Friday, 30 April 2010

Villa preview

Well this is it. After months now of harrying and jockying, leading and chasing, we're into the final stage of the campaign for fourth place. Roberto Mancini put it best: this is our semi-final. Win this, and we can face a final with Spurs on Wednesday. Draw and we're needing goal difference. Lose and we need an unlikely favour from Bolton or Burnley. So this is exactly the right way of looking at it. Good job we have so much semi-final experience to call on, and a great record of performing in those we get to. Seriously, though, it's not much of an exaggeration to say that this is our biggest league game since that 4-1 at Ewood Park ten years ago.

To say nothing of another sub-plot which would otherwise be at the forefront of our minds: the return of Richard Dunne at Eastlands. Dunne has done excellently this season at Aston Villa, much better than I, or many City fans expected him to. For all the easy criticism made of Mark Hughes for selling him, I don't think it was a bad call based on last season's performances. He had a very poor season, and Hughes was entitled to seek an upgrade. Of course, we can all be upset with the nature of Dunne's departure, and rightly so. But as a footballing decision I don't think it was particularly wrong. Anyway, Dunne was a heroic servant of Manchester City, the best of my lifetime, with the possible exception of a Niall Quinn or Ian Brightwell. City fans don't always give former players the reception they deserve, but I'm sure Dunne will be appropriately saluted tomorrow.

Back to the game. We go into it with a few key absences. The most noteworthy is Shay Given who, as we all know, is to be replaced by Márton Fülöp. Enough has been said about the morality of it (I think we've got very lucky), but it is worth remembering that we've lost someone who has been our third best player this season. And while Fülöp might be better than the unfortunate Gunnar Nielsen, he's no Shay Given. So this is a loss. As is Gareth Barry, who is apparently struggling with a strain. Given and Barry are two of the pillars of the side, with 794 Premier League appearances between them. Take them out of the side and we look fairly ropey.

With this being a home fixture I imagine we'll stick with 4-4-2, which means Nigel de Jong plus one in midfield. I imagine Patrick Vieira will play, which means James Milner will be free to play without shackles in front of us. I would put Pablo Zabaleta in there, but he is more used to being one of three central midfielders rather than two. Out wide I imagine Craig Bellamy and Adam Johnson will continue. There's a growing case for Shuan Wright-Phillips but Mancini just doesn't like him.

You know what you're going to get from Villa. They're strong, quick, well-organised and not desperately subtle. I fear that without the twin pillars of Given and Barry we won't have the experience to live with them at times. Much rests on Kolo Touré, Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong. But they are pretty good at heading away crosses. At the other end I hope Carlos Tévez is focussed enough to turn Dunne like he did here and get us a goal or two. I struggle to call this one so I'm going to go with another score draw.

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