Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Robinho leaves, permanently

With none of the shock or the awe of two deadline days ago, Robinho has left Manchester City for good. A summer sale was the only plausible outcome as soon as we loaned him back to Santos in January. That was done to ensure he had as good a World Cup as possible, thus increasing our chances of selling him. And I suppose it worked; he played pretty well in the World Cup, and has got a move to a high-prestige club, as he wished.

I think he'll do well enough at Milan. I imagine he'll prefer it to Prestbury, and there's no doubt that the style of football is closer to his comfort zone than the Premier League. With Ronaldino, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexandre Pato he will find team-mates more simpatico than Carlos Tévez or Craig Bellamy. It's also perfect from an MCFC perspective: a decent fee (estimated at £18m), a foreign club, and - to use a dreadful Californianism - 'closure'.

Because, unlike in January, we now know that Robinho's time at Manchester City is done. The figurehead and totem of the ADUG takeover has not survived the changes his arrival heralded. Consecutive managers have decided that he does not fit in a squad of less talented but more focussed players. Mark Hughes never had the political capital to follow through on this instinct, but Roberto Mancini did and so Robinho was gone within a month of the Italian's arrival.

So how will his time at City be remembered? There is hardly anything from 2009/10 worth commenting on. Injuries, transatlantic flights and Craig Bellamy prevented him from having any impact more influential than a meaningless goal at Glanford Park. But 2008/09 is different. It would be churlish and myopic to deny his excellence and his impact on arriving in England. For that autumn, he enchanted us just as much as his old pal Elano had done one year before. The chip against Arsenal, the skills against Portsmouth, the clip against Twente, the dance against Hull. Not to mention in the spring his drive at Goodison Park, his pass to Ireland in the Nordbank, his volley against West Brom. He was possibly - pace Kinkladze - the most gifted player I've ever seen at City. He didn't make the most of his talent, but he was still a privilege to witness in blue.

So why the separation? I think he just wasn't what we needed at our stage in our development. Mark Hughes was trying to transform a mid-table side into a UEFA Cup-level team; Robinho was just the last thing we needed. He was always incongruous, in the league, the club, and the Mark Hughes project. And when Roberto Mancini arrived, under desperate pressure for results, he had no interest in someone who had not played well for eight months. And Robinho had no interest in allowing a selection battle jeopardise his World Cup - departure was the only option. I know it's vulgar to quote oneself but it's easier than finding different words for the same thoughts. This is what I wrote when he left for Santos seven months ago:
Robinho as a footballer came to mirror Robinho as a signing. All symbol, all gesture, with no solid foundation or basis. Just as he was bought to add glamour and spice to a team that needed strengthening in key areas, his performances themselves prioritised style over substance. A pedalada here, a rabona there, but when there's no effort, no thought, he is revealed to be the bauble he is. His play, just like his purchase, was a case of putting the icing before the cake.
He had some great moments, and represented the promise of the Abu Dhabi era at City. After years of Trevor Sinclair and Antoine Sibierski he was a thrilling deliverance from grey mediocrity. But ultimately he was more promise than product; a memorable companion on our journey but certainly not someone to lead us into the promised land.

Robinho MCFC 2008-10. 50 starts, 16 goals.

Given to stay

The big deadline day news - other than Robinho's imminent loan move to AC Milan - is that Shay Given has decided to stay at City rather than join Fulham on loan. Daniel Taylor reports:
Given has based his decision on the fact he joined City in the hope that he could win the first trophy of his career and that, by leaving for a smaller club, he could effectively be passing over that chance. He had also worried that he might jeopardise his place in the Republic of Ireland team but the manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, has assured him that is not the case.

City are involved in four competitions and Given was assured the club are taking them all seriously and that, at the very least, there will be opportunities for him to play in the Carling Cup and Europa League Mancini, who described him as being among Europe's five best goalkeepers last season, has made it clear he does not want to lose him.
I suppose I'm pleased that he's staying. If Joe Hart gets injured or suspended we stand a much better chance of success with Given stepping up than with Stuart Taylor. But I'm not too enthusiastic with the sort of job-share scheme mentioned in the report. There are situations where a division of labour makes sense, particularly if we were trying to phase out a veteran for a young 'keeper: the Edwin van der Sar / Tomasz Kuszczak situation is perfect. But this is very different. We are not trying to phase out an older keeper for a new one, quite the opposite.

Moreover, once we have chosen Joe Hart as our number one, to play someone else in the League Cup or the Europa League is to necessarily diminish our chances of success. Given how important winning just one knock-out trophy this year would be to the club it makes little sense to pick a back up for these games.

Monday, 30 August 2010

TLDORC August awards

Two minutes into stoppage time it was looking like a perfect month: no goals conceded, a win and two away draws in the league and simple progress in Europe. But then Micah Richards dragged down Darren Bent in the box; the penalty was converted and things suddenly look less clear. Four points from three league games is a good platform, but it's towards the bottom end of my August expectations. There are obvious positives: the one goal conceded in 450 minutes, the marker performance against Liverpool. But there are slight concerns too: how attached is Roberto Mancini to the Nigel de Jong - Gareth Barry - Yaya Touré midfield triangle, and what implications does it have for David Silva? It's been a good start, but everything is still unclear.

Tottenham Hotspur (a) 0-0 (thoughts, ratings, reax)
FC Timişoara (a) 1-0 (thoughts, ratings, reax)
Liverpool (h) 3-0 (thoughts, ratings, reax)
FC Timişoara (h) 2-0 (thoughts, ratings, reax)
Sunderland (a) 0-1 (thoughts, ratings, reax)

Player of the Month

Only two candidates, and both defensive players. People underestimate just how much our defence has improved under Roberto Mancini. This was a very secure month, thanks in part to consistency of defensive selection. For all but Timişoara at home we had the same spine: Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Kolo Touré, Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Touré. In fact, for Timişoara at home Hart, Kompany and de Jong stayed to retain some certainty in the side. And two of those three stand out - Hart and Kompany. And as good as Vincent was: composed, dominant, authoritative - I'm going for the 'keeper.

Choosing Joe Hart over Shay Given was one of Mancini's biggest decisions at City. I had thought his cautious instincts would push him towards Given. If I had to account for Mancini's choice, I would say that his desire to assemble a team of players in their early 20s, with no loyalty to the previous regime, is an underexplored aspect here. Political or not, it was certainly vindicated. Against Spurs Hart produced a display of shot-stopping that might even have been beyond Given. And then against Liverpool there was a double save of similar brilliance. And now he looks like he could be secure as our number one goalkeeper for the next ten years.

Sunderland reax

Jason Mellor, The Independent

It's rather too early to talk of pivotal moments barely a fortnight into a nine-month campaign, but Manchester City could live to rue the dropped points and Tevez's astonishing first-half miss that preceded it. Tevez will earn his side far more points that he costs them this season, but it's fair to say that, for the next few weeks at least, he'll owe his team-mates in the wake of a 16th-minute aberration which defined this contest even more than Darren Bent's winning penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage-time.

Louise Taylor, The Guardian

After failing to convert their early ascendancy into goals Mancini's side were forced to withstand a second‑half onslaught from a seemingly reborn Sunderland who looked as if they had belatedly decided this was their cup final.

Rob Stewart, Daily Telegraph

City may have spent £325 million since their Middle Eastern takeover two years ago this week, but it would be almost impossible to put a price on the possible cost of Tévez’s misjudgment should his club end up missing out on the title by one or two points come next May.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Sunderland player ratings

Hart Will be disappointed to concede his first goal of the season. It's hard to blame goalkeepers for penalties scored against him but he guessed where Darren Bent was shooting and will be frustrated that the ball went under his body. Before that point he made a few decent saves and one notable punch. 6

Richards
All the good work of his season start felt undone by his needless rugby tackle on Bent, conceding the penalty that lost the game. It was a brainless decision and perhaps the most perfect example yet of how he prevents himself from being as good as he could be. Up until that point he was passable, although he failed to make the most of some good attacking positions. 4

Kolo Touré Perhaps not quite as good as in recent games. Had a very easy first half but we had to bear the storm in the second half, and Kolo won none of four attempted tackles in our half. That said, we defended well enough to hold Sunderland off until Richards' final intervention. 6

Kompany Probably played well enough to deserve a point. When we were bombarded he was always in place; making seven successful interceptions. Went long with his passes a bit more than I like him to. 6

Lescott Defensively solid but his delivery into the box was poor. I don't think he's as good a left back as Pablo Zabaleta, but I'd rather see Zabaleta replace Richards based on this match. 6

de Jong His passing was generally good (27/28) but I think he possibly could have done more in the midfield battle in the second half: Lee Cattermole was just asking to be taught a lesson in respect. 6

A. Johnson Nothing like the impact he had in this fixture last season. Keiran Richardson had a near perfect game at left back, and Johnson didn't get past him once. Replaced with nine minutes left but in retrospect this could have been done thirty minutes sooner. 5

Yaya Touré He looks to be getting closer to the dynamic box to box midfielder (note: not a defensive midfielder) that we had needed. It was his bounding run down the middle that set up Tévez's famous miss. Had a chance or two of his own, including one at the back post from a corner where he really ought to have done better. Passing not quite as good as previous games (33/42). 6

Barry A good and lively first half, building on his good work last Monday. He did not get forward as much as he did then but kept the ball moving well, misplacing just one of 46 attempted passes. Struggled a bit with the pace of the game in the second half. Moved to left back for the last 15 minutes. 5

Milner Energetic and direct. His crosses into the box might not have come off but his purposes were good. I think he might move central against Blackburn next up so as to allow David Silva in the side. 6

Tévez For the most part he did his job well enough, dropping deep, turning and running at the Sunderland defence. He caused a few problems but did not quite have the invention to wrestle those openings into full chances, as he does when on his game. But we can't assess his performance without the miss heard 'round the world: which was just shocking. 5

Subs:

Adebayor Could have scored with a flick but for a good Mignolet save. 5

Silva Too late to mark

Too late to mark

Sunderland 1 - 0 City

  • I suppose it's useful to get this grounding reminder in now, this side of the international break. A win today and the thirteen day rest period might have incubated optimism so much that any September set-backs would have been shattering. But today was an important intervention from the simple realities of the Premier League: if we want to reach our potential we have to take our chances, we have to keep the ball under pressure, we cannot gift stoppage time penalties.

  • The plan was to replicate the Liverpool performance. It was the same line-up, with Yaya Touré supporting Carlos Tévez through the middle and Adam Johnson and James Milner out wide. Sunderland started cautiously, cannier than Liverpool in 4-5-1 and making it harder for us to keep the ball. We were not perfect but we did manage to create chances, once we had breached their midfield. Both Yaya and Tévez had success running at the back, and combined to create a perfect chance.

  • This deserves a paragraph of its own. We broke after defending a corner, and Yaya barrelled past two or three challenges. Three on one in their box, he drew out the 'keeper and passed to Tévez on the penalty spot. Unchallenged, Tévez had time to take a touch and steady himself. But he just clipped it over the bar. In its complacency, its laziness and its sloppiness it summed up everything that was wrong with our performance. I can't remember the last miss that bad from a City striker. Suffice to say that Bernardo Corradi, Darius Vassell, Jô or Lee Bradbury would feel as if they had not done themselves justice had they made the same mistake. We made another half chance or two, but that miss was a blow from which we never recovered.

  • The second half was another country. At White Hart Lane we went from first half buffetting to second half control; today we made the reverse change. Steve Bruce made two half-time changes and they re-set the tempo. They pressed us relentlessly, moved the ball forward quickly. We had no time on the ball, it took us almost twenty minutes to string three successive passes together. For the most part we reduced Sunderland to half chances, and only the reflexes of Simon Mignolet kept out Emmanuel Adebayor's flick from a corner. Sunderland were certainly on top, but were nevertheless gifted their winner.

  • Two minutes into stoppage time a hopeful ball was slung towards Darren Bent. Micah Richards, marking him, decided to ignore the ball and rugby tackle Bent. Mike Dean awarded the penalty and Bent fired it underneath Joe Hart. Carlos Tévez might be why we did not win today but Micah Richards is why we lost. It was brainless defending, the best example yet of why Richards is not what we hoped he might be. And, like the sloppy finishing, the lack of ball retention, the stoppage time sickening, all the more upsetting for being so familiar.

Sunderland preview

The last game before the international break, and an opportunity to complete a very satisfactory first chapter in the season. So far we've had four games, three wins, one very important draw and no goals conceded. A continuation of those trends today and we can look back on a pace-setting start.

For the second time in three years our third league match of the season is at the Stadium of Light. We went there in August 2008, in that very strange late summer period just before the Abu Dhabi takeover. It was Shaun Wright-Phillips' second debut, and he scored twice in a 3-0 win. It was also Vincent Kompany's second game in blue, and the fact that most of the rest of the team has changed in the interim is testament to his character and quality.

We got a decent point there last year as well, thanks to the contribution of another English winger; Adam Johnson curled in a stoppage time equaliser that had just a hint of the Ronaldinho in Shizuoka about it. In fact, with five wins and that draw in our last six league meetings with them, we are to Sunderland what Spurs or Everton are to us.

I imagine we will see a consistency of selection from the Liverpool game. I'd dearly love to see David Silva from the start but there is no point in changing that midfield that did so well on Monday. Emmanuel Adebayor probably thinks he ought to start but I don't think he has a legitimate greivance. Mancini has little desire to break up the Nigel de Jong - Gareth Barry - Yaya Touré triangle at the heart of the team, which means we can only afford to play one up. There is a question surrounding the full-backs: we can't play all three, and I don't know who will survive.

Sunderland have not had too impressive a start and so I am confident about today's outcome. It might not be too pretty but I think we can win: 1-0.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

WBA away in the League Cup

It's not a perfect draw.

I was terrified of United give that it took a while for either of us to come out, and this is obviously better than that. But we can't play our second string (Boyata, Wright-Phillips, Vieira and, well, Adebayor) with quite as much complacency as we could with an easier tie.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Juventus, Lech Poznań and Salzburg

We're in Group A, and it's a decent draw. I suppose we've got what I wanted: the glamour tie and then two slightly less worrying opponents. Juventus are surely the most prestigious opponents we've had in Europe since we beat Milan in the third round of the 1978/79 UEFA Cup. But then our other two opponents are national champions so they won't be quite as accommodating as Timişoara.

Juventus This is a nice treat so early in this year's competition. Two years ago we got to the quarter-final without ever really playing one of Europe's elite. Twente, Paris St. Germain, Schalke and Hamburg are all of some profile but they're not quite from Juve's bracket. So this the biggest club we've hosted competitively (United and Liverpool aside, obviously) for over thirty years.

We also have the chance to avenge our defeat in the first round of the 1976-77 UEFA Cup, when current Assistant Manager Brian Kidd put us 1-0 at Maine Road before we lost 2-0 in Turin. I'm not sure how heavily this will press on the players' minds this time around. We have a few tenuous connections with Juve. Two of our coaches, Attilio Lombardo and David Platt, enjoyed brief playing spells there. So did Patrick Vieira, who isn't technically on the coaching staff but might as well be. My sympathies have always been with Torino.

They have just undergone yet another transitional summer (sound familiar?), but they could well be effective this year. Their new coach is Gigi Delneri, who took Sampdoria to fourth last year. This summer they've brought in Simone Pepe, Alberto Aquilani plus three former MCFC transfer targets: Marco Motta, Leonardo Bonucci and Miloš Krasić, with Fabio Quagliarella possibly still to come. They will be useful.

Red Bull Salzburg Like Lech Poznań they are domestic champions and so should not be sniffed at. (They could be sniffed at, though, for changing their name at the behest of an energy drink company.) Seriously, though, if you think that Sheikh Mansour and Garry Cook have no regard for history then just take a look at these guys; it's real MK Dons stuff. But since they were annexed by Red Bull (and SV Austria Salzburg were essentially disappropriated) they've been quite successful: three Austrian Bundesliga titles in the last four years.

Their European journey this year started in the Champions League second qualifying round, where they beat HB Tórshavn of the Faeroe Islands 5-1 on aggregate. Then in the third qualifying round they beat Omonia - vanquished by Jô two years ago - 5-2. In the play-off they faced Hapoel Tel Aviv and were probably fancied, but they lost 3-2 at home and drew 1-1 in Israel: hence their demotion. They play in the 'Red Bull Arena', which, when known as the EM Stadion Wals-Siezenheim hosted three Group D ties in Euro 2008, but only the Spain game for which David Silva was rested.

Lech Poznań They won the Polish league last year for the first time in seventeen years. I'm afraid I don't know much about them other than what I can pick up from Wikipedia. As far as I know I can't think of any connections we have with them, through players or previous ties. Their stadium is currently being redeveloped for the purposes of Euro 2012, but I don't know what state it will be in for our visit. Like Red Bull Salzburg they come to the Europa League having failed in the Champions League qualifiers. In the second qualifying round they needed six rounds of sudden death penalties to overcome Inter Baku of Azerbaijan. Next up was Sparta Prague but they lost both legs 1-0.

I suppose we ought to qualify, with the players we have. But it won't be easy. Here are the fixtures.

'We have fast tracked the investment'

Brian Marwood did an interview on BBC radio last night justifying our summer spending:
"People working here know what is going on, they know the direction we are heading and I am confident we will reach those goals. We have fast-tracked the investment and maybe what would normally take five or 10 years we have done much sooner. But we are extremely fortunate that we have the owners to invest their time and money into the club. Eighteen months ago we were fighting a relegation battle. The club and the team needed this investment."

Draw to come

It's the Europa League draw this lunchtime. Here are the pots. I suppose the easiest draw (factoring not just ability levels but disruptive distances) we could get would be something like: AZ Alkmaar, Odense and Lausanne, whereas the hardest would be Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and either Young Boys or Karpaty Lviv.

Basically, most of the Pot 1 teams are strong, we're in Pot 2 and while most of Pot 3 is negotiable it does include Dortmund and Napoli, both of whom must be avoided. Pot 4 is fairly weak if a bit too exotic.

From a personal preference I'd probably like one big tie from Pot 1 (Juve, Atléti or Porto) and then two other poor teams.

Timişoara reax

Daniel Taylor, The Guardian
Timisoara, in short, were woeful, lacking any sense of adventure, or the gumption to test whether any of City's old shortcomings in cup competitions might resurface. The Romanians managed only one attempt on target in the first leg and two here, all aimed straight at Hart for the England international to pluck nonchalantly out of the air. Even in those spells when City lapsed into a going-through-the-motions feel, the home side always looked utterly in command. Patrick Vieira, on his first start of the season, was particularly impressive and, though Boyata was named as the official man-of-the-match, the truth is he may never have an easier game in his professional life.
Tim Rich, The Independent
However, perhaps it was as well that the club's owner, Sheikh Mansour, did not extend his stay in Manchester to take in this game. However comfortable City were, Eastlands was half-full and the evening had little of the drama or the long-term significance of Monday evening's dismissal of Liverpool in the Premier League, when the sheikh had been in attendance. The spadework had been done in the first leg amid the lavender-coloured seats of the Dan Palitinsanu Stadium and this should have been a night to avoid the self-inflicted wounds that have become woven into Manchester City's history.
Danny Pugsley, Bitter and Blue
The second half showed even more of a marked improvement. The side looked far more fluid, controlled and dangerous in attack. David Silva came more to the fore, confident in the play of Vieira behind him he buzzed around the front line, always looking for the incisive ball through to the front man. He looks to have the capability to really be able to forge a partnership with Carlos Tevez.
Mark Ogden, Daily Telegraph
Having brushed aside FC Timisoara with a clinical and professional display at Eastlands, City can now look forward to vying with Champions League royalty when they begin the serious business next month of attempting to win Uefa’s much-maligned second tier trophy.
Ian Ladyman, Daily Mail
It was a good goal and in truth a little out of keeping with what had gone before. City had been a little predictable in much of their play up until that point but the goal gave them some life and some impetus and they were much improved in the second half.

Timişoara player ratings


Hart His selection surely underlines that there will be no place for Shay Given this season. No chance for an Edwin van der Sar / Tomasz Kuszczak job share (but with the younger man the senior partner) any more. As it happened Hart had so little to do that it didn't matter who we had in goal: Kevin Stuhr Ellegaard could have kept a clean sheet. He caught two crosses and stopped two shots that were hit more tamely at him than anything in his warm up. 6

Richards Another improved performance. He barely had any defensive work to do but his constant commitment to attacking was impressive. Time and again he ran down the flank, putting in a few crosses of note (this still needs some work) and helping out Wright-Phillips whenever possible. Had a header from a corner blocked on the line too. 7

Boyata Had the most work to do of any defender, dealing with the big, bustling Mircea Axente. He risked disaster once or twice but always came out on top, displaying that brute physicality of his but also some fairly decent footwork. A smart back-post header for his first goal for City. I think these will be the sort of games he plays this year, but that's good learning. 7

Kompany It says a lot that he and Nigel de Jong were included in the team; providing leadership and consistency when even Carlos Tévez and Kolo Touré - officially captain and deputy - were rested. Vincent wore the armband today - as I think he should permanently. Had less than nothing to do defensively, but he was still faultless. 7

Zabaleta Another outing at left-back, and like Richards he was impressive in his commitment to attack. It was admirable how keen he was to run beyond Jô and cross with his left foot - something he had been shy of in the past. In fact, his crossing with his left foot was better than Richards with his right, which says a lot. He even got into two shooting positions. Moved into central midfield - his third position of the season - late on. 8

de Jong Did not allow complacency in his game despite the easy task he had. Prevented the few attacks launched into our half, and when in possession moved the ball quickly to the more creative players. Even brought out one lovely backheel flick. 6

Vieira He struggles when put under too much pressure, but with Timişoara in no mood to press he had the time to pick his passes and was excellent. He found Wright-Phillips for our opening goal and continued to be the source for most of our better attacks. I think most of his games this year will come in Europe when he gets that much time on the ball. 8

SWP Eager to run at the full back but his crossing was fairly poor. Moved to the left and it was from one of his runs inside that our first goal came; and from a sharp first-time finish. His all round contribution was never that impressive, though, and I'd be surprised if he played on Sunday. 7

Silva Struggled to find space at first, with Timişoara playing so compact and so physically. But he was moved out wide later in the first half where he impressed, starting to trouble the defence and even creating a chance for himself after a Kinkladze run. Had a good second half, including swinging in the free-kick for Boyata's goal and nearing creating some goals when Timişoara finally came out to attack. 7

Unfortunately my money looks safe for a while. He looked far off the pace of the game, showing a very rare nice touch but usually slowing the game down, short of ideas and confidence. Missed a very easy headed chance in the first half. On the other hand, there was one 'no-look pass' Ronaldinho would have treasured. 5

Adebayor Must have been frustrating playing in front of a such an incoherent trident but he ran hard and nearly got into some goalscoring positions. Went very close when intercepting a weak back pass but shot narrowly wide. 6

Subs: Cunningham I think he could do with a loan spell in the Football League; he looks weak and timid. 5

Thursday, 26 August 2010

City 2 - 0 Timişoara

  • And on to the group stages with comfort. It might not sound like much of an achievement but it was more than Celtic, Aston Villa or Galatasaray could manage. Emotional returns for Georgios Samaras and Elano will have to wait. In truth, we got a gift of a draw. We will not come up against many sides as limited and unambitious as Timişoara this season. Almost the entire game was played in their half, and while we never played with too much cohesion we were as good as could have been expected given our line up. We just have to get our words out now; fluency can come later.
  • The line-up was as predicted, but with Jô out on the left of a 4-2-3-1. This allowed David Silva to play centrally, but with Timişoara playing another very compressed 4-1-4-1 there was barely a space for him to play in. He was forced to come increasingly deep for the ball - our side of their midfield five - while our best attacks came down the flanks. Shaun Wright-Phillips and Micah Richards often work well together down the right, while Pablo Zabaleta and Jô, Buenos Aires and São Paulo, linked well enough down the left. Zabaleta even put some decent crosses in with his left foot. But it was clear that Silva and Jô had barely played with these team-mates before, and while dominant in possession we looked unsure how to create chances.
  • It was a temporary tactical tweak that brought our first goal. Wright-Phillips was moved out onto the right, with Jô behind Adebayor and Silva on the right. With Shaun's crossing radar so askew it made sense to use him differently, cutting in from his weaker side onto his strong foot. This is how our goal came: he darted inside, running between the centre-backs and his fun was found by Patrick Vieira. With no pressure on him Vieira passed expertly and Wright-Phillips turned the ball inside the far post.
  • The lead was deserved, and it made the second half even easier. David Silva's move to wide positions made it easier for him to find space and he started to influence the game more. Our second goal came from a free kick of his swung to the back post and headed in by Dedryck Boyata. As Timişoara chased the game (they needed three to win) he started to drift inside and only fine margins prevented his scoring or creating a third on the night. As with the leg in Romania, we improved as the match went on, finally creating - if not taking - the chances that our dominance merited.
  • I wasn't expecting us to play like Barcelona tonight. This was another thrown-together team, with one Eastlands debutant and one returning prodigal son in the creative three. Faced with an opponent intent on preventing us from playing, we were never going to tear through them. But it was a controlled performance, and it achieved our aims with some comfort. We'll need more like in the group stage.

Jô charity challenge

I am so surprised and thrilled by the return of Jô to the City side that I feel like I should mark it somehow.

So, inspired by a reader on Twitter, I will be donating £5 to a charity of my choice for every goal Jô scores in all competitions this season. I hope some of you do the same.

Timişoara preview

The hard work is done. I don't have the statistics to hand but I am sure that a large majority of teams who won the first leg 1-0 away from home progress in Europe. We will need to guard against complacency, not give away silly goals etcetera etcetera etcetera but given how limited Timişoara looked in Romania I am fairly confident that at the very least we will be able to take them to extra time.

Given that this game will be our easiest of the season so far, it will be the first to face the transforming wind of Roberto Mancini's rotation policy. There is a very strong case for heavy rotation this year (we have lots of players, some of whom aren't in our first eleven but are nevertheless good, we have lots of games to play in) but we have kept things fairly steady in the first three games. I'm pleased I don't have to guess the team for tonight, so it's a relief that Daniel Taylor saw them in training yesterday and wrote this might be the team:


Obviously Shay Given is just a hunch of mine, but it looks decreasingly likely that he will go to Fulham, and so he will play these sorts of games. The outfield team has a strong spine while allowing games for those that need them (with first starts of the season for Dedryck Boyata, Patrick Vieira and Jô). I think it's notable that Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong, the two most vocal, reliable and responsible players in the squad are those that are maintained to provide consistency and leadership in what we do not want to be an entirely shadow eleven.

It's also important that David Silva plays in what should be a good platform for him: a home game with a UEFA referee should allow him the time he needs. Out on the left might not be his favoured position but he played there in Euro 2008 and did well enough. My concern is that strike partnership. Jô replicates Adebayor's faults but few of his strengths. I have dread visions of our losing an early goal and then spending the rest of the game with each of our strikers stationed, inertly, on either touchline. I just hope Carlos Tévez is on the bench.

But I do think we'll win, and over tonight's 90 minutes as well. And we will get to enjoy the Europa League group stage draw tomorrow.

'I believe Jô is a good striker'

I don't know if it's a problem with the language but Roberto Mancini has a habit of making wildly inaccurate statements about the ability of City players. He picked Jô in pre-season with the hope of finding a buyer, who did not materialise. But for reasons that are hidden from me, he has decided to make him part of the squad for this season:
"I have been able to see Jô close-up in the last two months and what I have seen makes me think he's a good player," Mancini said. "I can also remember seeing him play for CSKA [Moscow] a few years ago when I was with Internazionale and he's a good striker. We want to keep him."
Where to start? The game he was referring to was this one, and Jô does score a good goal if you fast-forward to 48 seconds in. I remember seeing that, and being excited by it. But in his time at City he was just nakedly useless. He has all of the faults of Emmanuel Adebayor - the inertia, the diffidence, the lack of attention to detail - with none of Manu's occasional thrilling upside. Of all the strikers we used in 2008/09: including Benjani, Danny Sturridge, Darius Vassell and Ched 'Bergkamp' Evans, Jô was the worst. He was nowhere near what we needed back then. We're twice the team now that we were then. He is bizarrely incongruous.

But that could well be a good thing. We have come so far in recent years that a reminder of our past would be useful grounding and context. Jô was the last, the worst and the most expensive of a long run of woeful strikers, imported with promising records but who did nothing at City. It started with Georgios Samaras but then there was Bernardo Corradi, Rolando Bianchi, Valeri Bozhinov, Nery Castillo, Benjani, Felipe Caicedo and, if I was being uncharitable, Emile Mpenza. Signing Jô was the last meaningful act of the Thaksin Shinawatra regime, and there was something about its frivolity, its lack of forethought and its wastefulness that summed up the reign as a whole. This is a different Manchester City now. We buy strikers that score goals. But if we have Jô, coming on late in games already won, standing on the touchline waiting for the ball, it will be a firm reminder that it was not always this easy.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Spirit and rotation

Micah Richards:
“It has been competitive. We have 25 very good players, some world-class players, in the squad, so there is going to be tension in the camp,” he said.

“Everyone wants to play. David Silva has come for £25m, and he was on the bench the other night. Milner has replaced him and done really well.

“When you get your chance you have to take it.

“It is a good tension. Everyone is fighting to get in the team.

“Only 11 can play, but we all want to win.”
"People might have questioned whether there was a good spirit here with a lot of new players coming in, but you only had to see how we played and celebrated with the goals against Liverpool to show there is a great spirit in the camp," he explained.

"It is now a challenge just to get into our 18, never mind the starting XI. But we are a tight unit and respect each other. We are all friends and rivals and that is how it has to be."
Now, the players would say this if it wasn't true, but it is interesting. I have no idea how the squad rotation is going to work out. Sam Wallace says he expects a first eleven to appear at some point later this season. I have a sense now that Mancini is just waiting; for injuries, for players to reveal themselves to be better or less good than expected. Then we can have a better idea of the patterns of rotation. Because for now predicting the team is just groping in the dark.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Liverpool reax

Sam Wallace, The Independent
Mancini's side played like a team of international superstars rather than the fractious individuals they have proved to be at certain times over the two years of the Sheikh's reign in east Manchester. They demolished a Liverpool team that looked totally out of sorts and without Javier Mascherano missed some of the familiar midfield bite.
Zonal Marking
City won comfortably without ever playing spectacular football, which simply demonstrates how poor Liverpool were. The use of Toure further forward worked reasonably well (although he doesn’t look completely fit) and Mancini’s use of inverted wingers and a false nine was very successful – Tevez had a good game, Milner got two assists, and Johnson v Agger was probably the game’s key battle. With Silva and Balotelli waiting in the wings (literally), personnel might change, but this looks like being City’s first-choice formation this season.
Henry Winter, Daily Telegraph
The Blue Moon rising last night cast an encouraging light on England. Gareth Barry, looking more svelte-like than usual, delivered a heavyweight performance in central midfield, powering forward to score City’s first and also putting in some important tackles. He was named man of the match but the sponsors’ bubbly could easily have gone to Adam Johnson, who had Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel spinning like feathers in a wind tunnel.
Matt Lawton, Daily Mail
James Milner, selected alongside five other England internationals, enjoyed an excellent debut. He not only delivered the final ball for the first two goals but combined brilliantly with the excellent Adam Johnson in providing a real threat down the flanks.
Kevin McCarra, The Guardian
Aspiring clubs have to hit a rhythm that makes victories natural if not inevitable at their own ground. Roberto Mancini's team did that on this occasion and the studied football he favours took its toll on the visitors eventually. Adam Johnson's first start of the campaign increased the refinement that will be essential if there is to be a genuine bid for the title.

Liverpool player ratings


Hart After a comfortable first half he had to produce his very best goalkeeping later on. The best moment was a double save equal to everything he produced in his coming of age performance at White Hart Lane: going low down to save from David N'Gog before scrambling across goal and out to charge down Fernando Torres' shot. If I have one quibble it's that his kicking suggests he's under the impression we've got John Carew up front, but he can learn that. 8

Richards A surprise pick at right-back but he had an accomplished game. I can't remember Milan Jovanović getting past him once, which was a nice change after Gareth Bale. With Adam Johnson playing in front of him he didn't need to get forward to provide width but he did a bit. Scored a header from a corner, which ought to be his but we're still waiting on. 7

Kolo Touré
A fairly quiet game. With our dominance of possession we did not see as much of N'Gog and Torres in attacking positions as we might have done. But he held off N'Gog well when he needed to. 7

Kompany Faultless, again. I know I've said this before but I am convinced he has the natural gifts required to be one of the league's finest centre-backs. Sometimes I wish I could spot a weakness in his game if only to give me something to write about. The highlight was when he slipped over but still got up in time to rob N'Gog and spin past him. 8

Lescott His second consecutive game at left back, and another solid performance. Matched Dirk Kuyt's running effectively, and never let anyone past. With Aleksandar Kolarov rumoured to be out until November, he can make the spot his own. 7

de Jong As the deepest of our midfield three he was generally spare, and while he got to make two important tackles he was more important in maintaining possession, completing 41 of 43 attempted passes, all in the middle third. 7

Johnson I'd previously been critical of AJ that he had never really done it in a big game, and so this felt like a watershed. He gave us the width and dynamism we had been missing in the last two games, running Daniel Agger ragged inside and out. He played a perfect pass through to James Milner who set up Gareth Barry's goal, showing a precision of final ball that had not always been obvious. For our third goal he drew a lunge from Škrtel and won the penalty. Of course Johnson looked for it - that's the third penalty he's won for us like that at CoMS - but I have no sympathy whatsoever for Škrtel. I'd still like to see him scar Patrice Evra or Ashley Cole like this, but I'm confident that will come in time. 8

Yaya Touré The main creative force in central midfield. People that thought he was merely a lumberer have underestimated his ability to move the ball quickly and brightly to either side. He completed 36 of 37 attempted passes, most of them out wide to Johnson, while also covering a fair amount of ground. I don't think he's quite up to speed yet - he hasn't unleashed any of his gallops through the middle yet - but it was another good performance. 7

Barry Playing just to the left of our midfield triangle, in front of de Jong but behind Yaya, he was another player to bring out his best performance in months. He looked fitter and sharper than he often does, winning an uncharacteristic number of 50/50 challenges - at times we barely needed the safety net of de Jong. On the ball he passed quickly and with success (48/53), and even broke into the box to score his first league goal at Eastlands. 8

Milner Well worth the wait. He gave us everything down the left, winning five tackles in roughly our left-back position, but always breaking forward, keeping Glen Johnson under pressure. The first goal came when he appeared in the inside-right channel to set up Barry, and our second came when Micah Richards headed in his corner. A very good start. 8

Tévez A lesson that Tévez can play up on his own very effectively, if only the team play to his strengths. Give him the ball to feet, don't leave him isolated, have runners beyond him and it becomes a very effective system. In open play he was not too much of a goal threat, dropping towards the half way line to link and turn, but still came out accredited with two goals. He didn't touch Micah Richards' header, but did distract Pepe Reina well enough, and his penalty was one of his best yet for City. Winning the mental battle, he sent Reina the wrong way, making it seven out of seven from the spot for him. 7

Subs:

Zabaleta Always nice to see him. n/a

The ultimate insult to Liverpool. I was embarrassed when we brought Jô on in pre-season friendlies, and even more so in the Europa League play-off round. But to have him on the pitch for five minutes of a Premier League game is to bring the whole competition into disrepute. This was his first league appearance for City since Boxing Day 2008. n/a

Monday, 23 August 2010

City 3 - 0 Liverpool

  • Who says three defensive midfielders is boring? This was Mancini's first home game of the season but it felt like his biggest test; and we produced our finest performance since the win over Chelsea last December. This was what we had been waiting for; strangers playing like a team, with cohesion and understanding, playing in unison. We outplayed a fairly listless Liverpool side, patient when we needed to be and and direct when that was required.
  • I have to say the team surprised me. Emmanuel Adebayor and David Silva were both benched for James Milner and Adam Johnson, while Micah Richards replaced Pablo Zabaleta. This move back to 4-1-4-1 meant that we had both the extra body in the midfield and natural width, the two things we have long been searching for.
  • For the most part we controlled possession. The midfield triangle of Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Touré outmanned and outmuscled Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva in midfield; we had the ball when we wanted it. Going forward we moved the ball quickly to James Milner and Adam Johnson, both playing outside-in from their natural flank. But the first goal came from Milner drifting to the right, hitting the by-line and cutting the ball back to Gareth Barry breaking into the box. This was the movement, across the flanks and from midfield, that made us so impressive.
  • Liverpool had some moments of their own on the break but neither of their forwards looked close to full potency. Joe Hart had to make a diving save from Steven Gerrard from distance, and a Peter Schmeichel star jump save (I thought this before Andy Gray said it, honest) from Fernando Torres from close. For the most part we were comfortable. Our second came from a set-play, as Micah Richards headed in a corner thanks to Carlos Tévez distracting Pepe Reina.
  • The third came when Adam Johnson, tormentor of Liverpool all night, bought a penalty as only he can and Tévez slammed home. From there it was clear: so much so that Jô came on. I am not going to read anything much into this, it's much to early, suffice to say that this squad has great performances within it, that they can do so without David Silva, that energy and imagination are not mutually exclusive and that we can play good football with three defensive midfielders.

Liverpool preview

This is the flip-side of our high expectations game. For the first time in probably forty years we go into a game with Liverpool knowing that if we do not beat them it will be a failure. I suppose this makes sense - we finished two positions and four points ahead of them last year. But it is strange, and difficult.

The position of comfort going into these matches is the low expectation game. Anything we get is a gift. When Kiki Musampa volleyed our winner in 2004/05 the thrill was in the surprise, the steal. A last minute winner tonight would be wonderful but it would represent the fulfilling of expectations, not their upturning. Which leads to an awkward sort of tension.

It's also the first home game of Mancini's new team, the home debuts of those new buys that haven't got injured, Mario Balotelli's first game in English domestic football, James Milner's first for City. This certainly feels like the start of something.

If I have one concern, it is that two of those new signings - Aleksandar Kolarov and Jérôme Boateng - are injured. I think that Mancini is likely to go with the same system we saw in Timişoara; that corset-narrow 4-1-2-2-1. For it to have any dynamism or fluidity, it needs athletic and incisive attacking full-backs. Kolarov and Boateng fit the bill perfectly - as they showed in the friendly against Valencia. Joleon Lescott and Pablo Zabaleta do not. The game last Thursday was a reminder why Lescott had never played full-back before for City (he doesn't know what to do with the ball in the final third), while Zabaleta - much as I love him - does not have the pace to be as incisive as he needs to be.

The team is fairly predictable. Balotelli probably won't start, meaning Carlos Tévez and David Silva dropping off Emmanuel Adebayor. James Milner should come into midfield to play as an alternating piston with Yaya Touré, leaving the last decision as Nigel de Jong or Gareth Barry in front of the back four. I'm going to guess de Jong, which is probably my preference; it would not spoil my evening's entertainment if he happened to mistime a tackle on Steven Gerrard.

This fixture has been 0-0 two of the past three seasons. The game last year was the most boring match I have ever seen. I'm not expecting much better tonight, but I'm going to say it will be settled by a set-piece. 1-0.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

'It's heartbreaking the way it's finished'

Difficult reading for City fans this morning: Stephen Ireland's first major interview as a Manchester City player. He describes what life is now like at City for a player who has grown up at the club, and how the new management and players have pulled the club away from how it used to be:
'I've been there eight or nine years, but loyalty doesn't matter much to that club any more. It's heartbreaking the way it's all finished.

'From my part there is only sadness. People who I grew up playing with and who coached me are now gone. There are lots of faces who don't feel that much for Manchester City and a lot of the homegrown guys feel like that.'

It's certainly sad for the fans, too, to see players that we've grown up with being pushed out by new arrivals. It shouldn't even need to be said that these academy players are important to us and that I would like to see a successful City team based on them. What this summer has taught is that it's not going to happen. Or at least, this coming City team will not have the 1986-88 generation at its core - or even on its periphery. I don't want to start writing another blog post but my position on this is that if we win something this year it will mean so much to me that the question of how we have done it or with whom will be irrelevant. But if I'm choosing between an average team of Academy players and an average team of mercenaries, well, that's not much of a choice.

Anway, Ireland goes on to talk about his lack of a personal relationship with Roberto Mancini:

'I felt unwanted,' he added. 'I felt like I was banging my head up against a concrete wall. In fact, I haven't felt part of it at Manchester City for the past 18 months.

'It didn't matter what I did in training, I wasn't ever going to get anywhere.

'I didn't share a relationship with Mancini. The last manager I had a relationship with was Mark Hughes - Mancini doesn't do relationships.

'He brought Patrick Vieira into the club. When I spoke with Patrick, he said that he worked with Mancini for seven or eight years but he didn't have one with him either. I think that's the way Mancini is. He has everyone on edge.
This, I'm less concerned about. I can see that it might be difficult for Ireland - who was so close to Mark Hughes - finding a manager who was much less keen to extend that arm round the shoulder that Ireland needs. But the same criticism has been made of Fabio Capello's managerial style with England. And while it might sound cruel from the outside it's clearly not an unsuccessful approach. Between them Mancini and Capello have won eight Scudetti, four Coppa Italias plus two La Ligas and one Champions League. It does work. Some 'Hughes players' have flourished under Mancini: Carlos Tévez, Vincent Kompany, to a lesser extent Kolo Touré and Pablo Zabaleta. It's a real sadness that Ireland is not one of them but I don't know how willing I am to blame Mancini for that.

Then there were some criticisms of young players at City wearing '£10,000 wristwatches' which might be an interesting point were it not being made by someone who has themselves indulged in conspicuous and dare I say vulgar consumption in the past.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Timişoara reax

Daniel Taylor, The Guardian
Over time, as the new players bed in and the club becomes more accustomed to its newly acquired fame, it has to be imagined City will develop the knack of coming to these kind of places and asserting the sort of authority that comes from being the most expensively assembled squad in English football.

It is a state of mind as much as anything to do with talent and, for now, what we are seeing is a work in progress. Mancini is searching for the right balance between creativity and conservatism but currently seems to be veering towards the latter, with eight defence-minded players in his £180m starting line-up. David Silva and Carlos Tevez played behind, and wide of, Adebayor but in terms of creativity there were long spells when they scarcely threatened to get behind the opposition defence.
Mark Ogden, Daily Telegraph
Roberto Mancini’s team were treading water, lethargic and uninspiring prior to Balotelli’s 56th minute introduction as a replacement for Gareth Barry.

Yet once the former Inter Milan forward, described as ‘unmanageable by Mourinho, had entered the fray, Mancini’s team was transformed and provided the potency they had so painfully lacked without him.
Colin Young, Daily Mail
As promised, Roberto Mancini gave Balotelli his debut but decided to blood him into a side which, on the evidence of their sorry first-half showing, can best be described as a work in progress.

If Mancini wanted an immediate impact, he got one after sending him on for Gareth Barry in the 57th minute. At that point, City fielded a front line that consisted of Balotelli, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Emmanuel Adebayor.

Timişoara player ratings


Hart A much quieter game for him than Spurs on Saturday. Timişoara's caution and our defensive efficiency meant he barely had a save to make. 6

Zabaleta Just two games into the season and he has already played in two positions. Saw a lot of the ball, as a result of our narrow 4-3-2-1, but he never quite had the pace to get down to the by-line. Swung in a decent cross or two. Lucky not to concede penalties for a first half trip and a second half push. 6

Kolo Touré An easy game: he did not have much defending to do, nor much to do on the ball either. 6

Kompany Had to hold off Mircea Axente when the lone striker broke through the middle, but did his job well. Grabbed Balotelli's face when he scored. 6

Lescott We'd been hearing for years how Lescott could play left-back but this was the first time we'd actually seen it (I thought it was all just a myth.) He did fairly well, showing off just how strong in the tackle he is and quick along the ground. If I have one complaint it is that - like Zabaleta - he was always open down the flank but didn't put a single good cross in. I suppose it's not surprising though. 6

Yaya Touré Has a welcome ability to force the pace of the game when necessary. His passing was good and late in the first half he went on a jinking run reminiscent of Georgi Kinkladze (remarkable, when you consider the differences in their frames.) In the second half he was breaking into the box more, and hit the post twice from close range. 7

de Jong Sitting deepest of our midfield three, he still had a destructive job to do when Timişoara broke, and he did it well enough. But when James Milner is available I'm not sure he'll always be needed for this job. 6

Barry Needed to be doing more to support the front three. We much improved when he was withdrawn for Mario Balotelli on 55 minutes. It's just a surprise the change didn't come until the break. 5

Tévez Our liveliest player of a dire first half, his free-kick from distance was our best shot on goal. Came deep for the ball but just found himself with ten purple shirts between him and their goal. Moved into a No. 10 role in the second half, but never really influenced things. 6

Adebayor Surprisingly hard-working in his first start of the season. He ran the channels eagerly, although we struggled to create in the first half. It was his spinning off the defender that created Balotelli's goal, and he could have had one for himself in a much improved second half. 7

Silva Similar to his performance against Spurs. Still needs to pick up the pace of the game, despite showing his obvious ability and intelligence. Pushed onto the right of a 4-2-3-1 in the second half. The second leg, in comfortable surroundings, should be a better stage for him. 5

Subs:

Balotelli A perfect start. He came on early in the second half, on the left of a 4-2-3-1 and immediately troubled the defence with his powerful runs from wide into the box. The first time he did this he shot into the side netting, the second he nearly knocked out their right-back, and the third he tapped in Adebayor's cross to score. Then got booked and got injured. 7

Johnson Came on for Silva but didn't really change the game - it was width we were looking for. 5

Came on for his first competitive appearance since 20 minutes at the end of the infamous 3-0 FA Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest in January 2009. Hard to take seriously as a City player. n/a

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Timişoara 0 - 1 City

  • The first step on the march to Lansdowne Road. Or something like that. This was a strange game: Timişoara were strangely cautious - willing to sit back on the edge of their box and hit us on the break, when they might have been better posing us the sort of problems Spurs did on Saturday. As such, we had the momentum throughout, and while it took us a second half substitution to create real chances, we made enough to end the tie this evening. 1-0 away is a good result but it should have been 3-0 or more.
  • I'd like to think someone from Timişoara was at White Hart Lane on Saturday. Had they been, they would have known what slow starters we are, how much time we need on the ball, and how they could harry us out of the game early on. But instead they sat back, with two narrow lines of four on the edge of their box, allowing us as much possession as we wanted. Given our widthless 4-3-2-1 formation, we had no way around them to create chances. With our two new full-backs we might have attacked better but neither Joleon Lescott nor Pablo Zabaleta are desperately good in the final third, leaving us fairly toothless.
  • There are times when three defensive midfielders is a good idea - like Saturday. But there are times when it's a bad idea - and this was one of them. With Timişoara so deep it was so wasteful having Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and Yaya Touré on the pitch together. Fortunately Mancini recognised this ten minutes into the second half, and withdrew Barry for Mario Balotelli. We moved to 4-2-3-1, with Balotelli, Carlos Tévez and David Silva lining up behind Manu Adebayor.
  • The switch quickly justified itself. Yaya hit the post from a Balotelli corner, before Adebayor spun off László Sepsi and crossed low to Balotelli to tapped in from six yards. A very easy way to score his first goal for City - and our first of the season. That run, breaking from the left into the box, is why he's in the team. The frustrating thing from this point was our profligacy. Yaya, Balotelli and Adebayor all got into equivalent positions in the penalty area and through a combination of poor decisions and poor execution managed to blow them all. We needed to be ruthless and we weren't.
  • The chances are we won't pay for it in the second leg. 1-0 is a good lead to be taking to Eastlands. Of course, everything is possible but the odds are very much with us. By that point we'll have played another (home) game, and should have a bit more cohesion and understanding than we did today. But next up is Liverpool, at Eastlands on Monday.

Vladi goes to Rangers

Vladimir Weiss has gone to Rangers on loan.

I think it's a good move. What he really needs is a whole season, so we can see just how good he is. He needs two games a week, every week, he needs to learn how to cross, and when to pass. If he stayed at City it would be a few minutes here and a Carling Cup game there.

Captain Tévez

I've let this one slip by without comment: Carlos Tévez now seems to be MCFC captain. He was given the armband against Spurs, so I suppose it ought to have been obvious from there.

"I think that being captain will allow Carlos to show his personality more.

"It will encourage him to express himself more and I think it can improve the team. He leads by example on the pitch but also in the training ground every day.

“I understand what importance is placed on the captain in England because it is the same in Italy though often the armband is given to the longest serving player.”
Maybe. I don't think it will allow him to 'express himself more', or at least, it won't help as much as learning English might. I'm fairly unconvinced, I must say. I'd have gone with Vincent Kompany, who is vocal, mature, fluent in English and French (in Tévez's defence he is one of the few who can speak with Silva in his native tongue), intelligent and an obvious leader. Nigel de Jong would be a good choice for similar reasons, even if he lacks some of Kompany's presence.

That all said, Mancini sees all of these players in training every day, and I don't. He also sees their private interactions, he knows the social dynamics, and he will not have taken this decision lightly. It's just a surprise.

Timişoara preview

European football! The preserve of the elite, the playground of the pretentious ('tim-i-shar-er', thanks for asking), where clubs can really touch the stars. And for the first time for over thirty years we're there on merit. I'm excited about our Europa League campaign; and not just because it's possibly our best chance at breaking the trophy drought this summer.

And where better to start than Timişoara? Apparently they finished fifth in Romanian league last year. Here's their Wikipedia article. I don't have anything more to add, except that the early stages of the Europa League is the only place you still get those mists of exoticism which used to enhance the experience at the top end of the major European competitions. This is something which is missed today, and it is good to experience it in some form.

That said, our side is likely to be just as shrouded by the mists of exoticism as theirs. I tend to spend a paragraph of previews running through what I imagine the team will be. But tonight I have no idea. This comes from not really knowing Mancini's mind (particularly the question of what he does differently in Europe), not knowing the new players, not knowing what Mancini makes of the new players and so forth. All we do know is that Joe Hart will start, which is absolutely right. Rotating 'keepers is a bad idea which keeps no-one happy.

In terms of the game itself, I'm sure it will be awkward, slow, fairly cagey. As ever in these ties, even a score draw would be a success. Knowing how to play in Europe is important but if we can recreate what we did in the second half at White Hart Lane we'll be fine. There is a way to play in Europe and for all the criticism of Mancini and his cautious style, we're built for it. I'm predicting a heroic 1-0 win.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Ireland leaves City

The dominant emotion this evening is sadness. This is no reflection on James Milner. We could be getting Wesley Sneijder for £18million plus Stephen Ireland and I would still be disappointed at Ireland's departure. Because Ireland is a player whom we care for deeply, who delighted us for years with his natural gifts and the promise of more to come. In 2008/09 he gave us a glimpse of a future when big money imports and Academy players would play in the same team, bringing the best out of each other. As he departs so does the lingering hope that there will be any Academy foundation to our teams of the next few years.

The story of Stephen Ireland is the story of the MCFC Academy. He emerged in the early days of the Stuart Pearce era, at the same time as Micah Richards. After the Kevin Keegan's free-spending reign, it was clear that if City were to achieve anything in the medium-term it would be off the back of Ireland, Richards and the other colts. There was a fawnish fragility about him; an imagination so incongruous in a team based on mindless muscularity. When Richard Dunne just wanted to find Darius Vassell or Paul Dickov in the channels, having a midfielder who could measure and thread a pass was a thrilling change. And his technical ability was unlike anyone else we had. His first goal for City - a half-volley at Bramhall Lane in a 1-0 win on Boxing Day - could not have been scored by anyone else at the club. His third goal was even better: a dipping volley from distance in our FA Cup 5th round win at Deepdale.

His was clearly a raw talent. Those moments were flickers of light, but more often than not he looked lost in that drowning team. When Thaksin Shinawatra and Sven Göran-Eriksson arrived in summer 2007, Ireland found himself fitting more comfortably into the team. He played on the right of a 4-4-1-1, and while his anonymity was frustrating much of the time there were still match-winning moments. He won us two home games in November with decisive volleys: first Sunderland and then Reading. Like everyone, his performances tailed off, and his promise remained undelivered upon as things collapsed around him.

Which made his next so season so remarkable. Mark Hughes came in, followed a few months later by Sheikh Mansour. Ireland spent the summer in physical training, shaving his head and bulking up - giving him the physical tools to manifest his innate technical ability. He found a sympathetic manager in Hughes, willing to build the team around him in a 4-2-3-1 that freed Ireland up in his favoured positions. He found his voice as a footballer and it was a joy to watch. Hard-working, inventive, able to break into the box and score: it was a glimpse of potential fulfilled. I'm not going to list every goal and moment, but the stand-out moments were his all-round performances in the 6-0 and 5-1 Eastlands demolitions of Portsmouth and Hull respectively, those finishes into the corner in the 3-0 against Arsenal, or the 2-2 at Hull, the way he would break into the box to score on the counter: think Schalke, Newcastle away, Everton away and, most importantly, in the Nordbank. It was the best individual season had by a City player since Ali Bernarbia in 2001/02: he won our Player of the Season but should have taken the PFA Young Player of the Year too.

Looking back, it felt like the platform to far greater achievements in an upwardly mobile team. In fact, it was the zenith of his City career. That summer Mark Hughes signed Carlos Tévez, who played in the same space as Ireland. Dropping off rather than driving forward, but still in that gap between opposition defence and midfield. So Hughes started the season with Ireland deeper than he was used to, anchoring what was essentially a 4-2-4. It wasn't his natural game and he struggled to adapt. After revelling without shackles the year before, this responsibility seemed to inhibit him. It did not take too long for Nigel de Jong to replace him.

In a sense that was that. He still played a few games: in the cups, on the wings, even back in his favoured role when Tévez was in Buenos Aires. But he was not the Ireland of the previous year. I suppose it was a confidence issue. He never seemed to quite adjust to being dropped in the autumn, to the reality created by the arrival of Tévez. Roberto Mancini arrived, with a demand for instant results in the push for fourth, and so Ireland's opportunities were further limited. With Mancini bringing in David Silva, Yaya Touré and of course James Milner this summer Ireland was only going to be pushed further aside. His willingness to stay and fight for his place is admirable, and makes the club's forcing him out harder to take.

Because if Stephen Ireland - who can be the best player in a team with Robinho, Vincent Kompany and Nigel de Jong - can tower over his team-mates for a season, well, then, what hope is there for the rest of them? Danny Sturridge has gone. Nedum Onuoha is out for now. Micah Richards is still here but if he repeats his performance from Saturday he won't be for much longer. And Michael Johnson has replaced Valeri Bozhinov as the player whose glorious return is always just six weeks away. With Ireland at Villa we must now face the fact that the 1986-88 generation will not make it at Manchester City. It's possible that the Jérémy Helan and John Guidetti generation will. But these boys won't. And Ireland was the best of them.

I hope he does well at Villa. It all depends on who their next manager is. Someone who will play him in his favoured position, every week, put an arm round his shoulder and tell him how good he is? If they do that he'll be one of the best in the league again by Christmas. They might be our rivals, but I can only hope this is what happens. It is a sadness that he will not play out his career at City. I just hope he fulfils his potential elsewhere.

Stephen Ireland MCFC 2005-2010. 142 starts, 23 goals.

Milner in, Ireland out

The most dramatic swap deal since Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto'o (no, seriously) has finally gone through: as of this evening James Milner is a Manchester City player. As excited as I am, what really occupies my thoughts this evening is that Stephen Ireland is no longer one of our own. But more of that later.

Milner joins after one of the more boring transfer sagas of the last few years. It's been going on since before the World Cup, and has had a little bit too much in common with Joleon Lescott last summer. It's the pursuit of a fashionable English player, out of the desperate grip of a rival club. Like Lescott, it comes at the end of a long summer of transfers and so have a slight taste of gluttony about it, something exacerbated by a fee that is ludicrous even in the context of the summer just gone. And then there is the recognition that it longer necessarily improves the first team, instead facilitating the departure of a club favourite to Aston Villa.

But I don't feel particularly disappointed with the arrival of Milner. I never do. Transfers are always exhilarating, even if the hit isn't quite as intoxicating as for David Silva or Mario Balotelli. And I increasingly think Milner will be a crucial addition. A lot of our hopes for the season presume the signings of David Silva and Yaya Touré bed in well. But what if they don't? Milner can replace Yaya's box to box muscularity and while he's not quite David Silva he is an intelligent and energetic wide player. Yes, Mark Hughes fetishised Premier League experience but that doesn't mean that it's valueless. And Milner has played 242 games in the EPL already. He'll always be ready.

And he has missed two Premier League games in the last two seasons, a remarkable record for a midfielder as energetic as he is. Just wait until January and February when, all being well, we will be competing on four fronts. Playing twice a week, every week, in the bitter cold might not be to the preference of all of our midfielders. And this isn't just a lazy point about nationality either: remember just how poor Gareth Barry was last winter. When we go to Milner's old homes: St. James' Park on Boxing Day, Villa Park on 22 January, Milner is the one of our midfielders I most want there. To say nothing of the prospect of - to pluck a stadium at random - Elland Road in the FA Cup Third Round.

So I don't necessarily expect an instant impact from Milner. I can't predict the team for tomorrow night, nor for Liverpool or any other game soon. So I can't say which games he'll play and in which roles. Suffice to say that I'm confident we'll find some serious work for him to get into, and that he will reward the investment as the season goes on.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Bellamy leaves for Cardiff

And so one of the most dramatic careers of a recent Manchester City player has blown out like a fuse. Craig Bellamy may only be on loan to Cardiff City but the circumstances under which he plays for MCFC in 2011/12 are remote to say the least. At the very least, it would require the replacement of Roberto Mancini as boss by someone more amenable to Bellamy. And it would also require Bellamy's conduct not to have wholly alienated Garry Cook, Brian Marwood, Khaldoon al-Mubarak and even Sheikh Mansour. He's finished.

It could only have ended this way, really. Bellamy's career has been defined by moments of acrimony and discord, and so it makes sense for him to be thrown out of the club by a storm largely of his own making. His limited use in pre-season hinted at problems, and when Mancini said he wasn't in the squad for the FC Timişoara games it was clear he was out. His critical interview, Mancini excluding him from the EPL squad and then banning him from training were just the final steps in the dance.

It is a shame to see him go, but it has been inevitable for a while. In fact, the forces that drew him to City made his departure in these new circumstances likely. Because if there is one fact that you must learn about Bellamy, one fact that explains his eighteen month epic at MCFC, it is this: he has a relationship with and loyalty to Mark Hughes, Mark Bowen et al which is unlikely almost every other such relationship in English football. (This, and not the drop in division, is why his move to Cardiff City is so surprising.) I was not worried about his conduct when he signed for City, not because I thought he was misunderstood, but because I recognised the claim that he had caused problems at every team he'd ever played for was untrue. Rather, he had caused problems at every team - other than those managed by Marks Hughes and Bowen. As such, I was fairly confident he would realise the extent of his talent at City, proving a crucial addition on and off the pitch.

And he was. It is easy to forget just how bad a mess we were in that Christmas of 2008. On 20 December we were on 18 points after 17 games, and it was a surprise that Hughes was even allowed to stay to spend ADUG money in January. Bellamy joined along with Wayne Bridge, Nigel de Jong and Shay Given as Hughes added experience and muscle to a team that was weak, sloppy and divided. He had an instant impact. He scored on his debut, the second goal in our 2-1 home win over Newcastle United. He then scored the only goal in our next home game, a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough. Those wins might look trivial now but they were crucial in dragging us towards mid-table. In February he scored a goal in the 1-1 at Anfield (bizarrely credited against Álvaro Arbeloa) before scoring both goals as we beat F.C. København in the UEFA Cup last 32 second left at Eastlands. He won Player of the Month, before injury curtailed his season. Only four credited goals - two in the league - but important in dragging the team to where it ought to have been. A big part of this was his off the pitch role. As someone so wholly loyal to the management, he was not just Hughes' eyes and ears in the dressing room but his mouth as well - infamously castigating Elano and Robinho after their pathetic no-show at Fratton Park.

But no-one expected him to play much of a role the following season. We signed Carlos Tévez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz that summer. But Bellamy started the season at another old haunt - Ewood Park - and didn't let go. On the left of Hughes' counter-attacking 4-2-4 (the tactical switch that started the decline of Stephen Ireland) he kept Robinho out of the side and was crucial to the team: harrying opposition full-backs, breaking at pace, cutting in from the flank to score with his right. That was how he scored his first of the season, putting us 2-1 ahead in that famous 4-2 defeat of Arsenal. The next week was his best performance in blue, in the infamous 4-3 defeat to United. He scored two thrilling equalisers, the first arrowed into the far top corner, the second in the 90th minute, tearing past Rio Ferdinand and fooling Ben Foster. It was the greatest individual performance from a City player in an Old Trafford derby I can remember. It won him Player of the Month for September. He scored the equaliser cutting in from the left at Villa Park in October and then again in that 3-3 with Burnley. In that confident autumn he was our best player and our talisman: the man who, despite not being as talented as his teammates, was dragging them all up to their potential levels. If we were going to make the Champions League last year, it would have been thanks to the leadership of Bellamy and Carlos Tévez.

But all this excellence, this leadership and this bravery was predicated on his personal loyalty to Mark Hughes. And when Hughes was sacked in December everything collapsed. There were rumours of a protest and of a transfer request. He continued to play, but there was always a sense that he wasn't the same player any more. There were a few decent performances but that fire that made him such a compelling player had gone out. He reminded us of his potential with two counter-attacking goals at Stamford Bridge. But even his celebrations looked wistful. There were two more goals that season but just as prominent were dark rumours of discord with Mancini. Arguing over training, whispers of sedition in the tunnel against Everton, and then the infamous high five with Harry Redknapp. It was a bad way for his City career to end, particularly ten minutes after he bottled a tackle with Younes Kaboul, allowing Peter Crouch to score.

Ultimately, everything that made him so good under Mark Hughes made him problematic under Mancini: his intense loyalty to Hughes and Bowen, his fiery personal disagreements, his brazen straight-talking. And that was the problem. He was, always, a Mark Hughes man, a 2009 man. A new decade, a new manager and he just didn't fit in the same way any more. His departure was inevitable and probably necessary. But I am so grateful for what he did, for where he found us and where he left us, and for this he will always be important to us.

Craig Bellamy. MCFC 2009-10. 41 starts, 15 goal.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Bellamy on the brink

Craig Bellamy's Manchester City career is over, after news that Roberto Mancini has barred him from Carrington after a series of clashes following the news he will not be in our 25 man squad. Daniel Taylor reports:
Bellamy has been told he will not be welcome at City's practice ground when the players resume training tomorrow and ordered to stay away until a deal has been arranged to find him a new club.

It follows several clashes with Mancini and other senior employees over the past few days. Bellamy has been outraged by the way City have marginalised him and has made his feelings clear to the manager and other players. He was told to train with the reserves on Friday but his attitude was perceived to be so "disruptive" the club have told him he is no longer welcome.
Clearly we will see a deal for him in the next week or so. He is finished as a Manchester City player.

Spurs reax

Ian Herbert, The Independent
The gulf between the sides was tactical. City lacked a striker because Tevez felt that he had to head back into midfield to forage for the ball and only looked a force once Emmanuel Adebayor had arrived for the last eight minutes. Tottenham had a striker in Peter Crouch, whom Aaron Lennon found. World Cup hangover? It was as if South Africa had never happened.
Mancini’s defensive-minded formation will come in for some criticism, but one suspects he got the result he was looking for. The three central midfielders actually did their job rather well, but Tevez dropped too deep considering neither Silva nor Wright-Phillips were comfortable in becoming the temporary centre-forward when he did. Wright-Phillips wasted City’s best chance, through on goal with a bouncing ball, but he didn’t even manage to get a shot away.
Paul Wilson, The Observer
Hart won the first round of his goalkeeping battle with Shay Given and was kept busy for almost the entire first half, City rarely crossing the halfway line and taking something of a battering as a result. The visitors' £100m outlay does not appear to have bought them much style or shape. There was little width on show and an unbridgeable gap between their line of three defensive midfielders and their Subbuteo front three of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Carlos Tevez and David Silva. The newcomer from Spain must have spent the first half-hour wondering if he was going to spend the whole of his City career seeing so little of the ball.
Danny Pugsley, Bitter and Blue
Despite the first half struggles, the day was a positive one. Ending a wretched run at White Hart Lane, the side showed it possesses plenty of fortitude and appetite to battle out results. Undoubtedly there are improvements to be made, but these are not fundamental problems but more a need for the side to gel.
Steve Tongue, Independent on Sunday
In short, they looked nothing like a team. That was always a risk in introducing three new players (who had cost £85m) in David Silva, Yaya Touré and Aleksandar Kolarov after so little time together. More baffling was a formation in which Carlos Tevez was the only striker, with David Silva and Shaun Wright-Phillips alternating flanks.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Spurs player ratings


Hart Choosing our goalkeeper for this season was one of Roberto Mancini's biggest decisions as City boss, and he was entirely vindicated by Hart's performance. He was the biggest single reason for our clean sheet, making half a dozen or so saves that would all have been individually newsworthy. One from a Huddlestone volley, one that deflected off Shaun Wright-Phillips' back, a few sharp ones from Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch from close range. Shot stopping isn't the reason he got the place but this was as good as anything Shay Given has done at the club, and could well confirm his place in the City team for years to come. 9

Kolarov One of the three debutants, he had a promising start before going off with a knock at half time. Better than I expected in one-on-one situations against Lennon. I can't judge his pace yet but he's strong and very canny. Made one very important defensive header at the back post. Got forward once or twice and might have put a good cross in but our lack of target inhibited his ability to do so. Maybe surprised by the pace of the game but more positives than negatives. 6

Kolo Touré Quite possibly his best ever game for City. He lost out aerially to Peter Crouch early on, but cannot be blamed for being six inches shorter than his opponent. And when the ball was on the deck he was impeccable, regularly speeding across the pitch to shrug Spurs players of the ball. One time when Gareth Bale skipped past Micah Richards and was stopped by Kolo stood out but it must have happened half a dozen times. More of the same please. 8

Kompany Another performance underlining his status as the best defender at the club. Despite an early booking he was peerless and fearless in defence, staying tight to Jermain Defoe and throwing in a few vital blocks and tackles that John Terry would be proud of. Must have been surprised that he was not made captain. As our best defensive player, in his third season at City, vocal on and off the pitch and fluent in English and French he really is the natural pick. 8

Richards Embarrassed too many times by Gareth Bale. Whether inside or out, Bale skipped past Richards at will, and only a series of remote contingencies prevented these opportunities from becoming goals. His willingness to get forward was impressive, but seeing him jog back as Spurs countered was not. What is Richards if not an athlete? Jérôme Boateng does not have too much to worry about. 4

de Jong With Spurs playing two (excellent) central midfielders, de Jong was often left spare in front of our back four, powerless as Spurs moved the ball quickly out to the flanks. As we grew into the game in the second half his cautious distribution - often criticised by people who somehow expect him to be Xabi Alonso - was effective in allowing us to play the game on our own terms. Still managed one or two of those trademark tackles. 6

SWP A performance perfectly supporting the case that he is not good enough for where we want to go. He was so much under the control of Benoît Assou-Ekotto it was like seeing a pliant performing dog under the total direction of his owner. Assou-Ekotto anticipated his every move, underlining that when Shaun's 'drop the left shoulder and burst outside' isn't working there isn't a whole lot more in his tool-belt. Had our best chance but waited for the ball to drop for him and was robbed again by BAE. 4

Yaya Touré Struggled in the first half as the intensity of Spurs' pressing was just too much for him. Seeing Luka Modrić repeatedly steal the ball from around Yaya's ankles was frustrating to say the least. Dropped slightly deeper in the second half (into a 4-2-3-1), had more time on the ball and impressed with the consistency of his ball retention. Yet to find his shooting range either but that will come in time. 6

Barry The third of our trio of holding midfielders, he made a few key interventions early on as we tried to withstand the gale of pressure from Spurs. Less involved in the second half as he was shifted out onto the left but was a useful and consistent outlet as we slowed the game down. Was about to shoot when the final whistle went. He probably was not going to score. 6

Silva The one I was most excited about. In the first half he alternated wings in a 4-1-4-1, and struggled to get into the game. He clearly has to adjust to the pace of the Premier League: he is still in that stage of looking aggrieved when muscled off the ball by players like Tom Huddlestone. After half time he moved centrally behind Carlos Tévez and was more involved in play. Unfortunately the depth of Tévez and Spurs' organisation meant there was rarely anyone running beyond the defence for him to pick out but his intelligence, awareness and technical ability were already visible at times. Much more to come. 6

Tévez Had a frustrating time in his first game as City captain. His understandable inability to win aerial balls against Michael Dawson inhibited his involvement in the first half, and our ability to retain possession. Started coming deeper and deeper for the ball, which is admirable but meant that when we did have the ball the furthest forward player was Shaun Wright-Phillips, who was fairly blunt himself. Came off with seven minutes to go. 6

Subs:

Zabaleta Showcased the attributes that have made him so popular with fans and with Mancini: versatility and reliability. He came on at half time at left back, and dealt reasonably well with Lennon. He also picked up a booking, and it wouldn't really be a vintage Zabaleta performance without one of those. 6

A. Johnson Came on for Wright-Phillips and with his very first touch tore past Assou-Ekotto on the inside, which was both a relief in itself but a frustration he hadn't been on from the start. That aside he looked fairly bright without ever getting a good shot away. 6

Adebayor An impressive seven minute cameo. His ability to win headers and hold the ball up was uncharacteristic, and he was a defter touch away from having our best chance of the game. 7