the Emirates a few months ago, anchoring for Elano and Robinho in a 4-1-4-1. But with the signing of Nigel de Jong, and the decision to use both Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta as defensive midfielders I'm not sure this should really be our main priority.

Also note Melo's use of the classic footballer's line:

But I have four years left on my contract with Fiorentina and I am a Fiorentina player. The future is in the hands of God.

No, the future is in the hands of you and your agent.

Hughes talks up Micah and Boji

On Micah Richards:

Hughes said: "Micah got the headlines because of the goal, but I thought he played with real determination, getting forward and having a positive effect in the opposition half. He was tiring towards the end because of the amount of energy he has expended in two games during the week.

"Maybe in a few games this season he's lacked a bit of the confidence you would expect, but he's still a young man. We forget sometimes that he's only 20. He's had quite a number of games for somebody so young, but you will have fluctuations in form and that's what has happened to Micah this year.

And on Valeri Bozhinov:

"Valeri holds the ball up really well and as he gets stronger and into the swing of playing games he will get even better," said boss Mark Hughes.

"At times against Sunderland at the weekend he was so keen to get involved in things he was dropping too deep. I think his best position is right up against the centre halfs on the edge of the box where his ability on the ball and awareness of players around him will have real effect.

"There is no doubt that he is going to be a good option for us in the remaining games and for next season.

Richards' England prospects

Ian Herbert in today's Independent:

Richards has not featured for England since November 2007 but after his most promising display for 12 months in City's win against Sunderland on Sunday he rejected suggestions that his game had started to lack focus and insisted that the more regular right-back berth he has recently secured has made the difference. "A lot of things been said about me not being focused on my game this season, but I have been," Richards said. "But I have been chopped and changed in my position, playing left-back, right-back, centre-back and even in the centre of midfield. I'm not going to make excuses but I'm happy playing right-back and that's where I'm playing consistently now."

Richards had the world at his feet when he became the youngest defender to represent England, against the Netherlands in November 2006. He became a regular fixture for the next 12 months but a combination of injury and his indifferent displays at City – Richards' positional play is a recurrent weakness and was excruciatingly bad in the defeat at West Bromwich in December – have seen Glen Johnson and Wes Brown step above him, with Richards stranded on 11 caps.

The problem, I think, has been over the discord between Richards' playing right back and centre back. In 2006/07, Richards played at, with some promise, at right back and made his England debut there in November 2006, in place of the injured Gary Neville. But in the summer 2007 Sylvain Distin left on a Bosman, and Sven-Göran Eriksson brought in Vedran Ćorluka to play right back. This meant that Richards moved inside to partner Richard Dunne at centre half. And although he had a fantastic start, winning the August Premier League Player of the Month, he struggled for form and fitness by the end of the season. This was mirrored with his England displays: he did play in some of the successful McClaren games of summer 2007, but also played - not particularly well - in the Russia and Croatia defeats. But given his inexperience, being asked to play right back for England - while learning to play centre back for City - was always going to be difficult.

When it was first suggested that Ćorluka would be sold to Tottenham Hotspur this summer, Richards must have been delighted: the departure of the man from Zagreb would open up the right back position for him to play. How disappointed he must have been, then, when Charlie was instantly replaced (in fact, replaced before he left) by another international right back from abroad - Espanyol's Pablo Zabaleta. Again, Richards was forced to play centre back while a big money buy was installed to his right hand side. He formed a calamitous partnership with Tal Ben Haim and then a pretty slipshod one with Richard Dunne. He even played a few games at left back. Capello clearly, and understandably, didn't fancy him for the England full team, and he was back with Pearce's U21s.

But the new year brought a new solution from Mark Hughes, something that should be recognised as one of his best decisions as City manager: moving Zabaleta into central midfield, Richards to right back and bringing in Nedum Onuoha at centre back. These changes were made over a few January games and have transformed the team as a defensive unit. Richards is no longer an awkward and error-prone centre half but is getting back to the boundless, gallopping full back of the Pearce era. For the first time since spring 2007, he is playing in his natural position, the one in which England have a vacancy. He still has work to do yet; but if he can finish the season in this vein of form, he can set himself up for a good shot at making the 2010 World Cup.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Hughes on Hart

The manager suggests Joe Hart will still be a Manchester City player next season, albeit possibly at a different club:

"It is important Joe knows our feelings with regard to his ability," the former Blackburn boss said.

"Joe is going to be England's outstanding goalkeeper for the next 10 or 15 years....

"Initially Joe found it very difficult. But he has got his head down now and knows he has to work.

"We can then look at him going out on loan next year, because we want them to develop, and maybe just training day after day is not what they need.

"It is something we will definitely investigate, while always keeping in mind we want them as players for Manchester City."

Return of the Boj

It's worth reflecting on the biggest aspect of the game today: Valeri Bozhinov's second ever competitive start for City, his first since August 2007, and comfortably the longest period of pitch time he has ever had in one competitive match for City. He had previously played 29 minutes at West Ham, 12 against Derby and 8 against United. This season he had 26 against Midtjylland, the game before his Villa Park breakdown. So today was a real watershed. It was also what we've spent the last nineteen months waiting for.

And apparently he played pretty well. I've only seen the MOTD highlights but he seemed to do a fantastic amount of work in deeper positions: he made the pass to Wright-Phillips from which McCartney was sent off, and the pass to Richards from which we won a penalty. Let's hope he comes through Bulgaria's two games this week unscathed: Ireland away next Saturday evening and then Cyprus at home on Wednesday week. And then let's see who Hughes picks at the Emirates.

Sunderland win reax

Ian Ladyman, Daily Mail
Richards, however, was a definite bright spot, scoring the winning goal and contributing the type of athletic, rampaging performance from right back that was his trademark until the crisis of confidence that all but ruined the first half of this season.

Playing now in his preferred position, the 20-year-old has slowly improved since City manager Mark Hughes broke up what was becoming a calamitous central pairing with Richard Dunne and this was perhaps his best performance for a year.

Tim Rich, The Guardian

Not so long ago, confidence had visibly drained from Richards. The central defensive partnership with Richard Dunne was not working, his fitness was questionable and so was his self-belief. His manager, Mark Hughes, responded by returning him to right-back and from the moment Sunderland saw their left-back, George McCartney, dismissed, Richards exploited a freedom to make some driving, muscular runs.

His first won the penalty but there were others that inflicted almost as much damage on an overstretched Sunderland defence, which although succumbing to an eighth successive defeat to Manchester City showed rather more resilience than might have been expected.

Ian Herbert, The Independent

Manchester City remain upwardly mobile, their seventh straight home win in all competitions suggesting that seventh place in the table might be their destiny, but you wonder more as the weeks go by whether the man who was to have been central to the Arab owners' project for the club will be present on the onward journey.

The word from the Robinho camp is that the Brazilian is quite satisfied in Manchester, though there have been no goals since December and the insipid nature of a missed penalty – a shimmy, a half-shot and goalkeeper Marlon Fulop barely needing to strain a sinew – summed up his afternoon.

Kaveh Solhekol, The Times

Robinho has saved his best performances for the City of Manchester Stadium this season, but not for the first time the Brazilian was upstaged by Wright-Phillips. The former Chelsea man showed no side-effects from having played for two hours against Aalborg in Denmark in the Uefa Cup on Thursday, when City had no problems with penalties, and his link-up play with Richards and Elano caused Sunderland so many problems that it seemed almost inevitable that City would make the breakthrough.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

TLDORC March Awards

A month that mirrored many others this season: two impressive home league wins, two flaccid away league defeats, and continued progress through the UEFA Cup. It was quite busy - six games in total, four in the last ten days - but the international break brings it to an early end.

West Ham (a) 0-1 (thoughts, ratings)
Aston Villa (h) 2-0 (thoughts)
AaB (h) 2-0 (thoughts, ratings)
Chelsea (a) 0-1 (thoughts, ratings)
AaB (a) 0-2 (thoughts before and after penalties, ratings)
Sunderland (h) 1-0 (thoughts)

Player of the Month

No obvious winner, but a difficult choice between two very good candidates: Shay Given and Nedum Onuoha. One of the best things about the second half our season has been the discovery of basic defensive competence. An unfortunate dip in form for both of last season's centre backs, never mind the occasional presence of Tal Ben Haim and Michael Ball in the side meant that August-December was a time of some calamity. The coinciding of three factors in January, though, rescued the situation. The return to form of Richard Dunne, after his four game ban, the signing of Shay Given and the introduction of Nedum Onuoha at centre half combined to turn us from an incontinent and incompetent defensive unit into a really quite successful one. And while Dunne and Given have over 600 Premier League appearances and 139 Irish caps between them, Onuoha has only four injury ravaged years behind him. And so for producing his most consistent and successful spell in a City shirt, and for proving quite a few people (myself included) wrong - Nedum Onuoha is March Player of the Month.

Individual Performance of the Month

Shay Given v Aalborg (away)

As good as Wright-Phillips was against Aston Villa, I think it has to be Shay Given against Aalborg. Were it not for his two penalty saves, we'd be cursing another messed up cup run. But thanks to him we're still in with a real shot.

Goal of the Month

Wright-Phillips against Aalborg - reminiscent of some of those strikes in his first spell when he'd beat men at will and then smash it in from twenty yards. Honourable mention for Wright-Phillips against Aston Villa too - a good finish but some fantastic interplay with Evans, Bozhinov and Ireland in the build-up.

The Dunne/Onuoha solution

Danny Pugsley does the math to demonstrate just how good the Dunne/Onuoha partnership has been, particularly relative to the Dunne/Richards one.

Dunne and Onuoha (11 games) average 1 goal conceded per game, better than Ben Haim/Dunne (8 games, 1.13 goals/game), Dunne/Richards (14 games, 1.21 goals/game) and much better than the disastrous Ben Haim/Richards pairing - 7 games, 1.86 goals/game.

And his analysis is spot on:
What I think is the key component in the Dunne/Onouha axis though is that in Nedum Onouha, we have a 'footballing defender' (something I've always felt he is more so than Richards is) alongside the more 'basic' elements of Richard Dunne. Although slightly skewed by the start of last seasons performances, in the end was the Dunne/Richards pairing undone by the fact that they are just too similar?

Now, and arguably for the first time since Sylvan Distin left for Portsmouth, we have a settled pairing that do complement each other. How fantastic is it to also see Nedum Onouha finally put a sustained run of fitness and form together to begin to show just exactly the type of player that most of us have thought since he first emerged.
I had thought that Vincent Kompany was the long term replacement for Sylvain Distin. But with his continuing to play in midfield, Onuoha may just be that man.

City 1 - 0 Sunderland, and a request to readers

I couldn't find a decent stream of the game today so don't really have much to say, other than that our solid and comfortable home wins in the last few months have been the best part of this season: even better than our occassional displays of miracle football last Autumn. Sunderland is now on a list that includes Aston Villa, Aalborg, FC København, Middlesboro, Newcastle and Wigan. And with Fulham, West Brom, Blackburn and Bolton left to come to the CoMS we could conceivably finish the season with eleven or twelve consecutive home wins (depending on the UEFA Cup).

But I can't really comment on the match itself, so you, readers, need to step up. If you were lucky enough to be at the game today, could you post your thoughts/report in the comments and leave some player ratings. I'll then publish the best reports and do an aggregate of player ratings.

New deal for Hughes?

Very surprising news from today's papers:

"I've got two years left on my contract, but there have been talks about a new one," Hughes told the Sunday Express. "But you will have to speak to the owners about that.

"I hope something comes of this and if a new contract is a possibility then obviously I've be very pleased.

This is very surprising news. It's not like his achievements this season will have got Chelsea and Manchester United trying to bring this former player back to manage. I suppose it's possible that because Hughes, Bowen, Niedzwiecki etc were signed under Thaksin that they're not on as much money as they feel entitled to, and so they're trying to get a pay rise. But I think too much of Hughes to suspect that.

Could this actually be what I've been hoping for - the statement from the board that Hughes has their full support for next season? It's worth bearing in mind that a manager signing a new contract is not so much about ensuring that they will be at the club up to a certain point (managers almost never see out their contract and then leave), but a symbolic statement of commitment from both the manager to the club and vice-versa. So if Hughes gets this new deal it will not be so much about ensuring that he is here until, say, 2013, but a clear statement of intent from the board that he has their full support.

A summer clear out

From skysports.com:

As many as 17 players are thought to be under threat with Michael Ball, Darius Vassell, Danny Mills, Dietmar Hamann, Elano, Jo, Javier Garrido, Kasper Schmeichel, Gelson Fernandes, Felipe Caicedo, Benjani, Glauber Berti and Tal Ben-Haim all now facing the chop.

"In fairness there have been a few signings in the 18 months before I came to City where in-depth background checks weren't carried out," Hughes told the Daily Star.

"In the circumstances the club felt that they needed a big influx of players in a short period of time...

"They [players who are not part of Hughes' plans] might feel it's in their best interests to move on. I would imagine there are situations where I probably agree with them. It's all about making sure the club is stronger."

A cull of most of remaining Eriksson signings and other dead wood is central to the Sparkyisation process. It has to be his squad, not something he's inherited or built upon but absolutely his. And there are too many players at the squad who just don't fit with the Hughes approach. I wrote about this a few months ago - that there are certain sets of players within the squad who cannot be part of the process I latter called Sparkyisation. These are: those Eriksson signings made without sufficient forethought (Elano, Garrido, Gelson, Benjani and maybe Caicedo too), the remnants of the Pearce era who still remind us of darker times and do not have the fitness to play in a Mark Hughes team (Vassell, Ball, Mills and Hamann) and some combination of our four Brazilians. Given what's happening in the first half of the Sunderland game, I wouldn't be too upset if all four of them left.

Line up

I guess this is how they'll line up:


It's a shame that Bridge and Ireland aren't fit, but good that Kompany and de Jong are. Javi Garrido didn't exactly dazzle on Thursday, so the left back position is taken by the versatile Zabaleta. (Remember Richards played left back a few times in the autumn and he wasn't fantastic.) The big news though is Valeri Bozhinov is making his first start for City since August 2007. I hope he doesn't rupture anything in the warm-up.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Sunderland preview

While it's true that the UEFA Cup quarter-final is now the main focus for the season, that doesn't mean that we can afford to turn our attention away from the league. It's so tight that we could very easily finish anywhere from seventh through to seventeenth (or below). At the end of Saturday's 3pm kick offs, we are (with a game in hand) just six points behind West Ham in seventh, but only three points ahead of Stoke and Portsmouth.

So a win tomorrow puts us just three points away from Europa League qualification; a loss and we're in for a very uncomfortable run in. Both the opportunity of success and the danger of real failure mean that our league campaign cannot be relegated too far from our attention. Fortunately, we have what should be a rather predictable last nine league games. Five easily winnable home games: Sunderland, Fulham, WBA, Bolton, Blackburn, and four unwinnable away games: Arsenal, Everton, Manchester United and Spurs. (We could just get a point at White Lart Lane, but we probably won't.)

The important thing, then, is just to win these last five games. Our home form this year has been good - only United have more than our nine league wins - and recent wins against Aalborg and Aston Villa were as good team performances as we've produced this year. Can we do it again tomorrow? I hope so: Sunderland have won one of the last twelve league games, and that was at home against Stoke City. With Bozhinov and de Jong eligible to play we should still be able to put out a good side, even if none of the injury doubts play:


And this is a worst case scenario: Kompany and Bellamy could well make it, even if Bridge and Ireland are less likely to. (And for what it's worth, we've won our last three games against Sunderland. Our only away league win of this season was the 3-0 at the Stadium of Light, with goals from Ireland and two from Wright-Phillips. Four months before we won 2-1 (Elano and Vassell) and earlier that season Ireland score the only goal in a 1-0 home win.)

So we really should win. We do need to. And I'm going to predict Robinho's first goals of 2009 in a 2-0 win.

City chase two young Danes

According to SkySports.com:
City have since requested permission to run the rule over the promising teenagers [Marco Larsen and Mads Pedersen] at their Platt Lane academy, as the club seek to continue their fine record in youth development.

"Manchester City have contacted us because they want to see the two players," FC Midtjylland youth coach Svend Graversen told Danish daily BT.

"We assume that they caught their attention when they played for the U16 national team."

Ireland on Thursday's game

From the M.E.N.:
"It was a crazy night and I just thought `how have we got ourselves in this situation?'

"I remember thinking to myself at 70 minutes `this is so easy, it's so comfortable'. We were just flowing through the game so easily and then it all became a bit of a blur. It was like we weren't in control and it was going to happen no matter what.

"When it went to penalties, I thought `this is one of these games you hear about when you're younger, one of these cup classics'. Luckily we got through and thank goodness Shay was brilliant.

"We have a way of making things hard for ourselves. When we play against the best teams we always play well. But when we play against the lesser teams we make it hard for ourselves, which is stupid. We should do a professional job and then leave. Halfway through the second half it just felt so cushy. Their first shot didn't come until the 60th or 70th minute."

Friday, 20 March 2009

Boj in Bulgaria squad

Obviously he does need game time, and Bulgaria do need to win at Croke Park (Saturday night) to keep their World Cup dream alive, but last time the Bulgarians rushed a semi-fit City player back from injury it didn't exactly end well.

I'll probably be watching (it's on Sky Sports 1), perfectly slotted between England v Slovakia and Spain v Turkey. Let's hope Dunney remembers not to clatter him.

Injury worries

The bad news: (from mcfc.co.uk)
The Manager said, "We're hoping that the concerns we had last night will allay somewhat. Vincent was struggling somewhat towards the end of the game and we had to take him off.

"Wayne Bridge had to come off with a tight hamstring, and we are hopeful that will not be too serious because we missed him when he went out of the game.

"Stevie Ireland has a really bad ankle after one of their players fell on top of him. He went over on it and we will have to see how he is. They are all key players for us and we would like them to be available this weekend but it's a short turnover time so we could be missing a few."

And the good:

"We will check on Craig as well, he was back here and training well while we were in Denmark. He has had a little bit of discomfort, so we want to be careful but he may well be an option.

"Valeri Bojinov had 75 minutes in the reserves and came through that well, so he is an option at the weekend. Nigel de Jong had a virus and missed a couple of days, but he should be OK," Mark concludes."

So even in the worst case scenario - Bridge, Kompany, Ireland and Bellamy not making it we still have quite a good team we could put out:

There is an obvious weakness at left back, but that aside it should still be enough to beat a very poor Sunderland side. It's possible that Bozhinov isn't quite up to starting, in which case we'd be back to the Caicedo/Evans dilemma again. There can be no doubting Evans' work rate but I still think Caicedo is closer to being an effective Premier League centre forward. And that was the worst case scenario. Bellamy, Ireland et al could conceivably play. And given that we're going into an international break we don't need to be as cautious about bringing people back as we would otherwise be.

Hamburg

This is the one I wanted the least.

Oh well, we'll beat them in a magical European night at Eastlands.

Seriously though, they are probably better than us. They're fourth in Bundelisga, albeit tied on points with second and third - and four points behind Hertha Berlin who are top. It's a credit to Martin Jol that they're doing so well despite selling three of their biggest names recently: Rafael van der Vaart to Real Madrid, and Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong to a certain English club.

Their big star is probably Ivica Olić, a quality version of Paul Dickov. His fellow Croat Mladen Petrić is HSV's top scorer this season with ten Bundesliga goals. Other big names include German midfielder Piotr Trochowski and Peruvian striker José Paolo Guerrero.

If we get past them it's either Werder Bremen or Udinese.

Penalty shoot outs

Three! In a season! Surely a record. (Readers, prove me wrong).

One interesting fact:

For all three penalty shoot-outs we've been involved this year, Ched Evans has been on the pitch at the end of extra time. In all three occasions he has stepped up to take our first penalty. And he has scored every time.

The only other player to have taken more than one shoot-out penalty this year is Elano, who took after Evans and scored at both Brighton and Aalborg. (He also scored in the home and away league games against Aston Villa - he is probably our best penalty taker).

Other players to score in shoot outs this year: Martin Petrov, Didi Hamann, Vedran Corluka, Vincent Kompany, SWP and Richard Dunne. The missers were Michaels Johnson and Ball.

Two other penalties this year - Robinho scored at SJP and Sturridge scored in the 3-0 Arsenal win. Any that I've missed?

Quarter finals

There's some teams I'd rather avoid in the hat for the quarter-finals.

The big result of the night must be Shakhtar Donetsk beating a very good CSKA Moscow side 2-0 at home to put them out. The other big name casualty was the other Russian side, Zenit St. Petersburg who could only beat Udinese 1-0 on the night thus going out 2-1 on aggregate.

The team I'm most worried about, Martin Jol's Hamburg, were 3-1 down on aggregate at half time, away at Galatasary. But they came back with three second half goals to go through 4-3.

Other results went predictably. Paris Saint Germain beat Braga 1-0 to go through, and Dinamo Kiev beat fellow Ukrainians Metalist Kharkiv on away goals.

Of course, it's easier now that Valencia and Milan are out - but it's still quite tough. I suppose in order of preference, from easiest to hardest, this is how I view the draw:

Dinamo Kiev
Shakhtar Donetsk
Udinese
Werder Bremen
Paris Saint Germain
Marseille
Hamburg

Basically I really want one of the Ukraine sides, wouldn't mind Werder or Udinese, but am very keen on avoiding PSG, HSV or l'OM. But we'll know soon enough.

AaB v City player ratings

Given The greatest penalty hero away in Denmark since...Joe Hart six months ago. Very good performance though, commanding the box, making the right decisions and pulling off a few decent saves. Could not have done much for either goal. And then two great saves in the shoot out. 8

Richards Generally solid but could be blamed for both goals: Shelton shrugged him off for the first, the cross which Evans handballed came right past him. Going forward he made some great runs, but he really needs work on his crossing. 5

Dunne Allowing the team to capitulate like that is a real failure of captaincy. Defensively he had a good game, winning most in the air and being strong in the tackle. Took a decent penalty too. 6

Onuoha Another good performance from our most improved player of 2009. Dealt well with everything Aalborg threw at us, and although we were finally breached (twice) neither goal was his fault. 7

Bridge A good performance - solid at the back and incisive going forward - made to look much better by Garrido's disastrous show. That's why you spend £10million on a left back. 7

Zabaleta One of his less impressive performances. We needed him (and Kompany) to repel the Aalborg attacks in the second half and he simply failed to do so. He could only chase the game - a bit too Gelson Fernandes really. 4

Kompany Never looked fully fit. His tackling was clumsy and his passing not what we're used to. Still, he gave 100% and was a useful physical presence until he tired. Criticism of Zabaleta applies to him too though. 6

SWP Only in the game in patches - a few good moments but nowhere near as influential as he was in the first leg. Took his penalty well. 5

Ireland Best player in the first half, darting around with the imagination we've grown used to. Visibly tired as the game progressed - if only we didn't have to play him twice a week. 6

Robinho Another below par performance. Never really got involved with the game - had a decent chance in the first half and hit the bar late on. But this was the sort of game in which a moment of brilliance could have won it for us. And he's not really in the team for his work rate. 5

Evans He was always going to work hard but we got two hours of effort and application and then a great penalty. Doesn't have the nous of Bellamy up front - only got one decent chance and he fluffed it, but still a lot to be proud about. 6

Subs

Garrido Pretty terrible. Should have conceded a penalty, repeatedly beaten by their right winger. A shame because I am a fan of his. 3

Caicedo Worked hard with little to show for it. 5

Elano Another quality penalty. n/a

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Another bizarre Danish penalty win

Well I look rather stupid now. During the second half of extra time I wrote that we were out, believing that there was no way we could go on to win having surrendered the tie so pathetically. But the penalty shoot out went against all expectations: momentum, home advantage, taking first all counted for nothing and we won 5-3. I guess that's what an £8.5million goalkeeper gets you.

To go through on penalties after a terrible second leg performance in Denmark once is good luck. To go through on penalties after a terrible second leg performance in Denmark twice - well, that suggests that it could really be our year. While the first hour of our performance tonight was good, there can be no avoiding that the second hour was a dismal, pathetic failure. We could have scored one to kill the tie; we didn't. We should have not conceded twice to go through; we couldn't go that either.

But we're into the last eight, for the first time in any cup since April 2007. And as bad as this evening was, I'm starting to have a good feeling about this.

Aalborg 2 - 0 City

  • This has been written during extra time and before penalties. I stand by it whether we win or lose though.
  • So much for Sparkyisation. This was, and how I hate these words, typical City. To collapse from a comfortable victory - and progression to the UEFA Cup quater-final - by conceding goals on 85 and 91 minutes is just sickening. Worse than the 3-2 loss against Fulham certainly, worse than the 8-1 probably. I felt worse over the Eriksson sacking, but that at lease was strung out over a few weeks. This was a one-two punch, painful not just because it was a surprise but also because, in a quite real sense, it wasn't a surprise at all. This is just what City do.
  • It was almost as if the football Gods couldn't quite forgive us for what we did to a Danish side in September; and in sending us back to the scene of that robbery they were setting the stage for our downfall. It was worse than a mirror image of Midtjylland though - not only was the margin doubled but so were the stakes and the shock value too. All we had to do with five minutes left was not to concede twice; and we did. All we had to do was score once and the tie was over. But we couldn't, we didn't, and we're out.
  • The first half was fine. We controlled the play, looked calm - never had too many chances but didn't look like conceding either. The second half started fine too. But then after about an hour it slowly started to turn away from us - we were giving the ball away, conceding chances and there was just a sense that this wasn't really meant to be happening. When Garrido should have given away a penalty with a foul on Johannson I started to worry. From then on it was a seige, and I started to think that one goal would bring two. We either needed to score, or wholly shut them out.
  • We almost killed the tie: Robinho's shot from Ireland's cut back hit the bar. It is to his, and Wright-Phillips', and Ireland's discredit that that was our only good chance in the two hours of play. Aalborg certainly defended well - a team transformed from last week - but given the quality of our attacking play in recent weeks we should have at least made a few chances. Maybe with Craig Bellamy on the pitch we would have scored. But that's no great excuse. This wasn't Blanc and Desailly we were up against.

Aalborg preview

This is the biggest game of our season to date. We are a competent ninety minutes away from our first cup quarter final since that defeat to Mark Hughes' Blackburn in March 2007. The remaining teams will present a difficult challenge - Marseille, Hamburg, CSKA Moscow are all probably better than us - but nothing insuperable. It is quite fair that we should be 4/1 favourites with most bookmakers.

There are few likely scenarios under which we don't make the last eight. All wins and all draws send us through. As does a 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, 3-1 or 4-2 defeat. If we score AaB need four. And for reasons I can't quite fathom, our away form in Europe has been very strong this season. There was the 2-2 draw in Copenhagen, the 2-0 win in Gelsenkirchen, the 2-1 win in Cyprus and the 2-0 win in the Faeroe Islands. The 3-1 defeat in Santander, while disappointing, came after we'd assured our progression. Our worst performance was actually in our most dramatic victory - the 1-0 win in Midtjylland which led to our penalty triumph. So as long as we keep our nerve we should be fine.

The team will presumably be the same from the home leg, unless Vincent Kompany manages to pass a late fitness test:


If he does he should come in for Elano.

It's a shame not to have Craig Bellamy, but given that the onus will be on Aalborg to come at us, I'm sure Wright-Phillips and Robinho will have enough to catch them on the break. So I'm going to be bold and go for a 2-1 win on the night.

More Hughes news

This time from The Guardian:
In reality the message emerging loud and clear from inside Eastlands is that the Welshman will still be in situ next ­season and Hughes certainly did not sound remotely insecure. Indeed, ­considering that City are the sole English Uefa Cup survivors and harbour ­realistic hopes of finishing seventh in ­the ­Premier League, the constant ­speculation about their manager's position seems slightly embarrassing, faintly absurd even.

Herbert confident of Hughes stay

From his Aalborg preview piece:
There is an increasing sense, both from the chief executive, Garry Cook, and from Hughes himself, that he will be in place to build his own side this summer. Jose Mourinho is chief among those names thrown up as successors, but Cook's announcement to a fans' forum last week that Hughes was here to build the club seems like an honest one. Hughes' side has lacked balance and, again at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, lacked the most fundamental defensive ability at times, but the late summer takeover by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan's Abu Dhabi United Group has provided Hughes with little chance to build the side he wants with players of his own. There seems to be an acceptance that Hughes should be given more time for the fabled City "project" to develop. The difference in City's league position would be considerable had Hughes simply been able to sign a striker of his own choice in the summer – but his club have still managed 45 goals from 28 games.
This is all good stuff. I hope it's true, and while for now we have to make do with the ever-so-slightly equivocal 'there seems to be an acceptance' I'm sure we'll hear from the board one way or the other next month. All it will take is an unambiguous 'Mark Hughes will be our manager for the 2009/10 season' statement and then we can just relax. I know the board shouldn't really have to go out of their way to appease their neurotic fans, but April-June 2008 was one of the most traumatic periods of supporting City I can remember, certainly the worst end to a season in which we hadn't been relegated. Anything but that.

PS I know this is an anti-Hughes point but I'm not sure how true it is to say that the September 1 takeover "has provided Hughes with little chance to build the side he wants with players of his own". We now have seven first team players bought by Hughes with no outside input : Given, Bridge, Zabaleta, de Jong, Kompany, Bellamy and SWP. The only time they've all started together was the Middlesbrough win, but most of them play most of the time. This isn't a team made in Hughes' image quite yet, but the dominant influence is certainly his now.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

First two names in the hat

Don't tempt fate, blah blah blah.

For some reason, two of the UEFA Cup last sixteen second legs were played today, and, unfortunately for City, in both cases the stronger team progressed. 2-2 draws in both games sent both away teams through, first Werder Bremen knocking out AS Saint-Étienne, and then Marseille needing extra time to knock out Ajax. (Marseille's winning goal was scored by former City star Tyrone Mears.)

Marseille are probably the best team left in the tournament - they're one point off the top in Ligue 1 and were squeezed out of a very strong Champions League group containing Liverpool and Atlético Madrid. Ajax, despite their prestige, aren't that good: they're in third place in the Eredivisie, fourteen points behind AZ Alkmaar and three points behind Steve McClaren's FC Twente. They do have Luis Suarez, though, who is quality.

Werder Bremen may be tenth in the Bundesliga, but AS Saint-Étienne are currently in their relegation zone. I wouldn't have minded playing either of those teams, relative to Marseille, but would certainly have preferred ASSE. The only other teams I fear more are CSKA Moscow and Udinese.

But this could all be rendered meaningless if we crash out tomorrow. I'm hoping that we don't.

FA Youth Cup : City 1-0 up at half time, lose 1-2.

Alex Nimely scored on 41 minutes. You can follow live text commentary HERE.

UPDATE Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Gilles Sunu scored late on for Arsenal. 1-2 final score.

Another reserves report

From Gavin Cooper's excellent Reserves & Academy blog.

Horton

It's a shame to see Brian Horton's name back in the headlines under such unpleasant circumstances. He may have only led us to finishes of 16th and 17th (slightly more impressive given the 22 team Premier League), but he was also responsible for the great Uwe Rösler/Paul Walsh strike force. More importantly, unlike the next three City managers (Ball, Clark, Royle - I'm not including Coppell) he didn't get us relegated.

I do wish that he didn't associate with Phil Brown though.

Bozhinov scores for the reserves

He played 74 minutes for the reserves in their 5-1 defeat of Bolton reserves on Tuesday evening. Reports from MCFC, Bolton Wanderers and The Bolton News here.

Hughes on Bellamy, Jô, and a clear out

There must have been some sort of press briefing today because various Mark Hughes lines are popping up all over the place about some interesting topics. First up is the news on Craig Bellamy's fitness, from the Daily Star:
“Craig is in the squad for Aalborg, but it’s a bit too early for him to play,” said Hughes. He is an option for us on Sunday if he comes through training without any reaction. The worst scenario was six weeks, so we’re delighted to have him back. He’s a great presence on the pitch and in the dressing-room.”
Speaking of another striker, he said this about Jô, currently on loan at Everton (also from the Star):
“We’re in a no-lose situation with Jo,” said Hughes. “He needs Premier League football because he’s a young kid. He is doing well now and next season you would expect him to be even better. That was the thinking behind it and there is no deal on the table to sell him to Everton. He understood the reasons why we sent him on loan, and he wanted to play. I think the intensity of the Premier League took him aback when he arrived. He was struggling to cope with the physicality of it. Technically he’s got enough, but he has to understand the intensity of the football and withstand the physical challenges a bit better."
Which suggests that we could see him back at City next year. Hughes did talk about a clear out though - suggesting that we may see a bit of an exodus over the summer (this time from the Guardian):
"When I first got the job, I thought the squad was imbalanced. We had about 10 strikers here, it was dreadfully lop-sided," said Hughes, speaking at a Barclays football lunch. "I think it is better now, but there are some issues that we have to address. "Although we have bought players in, we haven't shed a great deal. We will have to do that because we have to have a ­manageable squad. Ideally, you would want 23 or 24 and then have academy players of a sufficient quality to back them up."
Certainly Schmeichel, Ball, Ben Haim, Mills, Hamann, Benjani and Vassell won't be here. Question marks over Garrido, Fernandes and Sturridge (though for different reasons) too. The big name potential departure though, Robson de Souza, is defended by Hughes:
"He is a key player and to say that he is not in our long-term plans is simply to be mischievous. He is a player of great quality and he wants to be successful. Away from home we have to find a way of getting the best out of the team and the best out of Robbie. In Europe we have got away with it, in the Premier League we have not."
All of which is very interesting stuff. Of course, this only matters if the board stick with Hughes over the summer. And we won't know about that for a while yet.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Balague : Hughes will stay

From his blog:
In fact, I would say that at this moment in time, it is odds on that Mark Hughes will still be in charge of Manchester City next season. Of course, in football terms, next season is still a very long way off; and yes, it is true that the owners have been looking at other ooptions, but after being told by Arsene Wenger that he is not interested, and with a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Jose Mourinho, the Manchester City owners are coming around to the idea that Mark Hughes is the right man to help them deliver their ambitious project.
I think the key to understanding Balague's various claims is to discriminate between those topics on which he is well informed (Liverpool, Espanyol, various Spanish players) and those where he is not. He was, for example, ahead of the game on our pursuit of Pablo Zabaleta. But some times he misses the target: City's big name central midfielder in January? Newcastle getting in a Spanish manager? Crouch to Spurs? Adebayor to Barcelona?

The question, then, is 'does Balague have ears in the right places with our board?' And I've honestly got no answer. Let me know if you do.

Injury news

From the official site:
VINCENT KOMPANY is set to return to action in tomorrow night's UEFA Cup tie at Aalborg after missing two matches with the painful toe injury that has dogged the key midfielder over the past couple of months...

Hughes said: "He's a lot more comfortable with it - it was the right decision to take him out of the frame and because the injury's settled down now and he's more positive going into games.
Which is good news. As is the fact that Bellamy should be fit for Sunderland on Sunday, Benjani and Sturridge are back in full training, and Valeri Bozhinov's comeback will continue with a reserve game tonight.

Taylor : Robinho could be sold

One of the most trustworthy journalists on City, Danny Taylor of the Guardian, reports that Hughes plans to drop Robinho soon and then sell him in the summer.
City have not won on their travels in the Premier League since their second away game of the season at Sunderland and, according to informed sources, ­Robinho's poor form is regarded as a ­significant ­factor. Hughes is so disappointed, it has emerged, he is now giving consideration to dropping Robinho when Martin Petrov is fit again after five months out with a knee injury. Petrov has been cleared to step up his training after seeing a specialist, with a view to being available to challenge for Robinho's place on the left side of attack in the next two or three weeks.
For all the 'We've got Robinho' stuff, we have missed Martin Petrov this season. He's more of an old fashioned winger than Robinho, and as such could well have provided another tactical option when needed. For all his talents, Robinho doesn't often sprint down to the byline before whipping in a cross with his left - a skill not many Premier League right-backs are used to facing. Just look at the success of Stewart Downing.

But this isn't just about giving us another option: it's a clear warning from Hughes to Robinho that no player is bigger than the club. And if the threat of sitting next to his mate Gláuber Berti on the bench doesn't improve Robinho's attitude, he could well be on his way out of the club:
City have reluctantly taken the decision to listen to offers for Robinho at the end of the season, although Hughes is still open-minded and hopes the player will show a greater desire. Failing that, one plan is to offer him as bait to Chelsea in a possible player-plus-money exchange for John Terry despite the England captain's insistence that he wants to stay at Stamford Bridge for the remainder of his career.
This fits with something Taylor wrote last month - that City were willing to sell Robinho because of his poor attitude and inconsistency. This, if true, would be a fantastic story, for the sheer audacity of it. On one level it would be a statement from ADUG of the complete primacy of Hughes on football matters - that, despite what Garry Cook used to say - the club does not need a superstar to succeed. And for those of us that want Hughes to be given time to build the club as he sees fit, such a vote of confidence would be welcome.

But from Hughes it would be a fascinating move. One of Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest talents is his ability to get rid of star names when he believes the team would function best without them: David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, even leaders like Paul Ince or Roy Keane. One of my main hopes when we appointed Hughes was that he had learned a lot from the greatest. To get rid of Robinho - the £32.5million man, our top scorer, and the most talented footballer at the club in my lifetime - would be a move of such daring and single-mindedness I could only really applaud it. How would it turn out? Who knows? Over the last two years I've given up trying to predict anything far into the future at City. But it does seem likely that only one of Hughes and Robinho will be at City in 2009/10.