Thursday, 30 April 2009

Yet another SWP fitness update

And this time it's bad news:

City boss Hughes confirmed: "Shaun is still feeling a bit of discomfort and is likely to miss out."

Micah Richards is still feeling some discomfort in the knee injury that forced him to limp off at Goodison. Hughes said: "He probably won't train, we'll keep him indoors today but we're hopeful he might be available."

And so the Elano/SWP selection crunch is postponed by another week. At which point we're playing United away, and so any decision on personnel can be put within the context of a new system for a difficult game.

Right back is a bit more of a concern. If Richards doesn't make it we could well see Shaleum Logan again.

Canna claims he turned down City

Well publicised quotes today:

And Cannavaro told Gazzetta dello Sport: 'I told my agent to find a solution. I didn’t want to have start from scratch again – not in a World Cup year.

'That’s why I rejected offers from Bayern Munich and Manchester City.'

Given that his going back to Juventus is essentially a done deal, he doesn't really have an interest in lying about this now. So it could well be true. I do think we'll be in the market for a top class, experienced centre back in the summer. And I hope we can do better than Kolo Touré.

Hughes: No Elano contract

This is interesting. Mark Hughes has said that Elano will not be offered a new deal:

Hughes said: "Elano has two more years left to run on his contract, so it isn't really a priority at the moment. There are a number of other players with less time on their contract, so they are the ones we will have to look at. Elano is not one of those players that we need to look at and discuss renegotiate terms with.

"But I have certainly been pleased with him of late and the positive impact that he has had on the team. He has been working really hard for the team and his performances have been good. He is having an impact and I am pleased about that. He is enjoying his football and playing in a good team at the moment."

Strictly speaking he's right. As Elano has another two years left on his contract, he doesn't need a new one to stay at the club. But we all know that in modern football that's not the only way in which contracts work. They are a symbol of the continued commitment of the club and the player to each other, a bit like a married couple renewing their marriage vows. Situations where a player's future is unclear, but he ends up staying with his club, tend to lead to a new contract. Not as a means of keeping him at the club, but as a recognition of the mutual decision that he will.

Given that Elano's continuing at the club has been in doubt for much of this season, a new contract would be the perfect way for Hughes to end and speculation about the player's future. But by not doing that, he leaves the door open to a possible exit in the summer.

Johnson's fitness

Seemingly resigned to not seeing much of him this year, Hughes seems insistent on getting a good pre-season from Michael Johnson. And that means spending the summer doing what Ireland did last year and getting fitter and stronger before the real work starts:

He said: "Stevie is a fantastic example for anyone - he has been a shining light. When you get yourself into a good physical condition like he has, it shows what you can achieve with a consistent run of games.

"Johnno can't afford to have the whole five or six weeks off completely. He is going to have to work really hard in the summer to make sure that he is fit, well and raring to go on that first day back.

"We have to hit the ground running when we come back. We're not going to ease people in, because with the base of the work we have done this year, we are looking to up the work we do in pre-season. Everybody has to come back in good shape."

If Johnson can make as much improvement over this summer as Ireland did over last summer, we won't need Miguel Veloso, or anyone else in central midfield.

City linked with Veloso

Some comments appeared online today, allegedly from Paulo Barbosa, agent of Sporting Lisbon's 22 year old holding midfielder Miguel Veloso:
"We have had some talks with Manchester City, yes," said Barbosa. "I am still in contact with the clubs who were interested in January.

"There is an agreement with Sporting that he will leave this summer, but we don't have an agreement with any other club [about a transfer] as yet.

"England is his first choice, and he already speaks good English. Everything is possible at the moment."
Having only seen them on goal.com and sport.co.uk - not desperately reputable sources, I steered clear. I looked for but could not find a source in the Portugese press. Their provenance was sketchy. But it turns out that they've found their way into Thursday's Times. Which means they're definitely genuine and have been fact-checked and re-translated from the original Portugese.

Let's just say I'm a bit sceptical about this one. While our squad does need some real improving, defensive midfield is a relatively strong area for us. We've just spent big money on Holland's first choice DMC, and we also have his fellow HSV alumnus Vincent Kompany. And then there's Pablo Zabaleta who has proved himself more than competent when required. Given that we have to squeeze Player of the Season Stephen Ireland, Michael Johnson and maybe even Elano into midfield we're not really short of an option or two.

But let's wait and see. If Hughes thinks we need him and he's good enough for us, I believe him.

Selection

I wrote earlier that we will have to wait for July to see how impressed Mark Hughes is with Elano's recent improvement. But we will get a sense of his thoughts much sooner than that; on Saturday in fact, when Shaun Wright-Phillips returns from injury. Mark Hughes said of the issue:
"Elano was fit to train again on Tuesday. Shaun did some field-based work on Monday and we need to see how he is, but we are hopeful that he will be an option. It's a case of seeing if there is any reaction to anything that he has done...

"Ela's done very well on that right-hand side - it's a role he knows well from playing many times there for Brazil, so there's an understanding of the role. But there is also a willingness to work hard and track back. He was at left-back at one point, he has been criticised at times but he works hard for the team."

My guess would be that Elano will be rewarded with a start, with SWP brought on some time in the second half. Although that would merely delay the crunch decision for the manager. But if SWP comes straight back into the side, it could well point to an exit for Elano in the summer.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Elano wants to stay

So he tells the City magazine (via M.E.N.):
"I would love to renew my contract at City and remain here for a long time," declared the player ahead of the visit of Blackburn this weekend, the latest staging post along a trail that the Blues hope will end in a seventh place in the table and a Europa League spot next term.

"I love England and I enjoy living in Manchester. I am very happy here. I'd like to say thank you to all the supporters for making me so welcome since my arrival.

"I want to repay them for all the warmth and love they have given me and the best way I can do - that is out on the pitch. I would love to commit myself to City for many years. They make me feel very happy and I hope I can do the same for them.

"This is the end of my second season with City and if it were up to me I would be sat around a table discussing a contract extension right now."
As pleasing as his recent upturn in form has been, I think the odds are against his wish being granted. I mean, there's no getting past the fact that he wouldn't even have played against HSV, WBA and Everton had Shaun Wright-Phillips not been injured. We know that Hughes tried to get rid of him in January and considered him a troublesome influence. With summer offering more time and money to change the squad as he sees fit, I always presumed he'd leave in the July/August window.

The question, then, is whether Elano's recent performances have convinced Hughes not to sell him. And the answer is essnetially unknowable for us at this time. But if the Brazilians maintain this level of performance over the final four games of the season, it will be harder for Hughes to dispose of them.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Bulgarians score in reserves win

Valeri Bozhinov scored twice and Martin Petrov got the other as City Reserves beat their Everton equivalents 3-1 on Tuesday evening. Reports here from the City and Everton websites:

But we only had to wait four more minutes for a deserved equaliser. Valeri Bojinov collected the ball around 30 yards out, and acting quickly he looped it over Nash to level the scores in fine style.

The 22-year-old was on target again in a less spectacular but equally effective style three minutes later, providing an assured finish to some slick interplay between the entire City front four.

Martin Petrov provided the coup-de-grace in magnificent style on 76 minutes. The flying winger sprinted down the left flank and collected a pass, chipped the ball up to himself fired a rocket past the helpless Nash. It was an almost unbelievable finish from a player whose season has been nearly ruined by injury, and showed he is fighting fit for the rest of the season.

A turning point?

There is a sense that two of our last three games - the 2-1 defeat of Hamburg and the 2-1 win at Everton (either side of a rather shaky 4-2 win over WBA) could represent a turning point in the Hughes era. Richard Dunne certainly seems to think so:
"Possibly it took the Hamburg game at home for us to realise that [we are a good side] because they are a really good side and we battered them on the night. Confidence has grown since then and when we compare ourselves with Everton, we are not too far short of a top six side.

"They have had the stability that we haven't had in terms of managers. David Moyes has had some stick at times and the odd bad season but they have stuck by him and progressed massively. For us to move forward we need that stability and time to build a squad with depth.

"The manager's signings in January all strengthened the side. He wants time and he deserves it. I am sure we will supplement the squad in the summer with more top players and become an even stronger squad. Hopefully we can do next season what Everton and Villa did this season and maybe even take it a bit further."

"Winning at Everton was the boost that everyone needed, we were determined not to just let the season peter out and have pointless games," he stressed. We want to claim the seventh place and get back into Europe and the win at Goodison put us closer to that. We were pleased to play well and get the three points but the best thing of all was that it was a real team performance. Everyone worked really hard. No-one has ever doubted our skill on the ball but once you put the work rate with it we are a really good side."

Boji and Petrov play reserves tonight

MCFC.co.uk:

Martin Petrov starts, as does Valeri Bojinov, the Bulgarian pair still looking for some valuable game-time in a bid to give Mark Hughes a nudge ahead of Saturday's game against Blackburn. Michael Johnson does not play after making a comeback against Middlesbrough last week, and Mark Hughes says that the midfielder is still feeling the effects of his long lay-off with an abdominal problem.

"Michael did OK last week, but felt a little tightness and is going to get these little niggles because he has not played for so long. We're still hoping to step up his involvement, but he won't be playing in the reserves game tonight.

"Boji needs more work and will be involved tonight, and Martin is looking to up his fitness so will play as well. We'll try to get another hour into him, it's important that we get their fitness levels right for the weekend and have everyone raring to go."

The baton passes

Richard Dunne, winner of the last four Player of the Season awards, seems resigned to losing the crown this year to another Irishman:
"Stevie has been outstanding all season and I don't think anyone can touch him for what he has done since August," said Dunne, the man who has won the Blues' player of the year honours a record four times.

"I think for his age he has been sensational and could possibly be the best midfielder in the country at the moment. I just wish he played for his country too.

"The key with Stevie is to just let him play and let him enjoy himself.

"We are not really surprised how he has come through the ranks because he has always had the talent.

"It is amazing to think that he wasn't in the side at the start of the season and might even have left the club at one stage but since he got into the team he has been man of the match on countless occasions. That shows his determination and how much he wants to be part of this club moving forward.

"He is priceless. We could probably afford to buy any player in the world at the moment but you cannot put a price on him. He is a great example to others coming through the system at City."
And so the baton passes from one generation to another. Who'd have thought that of the Richards, Johnson, Onuoha, Ireland and Hart (slightly cheating, I know) generation, that Ireland would be so comfortably the best at this point?

Sky and MEN : City deny Eto'o interest

Sky Sports 'understand' that City have 'denied making a bid.'

The M.E.N. have a longer piece, saying that the meeting between Cook and Laporta was quite routine, and not necessarily about a bid to sign Eto'o:
City officials are slightly irritated that Eto’o’s name has figured so prominently in speculation about the chat between Laporta and Blues chief executive Garry Cook.

They argue that while relations between clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea and major European rivals are well established, City are very much still in a getting-to-know-you process.
UPDATE There seems to have been some serious media briefing from the club, either in response to today's Times article or as a continuation of the same process. It's now on the BBC website, saying that Eto'o formed part of the discussion but was not the point of the meeting as such.

City ask after Eto'o

A report in Tuesday's Times (also in the Mail) says that there were talks in London yesterday over the sale of Samuel Eto'o to City.

On the eve of his team’s Champions League semi-final, first leg with Chelsea, Joan Laporta, the Barcelona president, met Garry Cook, the Manchester City executive chairman, in London to discuss a deal for the striker. The Spanish club have also offered Eto’o, who could command a fee of up to £15 million, to Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.

City remain keen on signing another superstar to play alongside Robinho after their unsuccessful attempt to buy Kaká for a world-record £103 million from AC Milan in January. Barcelona’s position has been weakened by Eto’o, 28, stalling on the offer of a new four-year contract, which means that he could leave on a free transfer when his present deal expires in 14 months.

Of all our alleged summer targets, this is the most exciting. Not simply because he is the best player with whom we are seriously linked, but because it may just be a credible story. Despite his magnificent season with Barcelona, his long term future in Catalonia is not secure.

Last summer Pep Guardiola, seeking to root out the complacency and discontent that soured the end of the Frank Rijkaard era, tried to sell Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto'o. The club found buyers for the first two - AC Milan took Ronaldinho for £16.7million (although Thaksin almost paid £25.5m for him), while Deco teamed up with Scolari at Chelsea, at a cost of £8million. But no one could be found to pay Eto'o's six figure weekly salary, and he stayed put.

Rather than continue to punish Eto'o, Guardiola has played him at the centre of his attacking trident, with great success. So far this year he's scored 27 in 31 games in La Liga, 30 in 41 in all competitions. It's an exceptional record. But his personal relationship with Guardiola is still said to be poor, and he has stalled on signing a new contract. His current deal runs out next summer. Barca are also chasing David Villa, and given el Guaje's alleged unwillingness to move abroad the Camp Nou remains his most likely destination. Should Villa go to Barcelona, Eto'o would be left looking for a new club. We could certainly match Barcelona's asking price and the player's wage demands. The only question is whether he would take such a step down, should he not be able to find another top bracket club to take him.

Much as I would love this to happen, I think that if he goes it won't be to us. He has already expressed a desire to play for Olympique de Marseille, who currently lie top of Ligue 1. Should they hold on to their lead, they will have the prestige, the Champions League football and the resources to offer him a more attractive destination.

Monday, 27 April 2009

VK's deeper role

One of the keys to success on Saturday, according to Hughes:

He admitted: "At times we have been a little bit naive away from home. We are an attack-minded team, and sometimes when we put all the attacking players on the pitch maybe the defensive side of our play suffers.

"That's been the case on occasion, but when they are in full flow and the shape is correct, we look a good team. I changed it a little bit, I sat Nigel de Jong and Vincent Kompany from the off rather than have one sitting and one trying to put pressure on the ball.

"I had the two of them sit in front of the back four and I think it settled us down somewhat. You know they are going to hit diagonal balls into the big guys so that shield in front of the back four helped us."

I'll try to find a Guardian Chalkboard to illustrate this later.

Ireland on the Brazilians

He loves playing with them. From the Mail's report of the Everton game:
Ireland said: 'There's a real sense of frustration at what we might have done if we'd been more consistent away from home. All we can do now is make sure we finish the season strongly and hopefully next season you will see the real City.'

Ireland added: 'Robinho is a brilliant talent. All I had to do was run in straight lines because you know he will put it through for me. It's been a great day for us and, for me, the whole season has been a really big step up. It's been unbelievable.

'He's worked really hard today and played unbelievably. But you could say the same for Elano as well. He was in and out of the team earlier in the season and not happy about it, but has played the last 15 or so matches and his all-round game has been superb throughout.

'They are two great players and it's just fantastic to play alongside them.'

More Everton reax

From the dailies.

Neil Johnston, The Times

It was perhaps inevitable that on a glorious day on Merseyside, Robinho would play an influential role in City’s first away win in the top flight for eight months. Having been accused of going missing too many times during an indifferent first season at City, the Brazil forward basked in the sunshine, scoring the first goal before teeing up Stephen Ireland for the second.

Andy Hunter, The Guardian

Robinho and Stephen Ireland were exquisite, the Brazilian responding to the sun and the solid platform provided by Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong to torment the Everton defence and the Irishman continuing to rise to the presence of his £32.5m team-mate.

Robinho drove the visitors ahead from an awkward angle having been sent clear by a superb first-time pass from Elano. He then showed the vision and execution to pick out Ireland's gallop behind the Everton defence in the second half, the midfielder slipping a nonchalant finish beyond Tim Howard for a deserved victory.

Chris Wheeler, The Daily Mail

If further proof were needed that fortunes can change very quickly in football, it was evident in the performance of City's resident enigma Robinho.

Anonymous away from home for much of the season and dropped to the bench for the first time a fortnight ago after failing to score in 2009, the Brazilian was on the scoresheet for the second time in a week and provided a timely reminder of why City paid a British record £34million for him last summer.

Robinho was simply superb and his link-up play with Stephen Ireland caused Everton constant problems.

James Wrigley, The Independent

Everton were on their way to defeat against a slick City before Jagielka's misfortune. Robinho showed flashes of brilliance and scored the opener after 35 minutes with a neat left-foot finish after being released by Elano. He also laid on the second for Stephen Ireland, floating a pass for the midfielder nine minutes after the restart and his finish dissected Jagielka and Tim Howard.

Derek Allsop, The Daily Telegraph

The Brazilian [Robinho] and his impish accomplice, Stephen Ireland, scored a goal apiece and tormented Everton in a manner that rendered unfathomable some of City’s inept form on the road. Ireland, of course, has been a model of consistency. The revelation on Saturday was Robinho.

If this suggests Robinho may have answered his detractors, Hughes is not holding his breath. “I’m not sure about that. I’m sure he’ll have to keep repeating it. But he looked like he was enjoying himself. He and Ireland were outstanding. They are top quality players.”

Sunday, 26 April 2009

TLDORC April Awards

A month that started terribly - with three consecutive defeats and terrible performances to match ended much better - as we beat HSV (on the night), West Brom and Everton.

Only one month left!

Arsenal (a) 0-2 (thoughts, ratings)
HSV (a) 1-3 (thoughts, ratings)
Fulham (h) 1-3 (BBC report)
HSV (h) 2-1 (thoughts, ratings)
West Brom (h) 4-2 (thoughts, ratings)
Everton (a) 2-1 (thoughts, ratings)

Player of the Month

I know most people would give this to Elano. The last three wins saw him finally reproduce his form of Autumn 2007; playing wide on the right he's graced us once more with his passing, his vision and his deadly set pieces. He's scored two penalties (both of which he won) and he set up Robinho for the opener in the Everton win. He certainly deserves praise for this recent up turn, but not this award. Not yet. Instead, I'm going to give it to our most consistent performer this month, the man who was narrowly edged out of the March Award by Nedum Onuoha. An honourable mention for Ela, certainly, but April's TLDORC Player of the Month is Shay Given. He's made big saves in every game. He kept the score respectable at the Emirates, when our ten outfield players did not deserve to leave with only 2-0 against them. He then put in a performance of genuine world class in the Nordbank Arena, allowing us to escape with only a two goal deficit and a glimmer of hope. After a disappointing defeat to Fulham, he did everything possible to keep us in the UEFA Cup, making some more crucial saves as City strove but ultimately stumbled out. One or two good saves in the West Brom game then led to the big match at Goodison where his Jedi-like reflexes kept out Maroune Fellaini at 1-0. The best £8.5million MCFC have ever spent.

Individual Performance of the Month

Elano v HSV (h)

Having denied Elano the more prestigious Player of the Month award, I feel like I have to let him have this one. Stationed on the right wing in the absence of Wright-Phillips, he danced and dazzled all night, the best he's played since 2007. The vision and the passing were inspired, in tandem with Ireland he started most of our best attacks. But best were the set pieces. A perfect penalty (his eighth for City), and two freekicks which hit the woodwork. A delight to watch.

Goal of the Month

Robinho v WBA.

Ireland gets the ball from de Jong in midfield, runs into space and then flights a beautiful pass over the defenders' heads, curling into the path of the on rushing Robinho who meets it perfectly to volley past Scott Carson. Honourable mentions for Ireland in the Nordbank and Ireland at Goodison - very similar goals set up by Robinho.

Ireland denied PFA award

In their most bizarre decision since making David Ginola Player of the Year in 1998/99, the PFA have failed to recognise Stephen Ireland as Young Player of the Year.

Instead, they chose Ashley Young. Talent though he is, he hasn't played well since December. But considering how ludicrously early they vote for the award, his winning it makes a bit more sense.

But it's still preposterous.

Can Bianchi save Torino?

The great escape is still on.

Rolando Bianchi backheeled Torino closer to safety today with the only goal in Il Toro's 1-0 win against A.C. Siena.

But a shock 2-0 win for Bologna against high-flying Genoa means that seventeenth placed Torino are only clear of the relegation zone by one point.

Bernardo Corradi's Reggina appear doomed, though, rooted to the bottom and six points from safety, despite an impressive 2-2 draw with Juventus today.

Everton reax

From the Sundays.

Tim Rich, The Observer

Maybe it is the sunshine on his back. Perhaps it is because he can now almost taste the end of the season. It could be, as the player has suggested, because the allegations of sexual assault against him have been dropped, but the ­Robinho who is ending the season finally ­resembles the player City thought they had bought. He scored the first, created the second for Stephen ­Ireland and forced a superb one-handed save from Tim Howard.

This slight, wonderfully talented but mentally fragile footballer from Brazil has ­performed when City most had need of him and had he not done so against ­Hamburg, ­West Brom and now Everton, Mark ­Hughes's ­position would be ­parlous this ­morning.

Paul Rowan, The Sunday Times

Robinho stayed on his feet all afternoon, was committed in the tackle and never stopped running — qualities we should expect from a professional footballer, but which have been lacking on many occasions when the £32.5m Brazilian has taken the field, particularly away from home.

Equally effective in the dismantling of Everton was Stephen Ireland, a product of City’s academy who scored his 13th goal of the season. It will be a serious injustice if he fails to win the PFA’s young player of the year award tonight.

Jim Foulerton, Independent on Sunday

This was not much of a homecoming for Everton after their Wembley heroics, and nor was it a great way for their manager, David Moyes, to celebrate his 46th birthday. Too good for Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-finals, not good enough for a slick City at Goodison. Inspired by flashes of brilliance from Robinho, who scored the first and set up the excellent Stephen Ireland for the second, City's first win on the road since August could have been by a wider margin.

Derek Allsop, Sunday Telegraph

Robinho had been justly derided for his unconvincing commitment outside Eastlands, yet he emerged as the inspirational leader of City's first away win in the Premier League since August.

His partnership with Stephen Ireland mesmerised Everton's heavy-legged defence and appropriately the pair shared City's goals.

City v Everton player ratings


Given Didn't have too much to do, but for one great reaction save from Marouane Fellaini to keep the score at 1-0. Strong candidate for April Player of the Month. 7

Richards Made the team despite falling out with Hughes on Friday, but played well. Kept Steven Pienaar quiet and got forward in support of Elano. Went off injured after fifty seven minutes. Do we have a right back for next week? 7

Dunne Had a good game - Everton didn't have too much going forward but he dealt well with Louis Saha. Made some interceptions and tackles at key moments. 7

Onuoha Another good performance from our player of the calendar year thus far. Confident, unruffled and in control. Moved to right back when Richards went off. 7

Bridge Shook off fitness worries to put in one of his best games yet for City. Defensively sound and made some good forward moves. 7

de Jong Did a crucial screening role in front of the back four, breaking up Everton's attacks and passing smartly. 8

Kompany Formed a formidable two man screen with de Jong, which was crucial to our success., before dropping back to centre half when Richards went off. Fought a very physical battle with his friend Fellaini, who was withdrawn, beaten, after an hour. 7

Elano Played a delicious through ball to Robinho for the opening goal. Otherwise rather quiet, but continued with his re-discovered work ethic. Will Wright-Phillips come straight back into the team? 7

Ireland Yet another all action performance. Tireless in midfield, central to our counter attacks and took his goal perfectly. When last did a City midfielder score thirteen in a season? Will surely be crowned PFA Young Player of the Year tonight. 8

Robinho Best away performance of the season. He ran and ran, used the ball intelligently, scored one and made another. Will haunt Tony Hibbert's dreams for some team. 8

Caicedo Worked tirelessly but doesn't quite have the necessary quality. Shot selfishly once when he could have put Robinho in. If only Valeri Bozhinov was fully fit. 6

Subs:

Fernandes Did ok in holding midfield for the last half hour. 6

Petrov Easing back to full fitness, had one shot on his right foot. 6

Evans n/a

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Everton 1 - 2 City

  • The curse is broken. No away league win since August 2008, no away league win in change colours since August 2007. The demons were slain today by a performance that was competent and organised at the back, and incisive on the counter. This is how Premier League away games are played, and today we executed it perfectly. Seventh place is still on.
  • We saw today what we can do when unburdened by European football. As fun as our UEFA Cup run was, it was sixteen more games than we needed. It negatively impacted our Premier League performance, and may have cost us Europa League football in 2009/10. But we were fresh on Saturday, and Everton were tired, from their 120 minute semi-final last weekend and a midweek draw at Stamford Bridge. For one of the first times this season, we were fresher and sharper than the opposition.
  • City were better organised in defence than we've been for a while. Despite having much of the possession, Everton created few chances. The back five, individually and as a collective, performed very well. And they were expertly shielded by Nigel de Jong and Vincent Kompany. Before Dan Gosling's goal, Everton's only good chance was Marouane Fellaini's volley at Shay Given early in the second half.
  • And the other part of our game plan, rapid and razor sharp counter attacks, were perfect. The first goal was Elano putting Robinho through, the second was Robinho to Stephen Ireland. The pace of those two, along with the tireless if sometimes aimless running of Felipe Caicedo meant that we looked more dangerous going forward than Everton ever did. With Petrov and Wright-Phillips to come into the team, we're about to have some very good attacking options.
  • But Fulham won, and so we're still three points off Europa League football. We need two home wins and then probably two or three away points from Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. We can still do this.

Everton preview

Having confirmed Premier League safety last weekend, we can only look up now. A place in next year's Europa League is just possible, depending on an unlikely coincidence of results in our favour. Such a sequence must start with at least a point today.

I really can't see it. The fact that Everton are much better than us, combined with our appalling away form, and the absence of key players (Zabaleta, Wright-Phillips, Bellamy) means that anything other than a defeat looks unlikely. And Everton score lots of goals from set pieces, and we suck at defending set pieces.

Providing Nigel de Jong passes a fitness test today, and Micah Richards is forgiven for yesterday's events, the team should look like this: UPDATE This is the team.


I suppose it's possible Valeri Bozhinov will start ahead of Felipe Caicedo up front, providing he's sufficiently fit. And Shaleum Logan is an option at right back if Richards has not been forgiven for yesterday's spat.

But I'm not too hopeful. I'm going to predict a very drab 2-0 win for Everton.

Herbert plays up City's Tévez interest

He's like Danny Sturridge but he tries harder. And Ian Herbert seems increasingly intrigued by the prospect of his crossing Manchester in the summer. He writes in an article for Saturday's Independent of the possibility of the move:

Tevez is the more serious problem, though. His craving for regular starts makes Manchester City a far more likely English destination than any other club and Mark Hughes wore a grin yesterday. "As situations with players at other clubs develop I'm sure we'll get associated with Tevez," the City manager said.

The Independent revealed City's interest in the player four months ago. The nature of Tevez's contract at United – he is on loan from investment companies headed by Kia Joorabchian – makes him vulnerable to other clubs coming in. "That is our weakness," admitted Ferguson. He believes that Tevez's inclination only to do interviews with South American media causes him to be misquoted but that was not the case this time.

That piece from four months ago wrote this about Hughes' interest in Carlos Tévez:

There had been recent uncertainty at the highest level at City as to whether a United player would be accepted at Eastlands, but the club's manager Mark Hughes is known to be an admirer of Tevez and would certainly be interested if any contact were to be made. When City sat down to calculate which marquee signing they would aim for in the January transfer window, Tevez is known to have been on the list, along with Kaka and Lionel Messi, before Kaka, the individual who best seemed to represent the image-rights model City were pursuing, was settled upon. The fact Tevez was considered in that bracket then would appear to make him an attractive target now.

I would love it, love it, if we signed him. And not just because he's currently at United either.

Hughes downbeat on Sturridge

The Telegraph's Mark Ogden has an article on Saturday based on things that Hughes said in Friday's press briefing, but his main topic - Jô - was less interesting than what he said about another mercurial striker with an uncertain future - Danny Sturridge.

He didn't sound too confident about a positive resolution to his contract saga:

Hughes said: "I've spoken to Daniel and he knows my feelings with regard to his future, but I still don't think there are any developments. We are trying to move it forward but nothing seems to be happening.

"He is in a position of strength and obviously his negotiators will negotiate hard. They have put a value on Daniel and so have we.

"We are still trying to make it happen, but it has gone on for a long time and there will come a time when we have to make a decision one way or another."

Naturally, the closer we get to summer with the contract unsigned the less likely it is that he'll be at City for 2009/10 and beyond. Which would be a terrible shame.

MH/MR fall out

News from Friday's training session, carried by both Daniel Taylor and Ian Ladyman in their respective Saturday 'papers.

Taylor writes that Richards' disobeying Hughes at the end of the training session resulted in a verbal confrontation; but that the issue was later solved:

Hughes, who has been keen to impose a disciplinarian regime since taking over from the considerably more lax Sven‑Goran Eriksson, later spoke to his player in the manager's office. It is not clear whether Richards went there of his accord or whether he was summoned, but Hughes made it clear that it was unacceptable behaviour and would not be tolerated. Richards is understood to have accepted his manager's criticisms and the mood was amicable at the end of their meeting.

Football clubs live and die by the extent of managerial authority. If it is anything less than total the club just can't function. And Richards' attitude hasn't exactly been immaculate this season. Insofar as I can have an opinion on something about which I am so ill-informed, I know whose side I'm on.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Hughes praises Elano

I don't know whether this is a sign that their personality clash has been solved, but it is good to hear:
"Elano was outstanding against Hamburg, absolutely outstanding. Not only in his general play, but with his set-pieces too," Hughes said.

"On another night, he could have had a hat-trick.

"In the end, we took him off in that game because I felt we needed the threat of players going past people rather than trying to thread balls through.

"Daniel Sturridge came on and had three or four chances towards the end. It certainly wasn't a reflection on Elano's performance - far from it."
Elano's recent upturn in form has been impressive, but I don't know whether it's sufficient to prevent Hughes from getting rid of him in the summer.

And, as good as he was against HSV and WBA, surely he would not have got on the pitch had SWP been fit?

UPDATE Hughes also used his Friday press conference to praise Elano's penalties. And rightly so: they're quality.
City's boss said: "Taking penalties is a confidence thing and when Elano steps up you expect him to score. That's credit to his ability. But you get somewhat nervous when he's just jogging lightly up to the ball.

"I took a few penalties myself and that certainly wasn't my approach, but he's obviously got the technique off to a tee. Being able to step up and take key penalties at key moments in high-profile games is a great asset.

"You can practise the technique - it's something you have to do - but you can never replicate the emotions and conditions that will prevail when you are taking a penalty in the match itself. You need focus and confidence."

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Saturday

Everton played very well last night, without Tony Hibbert, Phil Jagielka, Marouane Fellaini or Louis Saha.

With them coming back on Saturday (presumably), we're really going to struggle. And if we want to get seventh place, it's almost a must-win.

On the other hand, we are 'due' an away win...

de Souza pledges future to City

Two statements in two days portray his happiness at MCFC. First this on Hughes:

He said: "The manager gives me total confidence, and he and the whole team help me to produce my best football for the club. That goal gives me a lot more confidence to score more in the matches that we have left."

"My relationship with the manager is very good. Our manager is a very good manager, an excellent manager. Of course expectations are high over how the team will do. But my aim is to remain here for a long time to come."

And then this about life at City:

"The expectations are always high, whether it is here or in the national team in Brazil. People expect that you will play well and score a lot of goals, but that is not always possible. I always hope to play well and make City supporters happy. I play with a smile and happiness, and I want them to be proud of the club and smile."

And interestingly, raises the possibility (probability, for me) of Elano's leaving in the summer:
But he said: "Everybody who watches Elano play knows that he is very good, a player in the national team who has a lot of qualities. But it is not my part to decide our transfer policy. As a friend and team-mate, I hope he remains at the club for years to come."
I'm still not sure whether Hughes, with a free hand in the summer, will keep either of these two at the club.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

A bit far fetched maybe

Carlos Tévez could be on the way out of Manchester United in the summer:

"I have many offers, not only from Spain," he said on Fox Sports Radio Del Plata.

"I need to see which club I can go to and what can be done.

"We must not only consider the money, I also have to ensure my family feel comfortable, especially my daughter.

"So I have a lot to think about."

And we know, from Ian Herbert, that Mark Hughes is a big fan of Tévez, as he wrote in January:

There had been recent uncertainty at the highest level at City as to whether a United player would be accepted at Eastlands, but the club's manager Mark Hughes is known to be an admirer of Tevez and would certainly be interested if any contact were to be made. When City sat down to calculate which marquee signing they would aim for in the January transfer window, Tevez is known to have been on the list, along with Kaka and Lionel Messi, before Kaka, the individual who best seemed to represent the image-rights model City were pursuing, was settled upon. The fact Tevez was considered in that bracket then would appear to make him an attractive target now.

Please please please please please please please.

The real ADUG

Interesting article in today's Guardian by David Conn about the board and how they operate. Basically, they're much more patient and thoughtful than people give them credit for. Conn paints them in stark contrast to the more reckless and trigger-happy Shinawatra.

The rhetoric of Sulaiman Al Fahim, the takeover's original front man, who talked of "very deep pockets" to buy Cristiano Ronaldo and a sticker-book of other galácticos, alarmed Mansour by setting exactly the wrong, wad-waving tone and Al Fahim was quickly removed. Club insiders accept ruefully that January's Kaka bid, and its unseemly collapse, seemed to confirm that loadsamoney impression. Yet they insist that Mansour and his chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi government's Executive Affairs Authority and one of the emirate's highest-flying executives, are setting out a 10-year plan for City based on solid foundations, without hollowing out the soul of the club.

If they're as patient and long term as David Conn describes them as being, they may well stick with Mark Hughes for next season. Read it all here.

Sun: Dunne out in summer

One of the first pre-summer transfer rumours, in Wednesday's Sun:

RICHARD DUNNE will join Sunderland in the summer for around £4million.

The centre-half is on his way out after nine years at Manchester City as Eastlands manager Mark Hughes wants to shake up his squad for next’s season’s trophy hunt.

The question of our centre back pairing for 2009/10 is quite interesting. It could be anyone from Vincent Kompany, Dunne, Nedum Onuoha and either one or two summer buys. But we'll have to bring at least one in before we can start entertaining this sort of rumour.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Reserves lose, Jonno and Boji unscathed

Michael Johnson played sixty minutes, Valeri Bozhinov ninety - but they could not prevent City reserves losing 2-0.

Reports from the City and Middlesbrough sites.

City to tour SA in summer

According to Mark Ogden of the Telegraph:

Despite the greater financial rewards on offer in the Far East and the club's links to Abu Dhabi, the home of owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, City have accepted an invitation to take part in a three-game tour of South Africa in July that will see them face local clubs Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria...

The Eastlands club are understood to be receiving £2 million from the South African organisers to visit the country, a figure that City could have bettered had they accepted a number of offers to visit the Far East.

I wonder if this will be as well as or instead of Hughes' famed bootcamp in the German forest. I suppose that hinges on whether he's still manager or not.

Jonno and Boji to play reserves

Great news from the official site:

Michael Johnson makes his long-awaited comeback for the reserves team tonight away to Middlesbrough...

Johnno takes his place in a strong City line-up that features Joe Hart in goal, Valeri Bojinov up front with David Ball, and Kelvin Etuhu and Vladimir Weiss on the flanks.

Team: Hart, Logan, McGivern, Mee, Berti, Kay, Etuhu, Johnson, Ball, Bojinov, Weiss.

Check on MCFC.co.uk for news, as well as Gavin Cooper's invaluable Reserves & Academy blog

Bellamy out for season

Bad news from the official site:

Manager Hughes is virtually resigned to writing his 29-year-old hit man out of the script until next season. He said: "Craig has got to have complete rest for two weeks then he comes back for strength work. Hopefully he might get the last couple of games, but the probability is that he won't."

So with five crucial league games left to secure seventh place, we're left only with the unfit Bozhinov, the uninterested Sturridge and the ungood Caicedo and Evans.

Bring back Bianchi.

RSC still wants out

One of the more interminable transfer sagas of recent years looks set for a summer revival:

"I have already told [Blackburn], and they know that before the transfer window closes I would like to continue my career at a bigger, more ambitious team," revealed the 27-year-old."

There's not too much point in speculating on this before we know firmly whether or not Mark Hughes will be the manager for next season. Should he stay, we will surely make yet another move for the Paraguayan target man. I can't really see Frank Rijkaard or Roberto Mancini trying to bring him to City though.

But is he good enough? If we do stick with Hughes, we will need to be quite significantly better next season than we have been this year. And while Roque Santa Cruz is better than Benjani and Caicedo, is he sufficiently better to bring about the improvement we need? Or can we look higher up the market? Thierry Henry? Diego Milito? Luís Fabiano?

Monday, 20 April 2009

Balague prescient

Most City fans I talk to are struck by the sheer awesomeness of Pablo Zabaleta. In only forty games in blue he's already a fan's favourite, Mark Hughes' great masterstroke and one of the club's best pieces of business in recent years.

Who could have predicted this? One person who did is Spanish football writer Guillem Balague. As an Espanyol fan, he had real first hand knowledge of Zabaleta and wrote when he joined City what a success he'd be:

His intelligence and character combine to make him a natural leader, and the kind of player that other players like to have alongside them out on the pitch: in other words, he is always reliable, always there for his team mates and, even when things aren't going well, he never goes missing and will always make himself available for the pass.

He'll provide balance and stability, particularly important when you start adding players like Robinho to the side.

It's worth reading the whole piece. Just because some of what Balague writes is nonsense doesn't mean that he never gets it right. And he was ahead of the game with this one.

Zabba injured

It doesn't sound possible, but Pablo Zabaleta, City's man of steel, has finally picked up an injury. And it looks like it could be serious:
PABLO Zabaleta is a doubt for the rest of the season after injuring his hamstring against West Brom.

The Argentinian, who has been used in midfield for much of this campaign, played at right back against the Baggies in the 4-2 win but has picked up a muscle problem.
Had we still been in the UEFA Cup, this would have been a disaster. But with only weekly league games left, and so with Nigel de Jong always eligible, we can probably cope with it. Micah Richards will return at right back, with de Jong, Vincent Kompany, Stephen Ireland and the resurgent Elano to pick from in central midfield.

But thirty nine starts in defence and central midfield (particularly given the running he gets through), in his first season in England is still quite an achievement. He will certainly finish on the podium for my Player of the Season.

Elano's penalties

Yesterday's successful conversion was his ninth penalty for City, from nine attempts.

In chronological order: Bolton, Birmingham, Sunderland, Villa, Brighton, Villa, Aalborg, Hamburg, West Brom.

I can't remember a better penalty taker since I've been supporting City (I started in the Horton era).

Was even anyone from the glory days as good as Ela? I heard that Francis Lee had a good success rate, but I can't really comment.

WBA reax

James Ducker, The Times

With his team leading 3-2 and 15 minutes remaining, Hughes was heckled by large swaths of the City of Manchester Stadium for bringing off Elano, despite the Brazilian being visibly shattered and the manager wanting to bolster the midfield by introducing the more defensive-minded Gelson Fernandes.

It was a puzzling reaction in the extreme, with the City fans seemingly forgetful that Elano, like the rest of his team-mates, had expended enormous amounts of energy during the 2-1 victory at home to Hamburg in the Uefa Cup only three days earlier and that the midfield player had spent the ten minutes before being substituted yesterday motioning to the dugout to be taken off.

Richard Jolly, The Guardian

Yet it was apparent that Hughes's endorsement from the club chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, is not sufficient for a section of the support. The two ­Brazilians are rather more secure in their places in the fans' affections and they provided a reminder of their considerable attributes with restorative displays.

When Stephen Ireland bent a cross around the West Brom defence, Robinho volleyed in the opening goal with a nonchalance that belied his inability to score in 2009. Elano, who has replaced his compatriot as City's penalty taker, managed a second goal in three days by drawing a foul from Jonas Olsson and converting from the spot in the aftermath of Chris Brunt's equaliser for West Brom.

Mark Ogden, Daily Telegraph

Yet in typical City fashion, the game could have ended as a 5-5 draw or, even worse, a 6-5 defeat had more defensive errors been capitalized on by either side. So Hughes's decision to replace a clearly exhausted Elano with holding midfielder Gelson Fernandes with sixteen minutes left to play should have been viewed as a wary manager attempting to bolt the back door and safeguard victory.

Tim Rich, The Independent

Despite the beach ball tossed around the stands that gave this game an end-of-season feel, City's campaign is not quite over. It is possible they can clamber over three London clubs and secure the seventh place that should give them a place in the Europa League. However, Mark Hughes would need his players to be a lot tighter defensively and the manager added that City would probably have to win one of their remaining away games at either Old Trafford, White Hart Lane, or Goodison Park.

City v WBA player ratings


Given More crucial saves and punches, as usual. Will be upset that he conceded two at home against the second-least potent team in the league (28 goals in 32 games before today). But neither goal was his fault. 7

Zabaleta Returned to right back for the first time in months. Not as good as we're used to - looked as if he was still carrying his hamstring injury from Thursday night, and struggled for pace against James Morrison. Went off with five minutes left. 5

Onuoha Confident and competent again. Won almost every header and looked good with the ball at his feet. Made some Dunnesque saving blocks too. And don't forget his second goal of the season. 7

Dunne Not at his best today. Given a difficult time by Marc-Antoine Fortuné and was caught out a few times. Distribution was rather reckless too. 5

Bridge Another rather mixed game for Bridge. Never looked fully comfortable against a good but not exceptional WBA side, and was beaten more often than he would have liked. Did start the move which led to Elano's penalty though. 5

de Jong Did an important job breaking up the play and retaining the ball for us. But West Brom still controlled possession, despite his presence. 5

Kompany Like Zabaleta, playing through injury and it really showed. Was very sloppy in possession, beaten to most 50/50s, and gave away too many careless freekicks. His playing through the pain is a real credit to him, but he needs a long rest. 4

Ireland Our best player, again. Some delightful movements and touches in midfield, including a glorious pass to Robinho for the opening goal. Could have got in some good shooting positions were it not for the ball not quite breaking for him, and then set up Sturridge again selflessly in stoppage time. 8

Elano Another clever and creative performance from the right wing. Made the most of his great understanding with Robinho, forged years ago at Santos FC, with some great passes. And yet another perfect penalty - now nine in nine for us from the spot. 7

Caicedo His one contribution of note was impeding Scott Carson for Nedum Onuoha's goal. Just doesn't have the quality to lead the line - too often he lost the ball under his feet, or failed to make the run that Ireland/Elano/Robinho were demanding of him. 5

Robinho At long last, his first goal of 2009. It was a gorgeous finish, one that not all of the players at the club could have executed. Visibly boosted in confidence by the goal, he worked harder than we may have expected, even if he faded slightly in the second half. Good to have him back though. 7

Subs:

Sturridge Some good moments, although at times he over-complicated and lost the ball. Took his goal well, having missed a similar chances minutes before. 7

Fernandes Brought on to firm things up and generally suceeded. Disappoint to his his introduction booed, again. 6

Petrov Should have had an assisst when he set up Sturridge late on. Injected some much needed pace into the game. n/a

Sunday, 19 April 2009

City 4 - 2 WBA

  • This is what European football does to you. After the energy and spirit sapping events of Thursday night, City produced a tired and limp performance today. There was little dynamism in attack, no confidence in the defence and we repeatedly conceded possession. West Brom looked fresher, sharper and hungrier than us. What a good job that they can't defend.
  • Although we raced into a 2-0 lead there was a sense that we weren't quite good for it. The first goal was a wonderful move, but against the run of play, and the second was lucky not to be disallowed. And having gone 2-0 up we conceded too much ground to WBA, inviting them onto us. It felt like it might turn into City 2 -3 Fulham from last year - a relegation-doomed going 2-0 down at Eastlands but fighting back to win. And when West Brom deservedly pulled it back to 2-2 I feared that was what we were going to get.
  • Fortunately, as good as West Brom's midfield were, their defence was horrible. And so when Jonas Olsson scythed down Elano in the box we were back infront, having been level for only two minutes. The last thirty five minutes was very nervy - despite having had our fingers burnt, we continued to make the same mistakes of the first half: misplaced passes, aimless long balls, silly fouls given away. It was far from pleasant viewing, and a bettter side than West Brom would have got back into the game.
  • But we held on, and scored our fourth on the counter in stoppage time. It is a credit to the team, I suppose, that we could score four despite putting in a performance so dysfunctional. Winning while playing badly is, apparently, 'the mark of champions'. And given how poor we've tended to be in the league game immediately following a Thursday night UEFA Cup game it's nice to finally pick up some points regardless.
  • And this more or less confirms our Premier League status for next year. We've now got five games to make up a five point gap on West Ham if we want Europa League football for next year. It's a huge ask. More realistic would be to pick off one of Fulham and Spurs, both three points ahead (but with inferior goal difference) for an eighth or ninth finish. Next stop Goodison Park. Can we take a point?

Saturday, 18 April 2009

West Brom preview

Tomorrow's match with West Brom is huge.

As unlikely as it may seem, should we get beaten we'll be stuck in twelfth place, just four points ahead of Hull and Blackburn, in sixteenth and seventeenth places respectively. Win, and we'll be safe from relegation, and with an outside shot at seventh.

Too many times this season we've followed a good UEFA Cup performance with a bad league game: after beating Omonia we lost to Liverpool, after beating Twente we lost to Spurs, after beating Schalke we lost the derby, after beating København we lost to West Ham, and after beating Aalborg we lost to Chelsea.

We can't afford the same on Sunday. West Brom may be terrible, but they know that a win at CoMS will put them seven points from safety with five games left - a surmountable task. We have to put them out of the game as quickly as possible, before they can even sniff safety.

The team selection is quite difficult to call. I'm sure the back five will stay as they always are, and the UEFA Cup ineligibles, Nigel de Jong and Valeri Bozhinov will both come in. The other four places - I'm not sure. We need two more midfielders and two wide players from these: Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Elano, Stephen Ireland, Robinho, Martin Petrov and (if fit) Shaun Wright-Phillips. My guess would be that the over-worked Ireland and Zabaleta would be rested (Zabba picked up a knock against HSV); Kompany will partner de Jong, Petrov and Elano will play wide and Robinho will play behind Boji.


But it could just as easily be something very different.

UPDATE Thinking about it, I imagine Ireland will play through an injury. He is our best player. Robi on the left, Ireland behind Boji, Petrov on the bench?

I predict 2-0, only because I'm terrified of the possibility of a relegation battle.

Saturday evening league table

9 Spurs, 32, 41, +2
10 Wigan 32, 41, -5
11 Stoke City 33, 39, -15
12 Manchester City 32, 38, +5
13 Bolton 33, 37, -11
14 Portsmouth 32, 37, -13

Win tomorrow and we'll need other results to go our way to go back into the top half.

But fail to win, and we're in a real mess.

Photos from City 2-1 HSV


Here.

Friday, 17 April 2009

What now?

One thing that can't be repudiated strongly enough is the claim that since we're out of the UEFA Cup, 'our season is basically over'. It's simply not true.

With six league games remaining we're just two points ahead of Stoke and four points clear of Portsmouth, Hull and Blackburn. Newcastle, in the relegation zone, are only eight points away.

Our remaining league games are: WBA (h), Everton (a), Blackburn (h), Manchester United (a), Spurs (a), Bolton (h). There are three likely wins there and three tough away trips. Let's say we follow the most probable path and take nine points - that would leave us on 47 points (eight points fewer than last season's final total). Based on recent season that would leave us in roughly twelfth position - safe, but very disappointing.

So if we want a respectable finish to the season - not necessarily seventh but certainly eighth or ninth - we need more than just another nine points. Even twelve more (three home wins + three points on the road) would leave us with 50, which tends to equate to tenth place. Realistically we need five or six points from our three away games - plus three home wins - if we want a final league position that isn't embarrassing.

Our season is far from over. But if we play like we think it is, Hughes' reign may well be before too long.

VK: 'Although we lost, we lost with pride'

Pablo Zabaleta:
"We were excellent really," he told uefa.com. "We played really well. We created a lot of goalscoring situations. We were just missing that one extra goal, but overall we are happy because we produced a great effort."

"On this occasion the tie just slipped through our fingers, but now we are going to work very hard to try to make sure that this kind of occasion becomes a regular thing here."
Vincent Kompany:
"It's not just about playing well, we were like a team and were strong. Don't forget, we were 1-0 down, many teams would have thought it was finished - maybe Hamburg did. But we kept coming back at them, there was a real hunger about us, we wanted to all beat our opponent and that's what it should be like for every game, and I am definitely going to be one of the players that tries to please our fans like this...

"The most important thing is that although we lost, we lost with pride. I don't like to lose, but if we were to go out I wanted it to be with pride and with some fight. That's what we did."

Stephen Ireland:

"We have to show that spirit every week. The spirit was really good and now we've got to carry that on," said Ireland.

"And we've got to pick ourselves up in the league now. We have to try to get seventh spot if we can. It's important to knuckle down.

"The fans gave us a massive lift. If we had that every week it would be magnificent."

HSV reax

Ian Ladyman, Daily Mail

City would have deserved an extra 30 minutes, as unexpected as it would have been after a pretty one-sided first leg.

Having so often come up short when character was needed this season, City suddenly found what Hughes has been looking for last night. What a difference
a bit of spirit makes.

Afterwards Hughes didn’t seem to know whether to be disappointed or encouraged. It was that kind of evening.

Ian Herbert, The Independent

City exited the Uefa Cup with a win and with some great spirit on a night of high emotion which will help preserve the job of Mark Hughes and which provided a tantalising glimpse of what the promised land might one day bring. The City manager spent three hours yesterday afternoon with Mubarak, who did not arrive at the stadium until 3.30pm, and together they mapped out plans for the future. "I'm still here [in a job] and I'm fine," Hughes said. It is felt that the atmosphere in a stadium near its 48,000 capacity has helped Hughes, whose club have done him a favour by ensuring, immediately after victory in the last round again Aalborg, that Mubarak was here to experience the quarter-final atmosphere.

Daniel Taylor, The Guardian

Hughes will inevitably go into the next few weeks, rightly or wrongly, with his position under close scrutiny. This, however, was not an evening for recriminations and at the final whistle there was rich applause rather than the jeers that had followed his players down the tunnel when they lost to Fulham on Sunday. It had been a pulsating night of nerve-shredding football and, in a strange kind of way, it might even have strengthened Hughes's job prospects. The club's chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, had flown in from Abu Dhabi and, even though it is Hamburg who will face Werder Bremen in an all-German Uefa Cup semi-final, Hughes was entitled to be buoyed by the manner of his team's performance.

James Ducker, The Times

Some players have been accused of no longer playing for Hughes, but such suggestions seemed almost laughable against Hamburg. Elano, widely viewed as a troublemaker whom the manager could do without, produced arguably his finest performance since joining the club, but to a man — Richard Dunne excluded — City were magnificent and but for a glut of missed chances would have progressed.

Mark Ogden, Daily Telegraph

Superbia In Proelio - Pride in Battle - has been lost in translation far too often by Hughes's cosmopolitan collection of superstars and Academy graduates in recent months, but even those with the guiltiest conscience amongst the City squad came to the fore in a stirring 2-1 victory.

City may have been eliminated, an exit hastened by Richard Dunne's 76th minute dismissal, but pride was restored in front of Sheikh Mansour's key men.

City v HSV player ratings


Given Another solid and commanding display, with one or two crucial saves. The one low down from Ivica Olić late on could have sent it to extra time, had only we taken some of our chances. What a buy. 8

Richards As much effort and running as we're used to, but crucially lacking in quality at both ends of the pitch. Too often beaten by men running at him, including Petrić seconds before he was fouled by Dunne who was then sent off. Missed very easy chances after ten minutes and then with about five minutes remaining. I'm not sure the watching Fabio Capello will have been too impressed. 5

Dunne Too often exposed by the pace and movement of the HSV forwards. Could have conceded an early penalty, turned by Olić to set up José Paolo Guerrero who put HSV 1-0 ahead. When he was sent off, for the third time this season, scoring our third goal became much harder. 4

Onuoha Solid, as ever. Won almost every high ball and generally pretty competent with the ball on the ground. Will his good run of form get him in the team ahead of Dunne next season, alongside whichever international centre back we spend £18million on? Onuoha-Albiol, anyone? Onuoha-Metzelder? 7

Bridge One of a number who played through injury tonight, and impressed with his running and willingness to get forward. The goal did come from his side, though. 6

Kompany Played through the pain, with real commitment and excellence. The wall against which wave after wave of Hamburg attacks broke. Silenced Trochowski. Used the ball intelligently. How we missed him in the Nordbank Arena. 8

Zabaleta Like Ireland alongside him, he never ever ever stops running. Tigerish in the tackle, with a few runs into the final third to worry the HSV defence. Injured in the second half, but played for another twenty minutes or so before giving way to Gelson. 8

Ireland A quiet first half by his standards, but improved as the game continued. Fed Caicedo for his goal, and must have wished he'd been on the end of some of our other chances. Unlike the rest of the team, he will be picking up some silverware this year though. 7

Elano His best performance for City since those glorious days of autumn 2007. Playing wide right (where he did most recently for Brazil), his vision and passing recalled Ali Benarbia, he ran and tackled more than usual, helping out Richards at right back and the central midfielders too. But his forté, as ever, were the set pieces. He made it eight penalties out of eight for City early on, before twice hitting the woodwork with almost perfect free-kicks. One blasted over the wall (think Newcastle, September 2007), one curled into the corner (think Middlesborough, October 2007). Not to mention the whipped corner which Rost palmed to Caicedo, just three yards out. Has he played his way into Hughes' plans for 2009/10? 9

Robinho
Like Elano, produced his best performance for some time. Ran up and down the left wing with real effort and vigour. Passed the ball smartly. Had one good chance - put in by Elano - but could only hit it straight at Frank Rost. 8

Caicedo The best and worst of Caicedo last night. First, the good: his goal was the best, and most important, he's ever scored for City. Not in a great position when he took the ball from Ireland, he turned Gravgaard and Boateng, transferred the ball onto his left foot and found the bottom corner. But the bad too: he missed a sitter to put us 3-1 up, and was caught offside apparently eleven times, including once for a goal. And he can't really hold the ball up. 7

Subs

Fernandes
Came on for an injured Zabaleta, as the '1' in a 4-1-3-1. Tried hard but wasted one chance from twenty yards out. 6

Sturridge Only got a few minutes but looked lively and dangerous. n/a

Thursday, 16 April 2009

City 2 -1 HSV

  • As impressive a way to get knocked out of Europe imaginable. The sixteenth match of our European campaign saw arguably our best performance yet: City played with pace, movement and spirit on a level we've only hit a handful of teams under Mark Hughes. It's bitterly disappointing to go out of the UEFA Cup at the quarter-finals, and the tie was there for the taking, but I'm more proud of the team than I've been for a while.

  • Not much would have to gone differently for us now to be preparing for the visit of Werder Bremen. Had either of Elano's free-kicks diverted their paths by centimetres, had Felipe Caicedo taken his time over that close range volley, or Robinho got the ball out from under his feet when Elano put him through. We created enough chances not only to take the tie to extra time (3-1), but to win it within the 180 minutes (4-1, or 5-4 on aggregate). Of course, this is very disappointing. But it's not embarrassing.
  • It is the credit of the team that they performed so well having gone 0-1 down. Conceding that early goal put us 1-4 down, and heads could have easily dropped. But with the crowd refusing to turn on the players, we fought back to equalise. The rest of the first half was even. But in the second half we were fantastic. The system worked perfectly - Kompany winning the ball in midfield, Ireland and Zabaleta providing effort and invention ahead of him, and Robinho and Elano supporting Caicedo from out wide. The best team performance for some time.
  • If there was one other worry, other than the finishing, it was the suspicion that Richard Dunne and Micah Richards are not quite good enough against the best opposition. Dunne was given the run around by Ivica Olić, Richards by Jonathan Pitroipa and David Jarolím. Dunne could have given away a penalty early on, and was at fault for the goal. When he got sent off, it was because he was covering for an out of position Richards. Once we've bought a centre forward in the summer, we may need at least one more world class centre half.
  • And so, after nine months, our UEFA Cup campaign is over. Our best European campaign for thirty years - we exited the 1979 UEFA Cup at the quarter-final stage to German opposition. As much fun as it's been, we're empty-handed in terms of silverware, with an exhausted squad and only four points ahead of Portsmouth, Hull and Blackburn. Anyone who says our season is over is being dangerously complacent.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

HSV preview

Fifteen games and nine months after its starting, our UEFA Cup run confronts a defining moment tomorrow night. After a league campaign which has failed to get off the ground, and two dismal first hurdle stumbles in the domestic cups, our hopes for this season have long been yoked firmly to our UEFA Cup progress.

And against Hamburger SV on Thursday night they face their hardest test yet. City must beat the third best team in Germany by at least two clear goals. Should they succeed, it's the club's first semi final since 1981, and two games away from a dream night in Istanbul. Fail, and the £100million season is over in April, with only the indignity of battling for a top half finish left to compete for. Fail, and Mark Hughes can claim little return from the investment of this season. Sheikh Mansour, impressively patient and generous thus far, will be forced to show his hand: when it's time for tough decisions, is he a Randy Lerner or Roman Abramovich?

So it's a defining moment. It is no exaggeration to claim that the future direction of the club will be significantly influenced by the result of the match. Not since Stuart Pearce handed a second start to Emile Mpenza on Teeside in March 2007 has one game been such a clear fork in the road.

It's going to be tough. HSV were much better than us in the first leg. Without Shay Given we would no longer be in this tie; to come away with a 3-1 scoreline was no poor result for us. And it leaves us with a surmountable task - win 2-0 or more to go through, win 3-1 to go to extra time. Unlike some second leg tasks, a 2-0 home win is agonising within the realms of possibility. We beat Aston Villa 2-0 at City last month, and beat Arsenal 3-0 in November. If Ireland, Robinho and Wright-Phillips all fire we can beat anyone at our place.

But, in that regard, form and fitness are against us. As we are all used to hearing, Robinho's form as plummeted since his glorious Autumn arrival. Wright-Phillips is struggling with injury, and Ireland is creaking from the burden of carrying much of the team for much of the season. To get the requisite performances from these players is not unlikely, though not impossible. Injury doubts over Wright-Phillips and Vincent Kompany could force Hughes to play one of his less favoured midfielders, Gelson Fernandes or Elano alongside Ireland and Pablo Zabaleta. Up front Robinho will surely start, with some combination of Danny Sturridge, Wright-Phillips, Martin Petrov alongside him.

So where does this leave us? As underdogs, but not out of it. With a huge task, but not an insuperable one. By Thursday night much more of the first Act of the Mark Hughes era will be written. And we may be closer to knowing whether the show will be allowed to continue into a second act.

SWP and NdJ hope for success

SWP:
"All I'll say is that it's not over until the fat lady sings. It's not finished 'til the whole tie is done.

"We're recognised as being very good at home, and if we play the way we usually do, we will make enough chances to win 2-0. It's a matter of taking those chances on the night. We have to put them on the back foot straight away.

"Anything is possible. If we go out there and play the way we know we can on Thursday, it will be difficult for Hamburg. Everyone is confident, we've spoken about it already and we have got the belief that we need."

NdJ:

"HSV are the favourites to go through, they showed that in the first leg," De Jong told Bild. "They really made a strong impression there, but I am not surprised by this.

"The team has been strong all the way through this season and is now playing with a lot of confidence - and confidence is important to success.

"Still, I feel we could win the match 2-0. We are playing at home and, despite the fact that losing 3-1 at Hamburg was a tough blow, anything is possible now we are playing at home."