Moving Bellamy on may be a tough call Mancini has to make

When you look back on the season which finished with a draw at Upton Park last week, most of the highlights will inevitably involve two of our attackers - Carlos Tevez, who almost bagged himself thirty goals, and Craig Bellamy - a minstrel who had for a short while appeared to have found his spiritual home.

Since joining from West Ham sixteen months ago, a move which at the time was seen as a desperate one by former boss Mark Hughes, Craig has almost certainly enjoyed his best spell as a Premier League player. Notoriously injury-prone, his body has held up quite well, and overall he's matured from an inconsistent but lively striker into a lethal play-making wideman.

Away from the pitch he had been having a quiet time of it, too. Few headlines, charming and honest on camera, never seeming less than 100% gracious to be here, and with his good work in Sierra Leone paying dividends. Indeed, it's been difficult to understand why his reputation throughout football has grown into one of a widely-derided pantomime villain.

As fans, we don't really know what goes on behind the scenes. Information is so instant nowadays that any falsity can reach a significant audience in seconds, and though most know not to trust what they read in the tabloids or on forums, some shit will always stick. How good or bad the relationship between Bellamy and Roberto Mancini is really isn't known, but you get the impression the situation is at least uneasy.

The issue of extra training being a problem for some of the senior players was an odd one. One of Mark Hughes' stronger points was allegedly his and his team's expertise in terms of fitness, and he often spoke about improving facilities, the overall shape of the squad and working hard on the more physical aspects being the scenes to see results on the pitch. As much as someone like Bellamy may need nursing through the latter stages of an injury-hit career, a monthly double-shift surely isn't that much of a manager to ask?

As well as the player's beef at having to spend a couple more hours around Carrington - a problem other squad members had, it must be said - there have been other examples of his change in mood since the managerial switch. David Moyes was said to have earned Craig's backing during the ridiculous events late on in the defeat by Everton. I've no idea whether that happened or not, but it strikes you as the sort of thing a younger, more mischievous Bellamy might get up to.

After the deflating defeat by Spurs, the fixture that ultimately cost us our Champions League hopes, there was the curious sight of a beaming Bellamy almost knocking the opposition manager out with the shine from his pearly whites after losing what would have to be classed as one of the biggest games of his career. That may have simply been honourable sportsmanship, but coming from a player hardly known for that sort of thing there have to be doubts.

The biggest signals that Craig's honeymoon period at City is over, though, have been his overall body language coupled with a decline in form. I guess you could argue that since Mancini's been in charge, and the football hasn't really flown, few have performed consistently, but i don't accept that the former Inter boss is negative, nor that his style of play isn't suited to getting the most from the likes of our number thirty-nine.

Towards the business end of the season there were several games i came away from disappointed with the Welshman's contribution. Again, he wasn't alone, but the Bellamy we saw against Spurs, Arsenal, United, Everton, to me looked one well short on he who dragged the whole side kicking and screaming earlier, and the fire in the belly isn't as apparent as it once was.

Not that the lad needs writing off. We've a squad assembled at vast wealth, and over the season he more than pulled his weight, but inconsistency does begin to make you wonder if, as a whole, given how hugely important next season is, whether Bellamy's presence around the squad makes complete sense for a manager yet to win over his troops.

At the start of this season just gone, Hughes talked to the press about establishing his "power base" at the club. During his tenure, he was allowed to be judged on his own players, prematurely, admittedly, but there were senior figures amongst the playing staff whose presence at the club undermined his position. The most obvious of those was Elano - a hugely talented mard-arse who most fans would admit we've missed this year, on the field at least.

In fairness, Roberto has been quick to play down the heat between the pair, but i have my doubts as to whether he's the sort of personality who knows when to use the carrot and when the stick with sort of livewire Bellamy certainly is. If we're to make further strides next season the squad will have to be tighter than ever, and if Craig insists on playing the naughty schoolboy then it's probably best all round if we move him on sooner rather than later. It'll be a sad day, but a move that's perhaps best all round.


Is relieving Liverpool of Gerrard and Torres really the answer?

Less than two years into Sheikh Mansour's reign as City owner we're already well used to every man and his dog being linked with a big-money move to Eastlands. Most are stories concocted by fat journos in order to save them having to put the hours in doing real digging, others agents in search of a quick buck, players wanting new deals where they are, or even rarely, something with legs. The latest being linked are Liverpool duo Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

The fact that the tales linking both players with summer switches aren't being met with as much derision as when mooted a year ago in itself proves that we've made progress. Not only that, but Liverpool's overall situation - the uncertainly over the future of their bumbling manager, the performance of the side over the last season, but mainly the financial position of the club, which some sources have as being so bad that the 'a'-word is beginning to be bandied about - means that such moves might actually make sense all round.

At present, though their ever-vocal fans will vehemently disagree and point to shiny things lifted aloft in the past, we're better than Liverpool. We just are. That's how the league system works. We're better than them in the same way Spurs are better than us, Arsenal than them - sides where they are, for better or worse, on merit and not by default or accident, and given that, it shouldn't be seen as fantasy, even by disciples of the boot room bible, that we could syphon their most valuable assets.

That said, even the staunchest Blue couldn't deny that Spurs spoiling the party recently will have weakened our position to some degree when approaching the elite players in the world. Whether Gerrard would still fit into that category is debatable, but on reputation at least there aren't too many fatter fishes in the pond. It would be a huge coup, but without the Champions League carrot not as obvious a step forward in the most important sense as it could have been.

Torres, as good a centre-forward as there is in the world when fit, probably didn't aspire to pulling on the sky blue shirt of Manchester's premier club as a nipper whilst volleying oranges round the backstreets of Fuenlabrada, but it's no more far-fetched than to say he might have dreamt of one day emulating, say, Robbie Fowler - bagging goals for fun in a mediocre side whilst picking up more serious injuries than honours.

The World Cup will quite probably play a big part in where the Spaniard begins next season playing his football. Another good tournament and sides who we can only dream of matching in every respect bar the cash readies will be equally willing to take advantage of the malaise at Anfield, but for now, should either Fernando choose to move on, or some suit or other at the club make the decision for him, then his options aren't all that obvious.

The main factor to consider would be the transfer fee. Even after a season dogged by injuries and bouts of sulkiness Torres would command a fee of £40m at the very least, so immediately the serious suitors could be counted on one hand - ourselves, Barcelona, Chelsea if Abramovich has decided he's interested in spending again, possibly Inter Milan, and Real Madrid - the latter being about as likely an option as Everton considering El Nino's Atletico past.

The common consensus regards Gerrard is that he'd only ever leave Liverpool for a foreign club, and remembering how the Scouse public who've afforded him demi-God status over the last decade were quick to burn effigies and label him a money-grabber when he's threatened to move on to better things in the past, it's probably a safe bet, and another summer of spending at Real Madrid could provide the most likely route out of Tracksuitville.

Unlike his Spanish colleague, any move for Gerrard from Liverpool would absolutely have to be the right one. Thirty this month, time isn't exactly on his side. Barring a takeover, a manager who knows what he's doing being brought in, plus some serious spending, that's never going to happen at Liverpool. Though we're unlikely to be banging on the door next year as things stand, we'd certainly be the club who ticked most boxes in terms of needing and being able to offer a key role to the player, having no problems with the fee, and promising to offer at least a distant threat to the title contenders.

Beyond completely sealing the sad demise of Liverpool Football Club as a force in English football, though, and however much we might need a central midfielder who does something other than move or pass sideways, and a true centre-forward to complete the most fearsome attacking line in the country, is splodging daft money on superstars such as these two soft lads the way? I think examples, both in terms of the goose-chases we've been on over the last two years, and the side who beat us to fourth this time round, indicate it may not be.

People alleging that we'll always struggle to sign truly world-class players until we're in the Champions League have to some extent been disproved already. Admittedly both the signings of Robinho and Carlos Tevez were under extreme circumstances, one being the only ticket out of Madrid, the other seen as the ultimate chance to prove a doubting manager wrong. Both were and continue to be paid very well for their troubles, it must be said, but nobody could deny either were/are "world-class", as much as the term itself is a bit daft.

For every superstar we have wrestled from a more-established club, however, there have been two we've failed to convince to take the plunge. Kaka was on the verge but shat himself at the last minute, possibly after meeting Garry Cook for the first time. John Terry seemed to fancy it before declaring his unwavering loyalty to Chelsea once a payrise had been agreed. Ronaldinho was linked for a while, Eto'o decided winning a European Cup was more important than pinching fifth place in the Premier League, and the likes of Buffon, Villa and several others have all claimed to have rejected our advances.

Given such high-profile snubs, then, you wonder why we continue to press ahead with these biennial forays into the 'daft money' market. The contrasting fortunes of the beanpole strikers at opposite ends of the Eastlands pitch last Wednesday, and Tottenham crushing our hopes of what should have been a relatively routine march to being crowned best of the rest at the end of a poor Premier League season should perhaps give us food for thought.

Both of the clubs who have successfully 'broken' the top four have done so without knocking together sides disregarding cost. Arguably, Spurs strongest point this season has been their manager's ability to put his arm around those not considered key players and turn them into such. As much as i'd like to see Torres or Gerrard here, i'd take more satisfaction, even if goals weren't achieved quite as quickly, from seeing Mancini build a real team, and i'm not convinced 'marquee' signings are the way.


Fifth it is as season ends with a draw at West Ham

The Blues today wrapped a credible but ultimately deflating campaign up with a 1-1 draw at Upton Park. With West Ham already safe and us unable to achieve Champions League qualification but safe in the top six it was hardly blood and thunder, but we created the better chances and came away with the point that would have guaranteed fifth place irrespective of what happened elsewhere.

Sylvinho replaced Wayne Bridge at left-back, Patrick Vieira came into central midfield for the injured Gareth Barry, Shaun Wright-Phillips took Craig Bellamy's place and Roque Santa Cruz earned a rare start ahead of former Hammer Carlos Tevez in a rigid 4-4-2.

For West Ham, Swiss youngster Fabio Daprela got the nod over Jonathan Spector on the left of defence, Diamanti and Boa Morte came in on the flanks, the latter starting his first game in a year after a serious injury. Otherwise it was the same side that lost at Craven Cottage, with the in-form Ilan partnering Carlton Cole in attack.

West Ham took the lead in the seventeenth minute and against the run of play. Alessandro Diamanti coolly back-heeled a ball between the City defence and winger Luis Boa Morte raced clear and fired across Fulop into the far corner. A very well taken goal, indeed.

The leveller didn't take too long to arrive, and involved our two English wingers in front of the watching national team assistant manager. Adam Johnson dinked a deep cross over from the byline and SWP, all five feet five of him, leapt like a salmon at the far post to head inside Green's far post.

Two minutes later we may have had a penalty. Johnson went on one of his mazy, Waddle-like runs, cutting in and between three players. As he was about to get his shot away Matt Upson lunged in, taking both ball and man. The decision could have gone either way, but the official waved for play to continue.

To add to our frustration we were then disallowed what appeared to be a perfectly good goal. Kolo Toure sprayed a pass over the defence, Adebayor for once had looked to have timed his run correctly, but the linesman flagged early and in truth Green did very little to stop the shot.

West Ham's best chance fell to the unpredictable Diamanti, his effort smashing against Fulop's post after he'd shaped in from the left, but it was us who ended the half the stronger. Firstly, Johnson's punt forward was chested down into Emmanuel Adebayor's path by Roque Santa Cruz. The £22m signing from Arsenal laid across the edge of the penalty area, but sadly Pablo Zabaleta was the man in space and his shot sailed aimlessly wide. Johnson then slid Ade in on goal, but Green saved, and in added time Santa Cruz headed wide when unmarked around six yards out from a corner.

The game certainly felt like an end-of-season affair, yet at the same time was relatively end-to-end and interesting. Ilan could have put the home side ahead into the second half after a buccaneering run through the middle of the park by Parker, but Fulop saved. Daprela earned a yellow card for a cynical lunge on Johnson, and Santa Cruz fired over after another lovely move down the left involving SWP and Manu.

West Ham rallied in the last twenty, only a great last-ditch challenge from Zabaleta saving out skin when Ilan had wriggled through. Both sides made changes, with the introduction of Tevez being met with the biggest cheer of the afternoon from all four corners of the ground. Franco had a low drive saved, Stanislas fluffed his lines when free in space, Tevez wormed through but the ball ended on the roof of Green's goal, and SWP and Franco could have settled it for either side with headers.

I thought it was a relatively commanding performance, but given neither side needed to win it's hard to read too much into the whole game. Adam Johnson was obviously the standout performer once more and outstanding for the first hour particularly. Wright-Phillips was involved in most things we did well going forwards, too, and his cameos on the left may give Mancini food for thought.

We can end the season with our heads held high knowing that we've improved considerably over the last twelve months. Though fourth place was well within reach the experience of falling just short will hopefully hold us in good stead for next season and beyond. With a couple of key additions over the summer we should stand a good chance of making that next step up. Forza Mancini!

Fulop, Zabaleta, Sylvinho (Tevez '73), Toure, Kompany, de Jong, A.Johnson (Cunningham '89), Vieira, Adebayor, Santa Cruz (Richards '73), Wright-Phillips

Preview: West Ham v City

An afternoon which looked set to end in either wild celebrations or glorious failure will most probably now simply be more a case of going through the motions for both sides, despite the two still having something to play for. West Ham are safe, but could still swell the Upton Park coffers to the tune of £2.4m by picking up their third consecutive home win. With the game likely to be Franco Zola's final in charge, too, him and Steve Clarke will no doubt want to end on a high note.

For us, top four hopes have been dashed but Europa League football already secured. With that in mind the players mightn't be completely up for the game, especially those now with one eye on the World Cup, but Villa can still overtake us, which i'm sure their supporters would see as some sort of huge morale victory, but more important than that, finishing a point behind a very good Spurs side simply looks better than ending up trailing them by as many as seven.

Marton Fulop did quite well on Wednesday, the goal aside, and should make his final appearance. Gareth Barry is out for a month with ankle ligament damage and is now a doubt for the World Cup. With Stevie Ireland missing, too, Patrick Vieira will come in. Craig Bellamy could be rested, with SWP and Adam Johnson playing wide of the front two. Joleon Lescott hasn't travelled with the squad. Martin Petrov and the well-documented treble of goalkeepers are still missing.

The Hammers will be missing two key midfielders - the superb Valon Behrami, linked with a move here in the past, and impressive academy graduate and match-winner last time round, Jack Collison. Kieron Dyer is surprisingly out injured and hasn't completed a game for the club since featuring in a draw with Wigan almost three years ago. Herita Ilunga has a calf problem, and Zavon Hines has also been ruled out.

With national team manager Fabio Capello to name his thirty-man preliminary World Cup squad next week several on show this afternoon will be hoping to plant seeds in his mind with a good final day showing. Given the form of Joe Hart, Michael Dawson and Darren Bent, plus the rumoured return of the woeful Jamie Carragher, members of West Ham's English spine will all have concerns over their places. The injury to Gareth Barry, however, should give Scott Parker a chance after another good season saw him retain their Player of the Year award.

Possible teams:
West Ham: Green, Faubert, Spector, Upson, da Costa, Parker, Noble, Kovac, Cole, Ilan, Diamanti

City: Fulop, Zabaleta, Bridge, Toure, Kompany, de Jong, Wright-Phillips, Vieira, Tevez, Santa Cruz, A.Johnson

Prediction: West Ham 1 City 1


Friday mp3: The Postal Service

The Postal Service were/are Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie (bit shit), and Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel (whose third record Life Is Full of Possibilities is decent enough). The band came about after Gibbard guest-vocalled on that record, with well-received remixes encouraging the pair to make a full record together.

Released in 2003, Give Up is Sub Pop's best-selling album to date. Interestingly, the pair worked on the record separately, with Tamborello sending the electronic instrumentals via post (cue the name) to Gibbard, who added lyrics and instruments, resulting in one of the best LP's of the decade.

Mp3: Clark Gable
Buy the records

Preview: City v Villa

Three games, seven points needed, possibly more, it's squeaky-bum time and rather than being able to enjoy these sort of end-of-season tussles we craved for so long, i can safely say i'm absolutely bricking it. City are "in crisis" again, every man and his dog wants out, Villa are in great form, anything could happen. Drink through it and hope for the best remains my motto.

Marton Fulop, whose arrival seems to have caused a bout of amnesia for Martin O'Neill, is likely to make his debut, no pressure. Wayne Bridge hobbled off with a dead leg at Arsenal but should recover, but if not then Javi Garrido may come in, with Sylvinho still struggling with a calf injury. Failing that, Pablo Zabaleta, Nedum Onuoha or Micah Richards could switch flanks.

Gareth Barry is said to have a hamstring injury and could miss the vital game against the club he played over four-hundred times for. Should that be the case we wouldn't be spoilt for options - either Patrick Vieira, most likely, or Stephen Ireland. Ade is still suffering from a thigh strain but it didn't seem to hinder him too much during the second half at the Emirates.

Villa have their complete first eleven available, with only Fabien Delph and Curtis Davies out long-term. Delph won't be back until Christmas after rupturing his knee ligaments. Davies hasn't started a league game since scoring at Anfield in August. A half of League Cup action at Brighton in January all he's managed after surgery on a troublesome shoulder.

Though the game against Spurs has been declared the big showpiece, this fixture is just as important, and for both clubs. Realistically, Villa need six points from six, and even then they only have an outside chance given their goal difference, but their fans seem humble enough about that. We may not absolutely need maximum points, so long as we get three midweek that should, theoretically, mean a win at West Ham would see us home, but we have to guard against the possibility of Tottenham knocking in a cricket score either at home against Bolton or on the final day.

As it goes, Villa are a club we tend to get the better of. Sunderland aside, i think i'm right in saying the side we've taken most points from in the Premier League, and they've beaten us only five times in all competitions in that period. Their only success at Eastlands was a 0-2 win during 2006/7, during which we only managed five victories at home and escaped relegation by less than a handful of points.

This current Villa side, however, is easily the strongest we'll have faced over recent seasons, and O'Neill has done a great job of improving them year after year. They're a true side whereas we often rely on moments of magic from a small band of real game-changers. From a goalkeeper showing no signs of slowing down, to a defence that remains one of the strongest in the division, wingers capable of causing problems from either flank, and a striking partnership who link up to good effect, and that's not even mentioning thier best player!

It's hard to really pick holes in Villa's lot, and it says something about their strength that players such as Stan Petrov and Stephen Warnock, whose performances may go unnoticed by non-Villains, will be up there behind James Milner for their Player of the Year. Carlos Cuellar is a defender i enjoyed watching during his time at Rangers, he was mountainous there in the centre of defence, even against better opposition in Europe. He took a while to get going at Villa Park, and has made the right-back slot his own after Luke Young's good form last season, but i've seen him caught out several times this year and we could get a bit of joy if Craig Bellamy's on his game.

Most Blues would admit that the centre of midfield has been our main concern thus far, despite Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry doing well in parts. Martin O'Neill's decision to replace Barry with Milner has proved a masterstroke, and if we allow their midfield as much time on the ball as we did during our last home game, the late defeat against them lot, then the England man won't need a second invitation to stamp his mark on the afternoon.

In an ideal world we'd just go all guns blazing tomorrow, and if it doesn't work out than so be it. Sadly, we know we won't see it. We'll be cautious, occasionally force play and hope to grab a goal, which could again backfire. Mancini's record is admirable, but had our balls been a bit bigger we could quite easily be sat here having picked up three more points than we managed from two admittedly tough fixtures.

Possible teams:
City: Fulop, Onuoha, Zabaleta, Toure, Kompany, de Jong, A.Johnson, Barry, Tevez, Adebayor, Bellamy

Villa: Friedel, Cuellar, Warnock, Dunne, Collins, Petrov, Downing, Milner, Agbonlahor, Carew, A.Young

Prediction: City 1 Villa 1


Pressure no more on us than it is Villa or Tottenham

Former City captain Richard Dunne's words implying that the heat is all on his beloved Blues and not his current employers Villa ahead of Saturday's game has already proved the main soundbite ahead of a weekend which will not only play a big part in the fortunes of both clubs but prove an afternoon of heroes and villains (no pun intended), scores to be settled, good versus, well, you get the picture.

So far as 'needing' Champions League football, Dunne's probably right in the medium-term, but i'm not sure i agree that it's absolutely essential this season. At the start of last year Mark Hughes was given a target of finishing in the top half, we achieved that. This year's target, pre-season at least and publicly stated by both Khaldoon Al Mubarak and Garry Cook was top six. That objective, again going from what we were told on record, was then fast-tracked in light of extra funds given to the then manager, and his subsequent sacking certainly indicated that goals had been brought forward by a year.

The main factor in any disappointment that would follow for fans of any club realistically involved in the race for fourth has quite simply been the form of Liverpool. Even if they'd been slightly less below-par they'd be well away in their usual position of being the best of the rest but not quite good enough for the main prize. Their ten league defeats have opened a door, but that's not to mean that any side of the three who doesn't grab that final slot would have had a disappointing term.

Time seems to be a quick healer, certainly as far as pressure on managers goes. It wasn't all that long ago that Martin O'Neill was being heckled by those who go to Villa Park, being labelled 'tactically inept' by those who mainly don't, and couldn't give assurances of his future amidst rumours of unrest with owner Randy Lerner. Top six and two trips to Wembley surely shows further signs of progress, but odds are he'll pack his bags should they not achieve their greatest target.

It would be interesting to see how Spurs' season may go having to accommodate Champions League football should they see their way over the line. I think they'd be okay, and certainly no worse of than they'd be with the prospect of nineteen Europa League fixtures on the horizon. They are where they are because Redknapp has gotten full use of a squad which at the start of the season, with several players having either not shown their true form or being said to be unhappy, didn't appear, on paper at least, a touch on ours. With the likes of Gareth Bale, Sebastien Bassong, Michael Dawson, Niko Kranjcar and Roman Pavlyuchenko coming in and performing, Tottenham's strength-in-depth is now not a concern at all.

Overall, though, internet baloney aside, most Spurs fans would have been quite content with a top six finish this season, and whilst the way Redknapp has turned them round deserves enormous credit and any potential slip may not be a huge disaster, not being able to offer regular Wednesday evening European football next year would make it more likely that the "bigger" clubs (not wanting to get involved in that particular debate) express an interest in their best performers, and should they not grab fourth then certain members of their squad could quite possibly be prized away, most likely Luka Modric, or the current Lane hero, Gareth Bale.

What no City, Spurs or Villa fan would deny is that the club with most to lose here are the outsiders, the former greats of Anfield Road. They have a slim chance, assuming Spurs don't royally mess things up, but the possibility of Europa League success might be the only thing to persuade their two players - Nando Torres and Steven Gerrard, to stay put, the latter being due his biennial transfer request.

Where the pressure is, then, is difficult to say. Playing the other contenders on our own patch given our great record there, well, us failing to get the necessary results will certainly be painted out as us bottling it, for want of a better phrase, but we're due to be playing two terrific sides who the league table shows are at least as good as us.

Particularly irritating is the assumption by the dimmer amongst us that Spurs and Villa are both some sort of potential saviours of football's soul against a game that's becoming more and more money-orientated. We shouldn't forget that Spurs squad itself has cost the best part of £200m, and Martin O'Neill has brought over £100m of players into Villa. It's hardly obscene bucketloads versus paupers, and certainly isn't an unlevel playing field.

Should we not qualify for the Champions League this year then i've no doubt there'll be big decisions made at board level, but then there's likely to at both Villa and Liverpool, too, should neither of them manage it. Next year, whichever way it goes, will be a huge season, and the owners will almost certainly request an improvement once more. Gambling on a new face or sticking with Mancini would be a big call. I'd err towards the latter, as over his time at the club his results stand up to any of the other contenders, and though it might mean several departures, i'd prefer a manager to be judged on his players and not anothers.

One of the biggest plus-points about our situation is that it lessens the possibility of our better players being syphoned. Not that we're completely invulnerable to the vultures; the clubs who, let's be honest, have the prestige we could only dream of, but being in a position where you don't have to sell and any key player would have to take a hit to his pride (wallet) to move on, well, as much as anyone edging above us would be seen as a huge victory, a rival club strengthening window after window would worry me.

Dunney's assertion that the pressure is very much on us, then, is pretty nonsensical. Our manager is no more likely to be out of job if fourth isn't achieved than his, our star players are much less likely to move on, and we'll maintain the strongest hand to make further additions over the summer. Whilst the business models of both them and Spurs may well be better set-up to cope with seasons after season of dodging the biggest club competition in the world, we're clearly in the most commanding position to keep having a go at it, which surely makes it all the more vital that they grab their chance whilst they can.


Give Gunnar a go!

The only thing of note at all during ninety horrible minutes in London on the weekend was the unfortunate injury to our first-choice 'keeper Shay Given. An innocuous save to his left from a tame Abou Diaby shot saw the Irishman stretchered off, and being without three possible replacements for one reason or another means lumps in throats ahead of the visits of rivals Aston Villa and Tottenham.

Losing Shay is as cruel a blow as we could have been dealt approaching the final fortnight of the season. There's not a player more vital to us, in my opinion, even top scorer Carlos Tevez or frequent heartbeat of the side, Craig Bellamy. Though there have been slight wobbles this year, compared to last at least, we can excuse those considering he's barely played behind a settled defence. Lescott, Kompany, Toure and Bridge have all spent spells on the sidelines, and any goalkeeper will perform better with a regular back-four in front of him. Shay remains one of the best in the business.

Criticism of our backup options for Given is pretty nonsensical, too. There's not a side in the division with a top-class reserve 'keeper. Even the current or former title contenders have Hilario, Ben Foster and Lukasz Fabianki, respectively. Good goalkeepers will always want to play, even if it involves dropping down a level, and finding a good number two goalie is a difficult task.

In Joe Hart's case, his move could not have gone better - leaving for regular football, behind a defence that has proved relatively solid, it's worked out fantastically well for all parties (until now in our case!), ending with him being voted the best in his position in the league. The injury to Given, sad as it is, solves one problem in that unless he makes a very speedy recovery indeed, Joe will go into next season as a Manchester City player.

His career at City was to some extent fast-tracked. On signing he probably wouldn't have expected to have amassed over sixty first-team starts within three seasons, but he took his chance well and was worthy of being the number one. As a transfer window opened last January, however, and with us suffering indifferent results in Mark Hughes' first season, experience was needed all round, and no-one could argue that the arrival of Given shored things up, mainly down to him having significantly greater experience of organising defences.

Had there not have been a World Cup looming and potential for a seat on the plane to South Africa as none of his rival national team goalies stood out domestically, he may have stuck around, but the simple facts of it are that Joe Hart's good enough to play week in, week out at any level, and such an embarrassment of riches really forced our hand. Keeping him here just wasn't an option solvable solely by bumping up his take-home.

The signing of Stuart Taylor wouldn't have got Blues too excited, but with some Premier League and European Cup experience he was probably about the right level of player - happy to be here, capable of the odd emergency performance, on relatively low wages, and someone to help bring the younger alternatives on. It's certainly not as simple as saying our bank balance should ensure cover in every single department. An outfield player has scope to switch positions whereas in terms of a goalkeeper it's simply not the case.

With Birmingham keen to earn favour in the hope of acquiring Joe's services once more next season it should come as no surprise that they've at least stated publicly that they would be open to an early return. Whether McLeish would go for that is another story entirely, and he'd have a point had they anything at stake beyond a couple more quid in handouts.

Should they agree to give us England's finest back a fortnight ahead of schedule then i can think of no logical reason why the Premier League should deny our request. It is after all an emergency, and it would be a shame if the climax to a very exciting race for the final Champions League place wasn't played out fairly. If Spurs had loaned out a fit Carlo Cudicini and Gomes picked up a serious injury, hand-on-heart i'd have no qualms with them looking at bringing him back early.

Our chances of having the former Shrewsbury man between the sticks for Saturday's game with Villa, however, would appear extremely slim. Spurs, Liverpool and Villa themselves will no doubt be cosying up to the suits behind the scenes, and it looks more likely that we'll bring in some sort of unspectacular bench-warmer, with Marton Fulop being heavily linked.

I've not seen enough of Fulop to say whether he'll do short-term, but going into the next two games especially with him in goal makes me no less nervous than were it Nielsen. He did nothing wrong on Saturday, though in truth had very little to do. At time of writing he's the most senior goalkeeper we've got available, and whilst it's not ideal i'd rather we put an arm around him, give him a go and just see how things pan out. He may well prove himself to be completely inadequate and deserving of the tag of Faroe Islands number two, but then, just like Joe Hart, Kasper Schmeichel (for a time), even Arni Arason, and certain others, he might just surprise us.


Tedious ninety minutes but a potentially huge point from the Arsenal

City and Arsenal this evening walked around a pitch for a bit doing absolutely sod all between them in a game reminiscent of a pre-season friendly. Almost certainly our most uneventful fixture of the season to date, and one that proved a right waste of a couple of hours for all who watched, i'm sure. The draw however does see us gain on Tottenham and disappointing game aside a point away at one of the Big Four should never be sniffed at.

Roberto decided to go with a midfield three as we thought he might, with Patrick Vieira replacing Emmanuel Adebayor. Pablo Zabaleta returned to the starting eleven at right-back in place of Nedum Onuoha.

Alex Song came back into the Arsenal side for academy graduate Craig Eastmond. Robin van Persie, who made an impressive comeback from injury in the second half of the defeat at White Hart Lane, started alone in attack. Mikael Silvestre kept his place in the centre of defence.

It's difficult to make such a dire serving of football sound at all interesting. At the break my notes simply read "Wayne Bridge injured, later replaced". An Arsenal team missing several of their key offensive players and whose hopes of the title had already gone really had no bite, and we sat back occasionally threatening on the break but rarely if at all actually troubling Fabianski.

It took forty minutes for the first real shot at goal - Samir Nasri hitting across Given from the left. To our credit we defended resolutely throughout the half, especially Kolo and Vince, but with the wingers stuck to their lines and nothing in terms of an attacking central midfielder Carlos Tevez ploughed a lonely furrow up front and we offered very, very little.

Even after the interval things didn't brighten up, though the introduction of Adebayor woke up the home crowd and when switched to 4-4-2 we at least began to keep the ball and pressure the opposition, but the whole affair had the feeling of a final day game in which neither side had anything at all to gain from winning.

The biggest talking point came just after the seventieth minute when a speculative shot from outside the area by midfielder Abou Diaby forced Shay Given into a relatively routine save down to his left. Sadly, the Irish centurion suffered what would appear to be a serious injury. Faroe Islands international Gunnar Nielsen came on for his debut and did okay under limited pressure, but losing Shay will come as a terrible blow.

I think we have to see this as a potentially vital point gained despite the fact that the Arsenal side we faced were down to their bare bones and generally off colour. Anything less than a draw today would have realistically meant we had to win all three of our remaining games, but it now should (though it might not pan out exactly this way) be a case of a win against Spurs and four points from the other six being enough.

The main plus point of this afternoon were the performances of the centre-halves, both of who were solid throughout. It's difficult to really point out any others, and i'm sure Arsenal fans would say similar about their side. At the start of the day i'm certain most of us would have taken Spurs losing and us not doing, plus a West Ham win means no final day six-pointer at Upton Park. Can't grumble.

Given (Nielsen '76), Zabaleta, Bridge (Richards '27), Toure, Kompany, de Jong, Vieira (Adebayor '53), Barry, A.Johnson, Tevez, Bellamy


Friday mp3: The Delfonics

The Delfonics were a pioneering Philadelphia soul group, most popular in the late sixties and early seventies. Sampled by countless modern R&B artists, they earned a second wind after soundtracking Quentin Tarantino's 1997 film Jackie Brown.

The third of five records in six years, their self-titled LP was the first to both feature exclusively self-penned tracks and break the Billboard 100. Main songwriter Thom Bell would go on to produce bands such as The Stylistics.

Trying to swerve the obvious pick, this is from that eponymous LP.

Mp3 - Funny Feeling
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Three points at Arsenal?

Three wins in one season over them who until very recently had excelled in being our biggest bogey side would be too much to ask for, right? Pulling one out of the bag on a weekend in which both us and our greatest rivals for that elusive fourth Champions League position are expected to be beaten, well we'd be dreaming, no? Nurse...

Other than the usual suspects - Michael Johnson, Joleon Lescott and Martin Petrov, only Sylvinho and Micah Richards are deemed doubtful. Micah was to be assessed after training today and should be involved in some capacity, Sylvinho might be lucky to make the final eighteen.

Arsenal could be missing half of their strongest eleven plus a fair few bench-warmers. Manuel Almunia has a wrist injury so Lukasz Fabianski will continue in goal. First-choice central defensive duo Bill Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen are unlikely to play again this season with calf injuries, a problem that should also keep Andrei Arshavin out despite press reports indicating otherwise midweek. Cesc Fabregas has a broken leg. Denilson, Djourou, Gibbs and Ramsey will also be absent.

In twenty-five competitive home games this season Arsenal have only failed to win four. One of those was the 2-2 draw with the best team in the world, Barcelona not Everton who also left the Emirates with a draw. Their only two defeats have come against Chelsea - where they were simply overpowered, and United - who again demonstrated that the Gooners can struggle with the counter-attack.

I think we might see a tactical change tomorrow, and a switch back to the 4-3-3/4-5-1 from 4-4-2. In both tests away against members of the Big Four under Mancini so far we've gone with a very rigid midfield three, and so Patrick Vieira or Pablo Zabaleta might come in, possibly for Adam Johnson or even Emmanuel Adebayor.

Providing Alex Song passes a fitness test he should make up a back five that otherwise picks itself. Thomas Rosicky, who's been just about the pick of a bad bunch over a few rotten weeks for Arsenal, ought to start opposite Theo Walcott, with the new Gareth Bale - Ivorian villain-cum-hero Emmanuel Eboue likely to make up a the midfield with Nasri and Diaby. Niklas Bendtner will probably continue, but the inclusion of Robin van Persie would certainly lift the home crowd, the Dutchman pushing for a starting place after impressing from the bench in the defeat at Spurs.

With Arsenal's season pretty much over it wouldn't come as a complete surprise if we got something in a game that we'd otherwise expect absolutely sod all from. Their bad form (one win in six), and a squad largely made up of players whose eyes may be on South Africa, certainly gives us a faint hope, and knowing we need at least eight points from twelve, well, stranger things have happened. Pundits and the man in the street seem to fancy us as the nap of the weekend, but this sort of blind optimism might perhaps be tempered by our record both away in this particular fixture, and overall of late. At Fulham and Burnley we had the ball against teams with other things on their mind or who were simply rubbish, respectively. Arsenal will have several points to prove.

The headlines will inevitably centre around Ade's first return to his former employers since he acted like a complete numskull not once but twice during the earliest of our two maulings of them this season. Running the length of the pitch to wind up those who used to pay his wages was tempestuous if initially funny, but kicking a former team-mate in the face was pretty unforgivable, and though i agree with 5Live pundit and former Gunner Perry Groves that the best way to deal with a big ego on an opposing team is simply not to feed it, he'll be the star attraction.

Adebayor, for my money, has had a relatively successful campaign, but we must agree that the assessment of most Arsenal fans pre-season has been proved correct. You can't argue with a goal ratio better than one-in-two, but his overall form dips greatly and there seems to be little middle ground. Since the events of the African Nations he has generally performed better, but he'll never be anything less than frustrating simply because he has everything needed to be as good a centre-forward as there is. His languid style masks the fact that he's as quick and skillful as pretty much anyone, but so long as we're winning i'm not that arsed that he's occasionally a bit of an arsehole, he's a professional footballer, for f*cks sake, i imagine it would be hard not to be having had your ego pampered to for your adult life.

From our point of view, you have to look at the central core of the Arsenal back-line as being an area we can get at. Our main front three have over fifty goals between them, their back 'three' have been at fault for several goals of late between them, or in the case of Song, won't be playing in their natural position. A failed fitness test there would come as especially welcome news, with Mikael Silvestre lumbering his way towards retirement.

Although on paper at least whatever side we put out should be stronger than them in every department, i'm still not convinced we have it in us to go there and dictate possession. Trophyless and ultimately disappointing seasons or not, they're the best there is in this league with the ball, and only an outstanding, workmanlike performance plus them having an off-day will see us come away with anything. Here's hoping it's one of those weird, largely lifeless, end of season turn-ups.

Possible teams:
Arsenal: Fabianski, Sagna, Clichy, Campbell, Song, Diaby, Walcott, Eboue, Nasri, Bendtner, Rosicky

City: Given, Onuoha, Bridge, Toure, Kompany, de Jong, Zabaleta, Barry, Tevez, Adebayor, Bellamy

Prediction: Arsenal 2 City 2


Villa now just as big a threat as Spurs

As we head into the season's final lap, wounded by a late Paul Scholes header, the mood around the club is still generally upbeat. We now must win eight or nine points from a possible twelve. How we do so isn't important, just so long as reading the final table from north to south informs you that we've somehow gazumped a Spurs side who in all honesty have been better than us since August.

Our run-in could barely be more difficult. Less than half of the division's clubs realistically still have something to play for - we face four of them. Not that we're moaning, just a bit anxious that we're past Easter with something to still play for at the right end of the big league. As the only club in the top eight with no experience of battling for Europe (via the respected means, at least!), safe to say most Blues are feeling a mixture of trepidation, downright nerves, and the general 'typical City' expectation that we might royally balls it up.

It's long been thought that the game with Spurs, which could have quite easily been rescheduled for any of several dates over April, would be the biggie - a play-off of sorts - Gray, Keys & Redknapp Jnr shouting a lot for no reason, rubbing their hairy hands and nervously adjusting their skinny ties, respectively, as the "moneymen", a term no-one connected to Sky Sports can resist when discussing Manchester City, fall flat on their faces right at the wrong time.

Thing is, as much as a defeat that particular night would put Spurs more-or-less out of reach, i think we might be taking our eye off the ball in that a very good Aston Villa side are just as capable of coming to Eastlands and spoiling the party. A single league defeat in fifteen and three years of solid away form should command a touch more respect than assumptions that they'll merely be coming to make up the numbers.

Despite every man and his dog predicting that Villa would inevitably fall away they stand three wins off the seventy point mark that would normally see a club home. Their poorer goal difference could still see them fall just short even so, but they're going about their business effectively and quietly whilst those around them get most of the plaudits and headlines. The pressure isn't on them, and they know exactly what they have to do. With that in mind, i fail to see how it's a two-horse race.

By the time we take to the field at the Emirates on Saturday evening Villa will most likely have edged us into sixth position. The third city derby may not be a formality, but you would fancy them heavily against a Birmingham side already on their jollies. That would make their trip to Manchester as huge as Spurs' visit the following Wednesday, and they have players who can hurt us just as much.

More than that, what Villa will have is a deep-rooted desire to beat us based on more than just edging us for fourth place. The most obvious score to be settled would be by Richard Dunne, a fans favourite and regular Player of the Year winner whose forced exit didn't sit well with lots of Blues. On a pure footballing basis i thought it was best for all parties at the time, but how it was done wasn't right and although Dunnaldinho's early season brilliant form may have tailed off, he's still proved a canny acquisition by Martin O'Neill.

Richard Dunne, as he'd freely admit, is City through and through, and as a leader, off the pitch at least, was never anything less than a superb role model. On it he came back from the brink to give us at least three splendid seasons, and whilst his respect for our support has never been questioned, he'll have a message to send to the suits at Eastlands, and understandably so. The best way for him to do that would be to help his side to three vital points on May Day Weekend.

Another edge to the game has come to fruition this week in press reports linking Villa's current finest - winger-cum-midfielder James Milner, with a £20m+ move here in the summer. The truth behind such tales is debatable given that we don't know who our manager will be next season and the player in question would, on current form, walk into any side in the country. It could be the press simply playing games ahead of the run-in, but each season we're linked with a raft of players shortly before details of the following year's season tickets are announced, and Milner, along with Young, di Maria, Cardozo, Torres, well, it's fair to say they're all bums-on-seats sorts.

Beyond that, though, i wonder if people behind the scenes at the club are toying with Villa - leaking stories, true or false, in order to unsettle a rival. I wouldn't put it past them, and i'm not convinced it's a coincidence that the Manchester Evening News and Guardian were first to break the 'news'. I may be wrong, and Martin O'Neill is quick to point out that there's no real evidence to back those sort of thoughts up, but we really don't need to be giving a side as good as us, in a decent vein of form, and with more experience in these sort of end-of-campaign duels, any more excuse to come to town and end our season.


Friday mp3: The Clean

The Clean formed in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1978, one of a number of exciting Kiwi bands who made up the 'Dunedin Sound' around the turn of the eighties, including the previously covered Verlaines. Stephen Malkmus of Pavement cites them as a major influence and the two bands are to play together next month in London.

A sound heavily influenced by both The Ramones and sixties English bands, the Flying Nun group remain a cult favourite. Their 2002 Anthology is superb.

Mp3: Anything Could Happen
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Preview: City v United

The most important Derby since Dennis Law used the back of his boot to send his beloved United down in '74, allegedly. For the first time in God knows how long we've actually got something to play for at the top of the table (or there abouts!) post-Easter. The day-trippers are preparing their butties, the Snot & Custard scarved ones are on their way to Manchester.

A number of faces return for City ahead of the most important derby in donkey's years. Pablo Zabaleta has served his two-match suspension, Wayne Bridge could make his first appearance in a month after groin surgery, Pat Vieira's rest sees him back in the squad, and Stevie Ireland has recovered from an ankle knock. Sylvinho is rated 50/50. Lescott, Petrov and Michael Johnson are unlikely to play again this season.

As for the dark side, well, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand will both be rushed back from well-documented ankle and groin injuries, respectively, as their title hopes enter the Last Chance Saloon. Ryan Giggs is thought to be unlikely to start, and Wesley Brown, Anderson and young, canny buy of the summer and twenty goal cert Micky Bowen are all absent.

Having bagged eleven goals in our last two games 'keep as is' would be the most obvious plan, but i think Berto will make changes. Ned Onuoha hasn't put a foot wrong in recent weeks, but Pablo Zabaleta is one of Mancini's most-trusted troops, and he could come back in. Also, Pat Vieira may well earn a recall to counter the possibility of a five-man United midfield. If so, Adam Johnson would be the most obvious to lose out, though he's been in scintillating form, but it's hard to second-guess the manager's team selections. Wayne Bridge should come in for Javi Garrido.

Dimitar Berbatov was in typically sulky mood at Ewood last weekend, a game in which United started well but badly faded out of. Fergie could choose to stick with him, and Derby Day can make a hero out of these unfashionable sorts, but i've a feeling Park will come in somewhere, possibly behind Rooney. John O'Shea is surely United's best bet against Bellamy, Evra and Fletcher will return, and i fancy Alligs may opt for the Ginger Prince over Michael Carrick.

It's odd going into a Derby with everything going so right for us and so wrong for them. Our eleven on paper is now at least as strong as whichever one they could muster, and there are so many people tipping us to win that the whole thing feels a little uneasy. They're shot, we're looking like Barcelona, it's all too good to be true, isn't it? A moribund humbling surely awaits, does it not? Fuck that.

You can't really look beyond their latest Madrid-bound talisman as their main danger. Almost a goal a game this season says it all, and whilst they have struggled to replace the goals of Ronaldo and Tevez no-one can doubt that Rooney will be a worthy winner of Player of the Year. From an England point of view it's been a pleasure to see him mature from young talent to a member of the truly world class elite, and i'm sure he could do it in any major league in the world, and we'll get the chance to see either way on that one.

United, though, should never, ever be written off and are often at their best when wounded. I don't really buy into the "couldn't be playing them at a better time" malarkey. They have to win, HAVE to. You could argue we do, too, but our position is slightly more comfortable for our relative target. The worry is an over-confidence on our part. I guess it's up to the manager to have the lads in the right frame of mind, to not have their eyes further than the next result.

Luis Valencia has had a splendid first season at Old Trafford, from what i've seen. I like him. He's direct, as good wingers often are, he's got pace, strength, a good footballing brain and his delivery is decent. During the League Cup win, a game in which i thought we rode our luck in, he was the main danger. We, or more Javi Garrido, struggled to cope with high crossfield passes to the right and their attacking threat came almost exclusively from the Ecuadorian. Aside from their top scorer i see him as the main danger.

No-one can really call a Derby, but if we play to our capacities i think we'll have enough. In recent years we've rarely been in the position of the result meaning more than just bragging rights, United are seasoned at winning when it matters, but their side is lacking spark and at home we shouldn't fear anybody, seven points from nine against the other members of the so-called 'Big Four' bears that out. G'wan lads!

Possible teams:
City: Given, Zabaleta, Bridge, Toure, Kompany, de Jong, Vieira, Barry, Tevez, Adebayor, Bellamy

United: Van der Sar, O'Shea, Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Fletcher, Valencia, Scholes, Park, Rooney, Nani

Prediction: Us 3 Them Lot 1


Santa Cruz gets an hour as reserves see off Wigan

Roberto Mancini was briefly in attendance tonight as the second string beat near-neighbours Wigan by two goals in their penultimate league game of the season. A goal each from David Ball and Alex Nimely, both included in senior match squads in recent months, settled the game. City move above Liverpool into second.

The young Blues started the game extremely brightly and could have taken the lead within a minute, Alex Nimely threading through for Santa Cruz whose fierce strike was well pushed away by Nicholls. Nimely then sliced a chance from the resulting corner, and Scott Kay drove through the Wigan midfield, almost getting on the end of a great reverse ball from the big Paraguayan.

Robbie Mak, playing on the left, cut in and forced another good stop from Nicholls, and repeated the feat moments afterwards after a driving run down the flank from left-back Gregg Cunningham, this time scuffing his shot well wide after beating his man easily. Debutant 'keeper Loris Karius didn't have too much to do, easily saving a hopeful long drive from McManaman.

The deadlock was broken just after the quarter-hour. Tripper powered forward down the right and had looked to be taken out. The official played on and David Ball's speculative effort appeared to have nestled in the side netting. To the surprise of most of those in attendance the restart was signalled, and it has since emerged that the strike may have taken a deflection off a Wigan centre-half.

City certainly took their time getting going in the second half, and though the opposition's chances were extremely limited they at least began to keep possession and make it a bit of a contest. Kupisz and McManaman both called Karius into action with shots from outside the area, low saves on both counts, but the first twenty after the break were quite lifeless all round.

Santa Cruz was replaced on the hour having been in and out of a game without every really showing his class or experience. Some nice touches early on promised a productive evening, but he faded badly, possibly after a knock around the tenth minute, only showing occasional good link-ups with David Ball after the interval. Main thing is he's got a bit of gametime under his belt as the seniors season reaches the business end.

With Roque off, the side settled into their natural rhythm, and Alex Nimely ought to have extended our lead in the 65th minute, racing on to a high ball but his low shot just falling wide of Nicholls' left-hand post. At the other end McManaman again tested Karius from distance, and Serrano's left-footed free-kick dipped agonisingly wide of the upright.

Andrew Tutte's introduction saw Abdi Ibrahim push further forwards, and he began to make his mark on the game, getting into two or three good positions only for his finishing to let him down. A deep cross from the left found him at the back post but he scuffed his attempt at goal straight into Nicholls' arms.

As we approached the last five minutes Alex Nimely coolly controlled with one foot and smashed at Nicholls with the other from the edge of the box, heading comfortably for the top corner but for the save of the game. The same player put the game beyond doubt late on, going in bravely with the 'keeper after a ball over the top to prod home.

Karius, Trippier (Veseli '23), Cunningham, Boyata, Warbara, Kay, Ball, Ibrahim (Chantler '85), Santa Cruz (Tutte '63), Nimely, Mak


Brum brushed aside by clinical Blues

A potentially tricky fixture against a resolute Birmingham side this afternoon resulted in an emphatic 5-1 home win as City made it eleven goals in two games to cement their place as favourites for the all important fourth Champions League place. Strikers Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor each grabbed a brace. Forty-one for the season now for the £50m pairing. Nedum Onuoha was also on the scoresheet.

The only surprise in the City line-up was the inclusion of midfield workhorse Nigel de Jong. Having amassed nine yellow cards so far this season it was expected he would be rested, but an injury to Pat Vieira in the warm-up forced Mancini's hand. Javier Garrido replaced Sylvinho at left-back, the veteran Brazilian injuring a calf at Burnley last week.

Alex McLeish made just the one change from the side which earned a point against Liverpool - Joe Hart unable to play due to the terms of his loan agreement. Former Fulham and Northern Ireland stopper Maik Taylor replaced him. Otherwise it was the back four that's served them so well this year; Carr, Ridgewell, Dann & Johnson. James McFadden played off top scorer Jerome, with Fahey and Gardner wide in midfield.

There was never really a point during proceedings that Birmingham looked threatening, though Cameron Jerome taking advantage of some Kolo Toure dithering early on should have resulted in the first chance. Nige de Jong typically smashed a shot miles wide as we began to put our foot down, but it was pretty tentative - Tevez and Bellamy both unable to find their range after good moves involving Emmanuel Adebayor.

It was Adebayor who had the better of opening chances, Johnson's cross found Tevez whose lay-off to de Jong was headed on by Barry, Ade pulling wide but not hitting the target. A Garrido shot was then pulled down brilliantly by the big Togolese forward but Johnson timed his saving challenge well.

The deadlock was broken from the penalty spot, Tevez keeping up his 100% record. The decision had gone our way after Johnson cut in past two men on the right flank and found Ade who tried to wriggle between the centre-halves to get his shot away and was nudged by Dann. It was a naive challenge but i'm not completely convinced it warranted a penalty, but Carlito sent Taylor the wrong way and that was that.

Two minutes later we extended our lead. Another goal from a corner, something we seem surprisingly adept at of late, Johnson from the left, Onuoha's diving header, Tevez getting the touch virtually on the line. All dead and buried it seemed, but not so. Toure gave McFadden too much space down our right and his dinked cross was easily headed home by Jerome.

To round off a madcap few minutes we put the game to bed before the interval. Less than a minute had elapsed before Gareth Barry picked up possession on the halfway line and looped a staggering pass over the Brum full-back to Bellamy. The striker-cum-winger only had to cut in and square to Adebayor who tapped into the half-vacant goal.

The second half continued as the first had ended, with us threatening and Birmingham looking constantly vulnerable. Barry's quick free-kick was volleyed just wide by Ade, and Onuoha almost grabbed a fourth, Bowyer doing his best to prevent him from dispatching the header from close range. Johnson broke from the left-back position and the splitting runs of Adebayor and Barry left us two-on-one, opting for the latter Barry failed to control.

After that there was a short lull as Birmingham pressured. We began to look rushed in possession and were pressed deep inside our own half. Keith Fahey should have pulled one back, shutting his eyes with the goal at his mercy after Given had flapped at a deep Gardner cross. On two or three occasions we allowed them far too much space down our left but luckily they couldn't make anything of it.

On the hour Tevez wriggled through and only had one defender in between him and yet another treble. Manu screamed for the ball to be played inside but Carlos went on his own, eventually stumbling into Johnson's challenge. Lee Bowyer, who had an awful afternoon, then gifted us a free-kick around five yards outside of their box, Tevez curling towards Taylor's top corner but the German-born goalie saving well.

Chances continued to come - Barry sprayed another ball over the opposition defence, Bellamy back-heeling into Johnson's path and the signing from Boro seeing his rising shot just go the wrong side of the bar. Ade again found himself through, squaring for his strike partner but El Apache having another attempt blocked.

Stand-in right-back Onuoha put any lingering hopes of a Brum rally to bed with fifteen left on the clock. The defender roamed into midfield and tried to find Adebayor. A fortunate bounce saw the ball return to him and he drove right through the centre of their defence coolly finishing with his unfavoured left peg for what he must have then thought was his second of the afternoon.

Shaun Wright-Phillips, Gregg Cunningham and Roque Santa Cruz were all introduced late on, none surprisingly for de Jong who managed to evade the tenth booking that would have meant he missed two games. As time wore down Ade turned the final defender, a trick he's demonstrated a few times of late, clear through on goal he took a touch and finished confidently. A Seb Larsson smash sailing just high of Given's goal late on being the only remaining scare.

As with the result at a drenched Turf Moor last week, today was a splendid demonstration of us at our scintillating best. Birmingham are no mugs, they're rarely beaten handsomely, but we dismantled them in third gear and there was very little fault to find at all. Ade led the line well and when he plays as he's starting to he looks every inch the £25m forward. The other attacking players continue to dazzle, too.

The goal conceded and the occasional lapses in concentration from Javi Garrido aside there wasn't too much to moan about at the other end either, though McLeish's men were short of ideas. Onuoha may have been given the Man of the Match award, but i personally thought Gareth Barry shone brightest. His tireless performance reminded us of the box-to-box, game-changing midfielder of his Villa days, and he appears to be shaking off his patchy form at just the right time.

Today was a game we had to win, and we did it quite easily. The mood seems positive at the moment, and results elsewhere, either in terms of Liverpool dropping more points or Spurs' getting a confidence knock ahead of three tough games, exiting the FA Cup at Wembley, went our way. Next up is a Derby which will be huge for both sides. Play like today and we should have enough to get the job done.

Given, Onuoha, Garrido, Toure, Kompany, de Jong, A.Johnson (Cunningham '89), Barry, Tevez (Santa Cruz '87), Adebayor, Bellamy (Wright-Phillips '81)

Slick academy lads make easy work of Bolton

City's under-18s rode to a routine 3-0 victory over near-neighbours Bolton at Platt Lane yesterday. Norwegian youth international Omar Elabdellaoui grabbed two goals, midfield maestro Ahmad Benali notching the other and putting in a terrific Man of the Match display.

It was Benali who opened the scoring in the seventh minute somewhat against the run of play, rounding off a lovely move involving left-back Tom Smith and big striker Emerick Hippias. Smith burst forward and exchanged passes with 'Eric', crossing low for Ahmad to knock in with relative ease.

The lead was extended just after the half-hour, and again the goal involved some lovely touch passing. Centre-half Fredi Vaseli, who skippered Switzerland to under-17 European Championships glory earlier this season broke out of defence and another move involving Hippias and Benali was stuck away by Elabdellaoui.

Before half-time they should have had a third. Elabdellaoui was put through moments after the second goal but shot straight at the Bolton 'keeper. Hippias later turned his marker but saw his effort go wide. A bright opening five minutes aside it was a relatively routine first half's work.

Bolton did at least come into the game for a short period after the break. Their number eight lashed a shot at Wood's goal, the Welshman getting fingertips to it to stop fantastically. On the hour they should have had a penalty, Wood clearly taking out the onrushing forward but the ref being unmoved.

Sub Harry Bunn almost made it three, a roaming run infield by left-back Tom Smith seeing the ball fall to him but he couldn't finish. A cross from the right then made its way to Fredi Vaseli but his powerful volley was well saved. With only a couple of minutes left we did grab the deserved third, breaking from a Bolton free-kick and Smith forging forward once more, picking out Bunn who crossed for Elabdellaoui to grab his second and seal a comfortable victory.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable game. Bolton's occasional threats were well dealt with and like the first team the lads always looked at their most dangerous on the counter-attack. Most impressive, however, was Benali. He looks like a terrific prospect and turns possession well. From the centre of the park he ran the show and has a real eye for a pass.

It would be unfair to single too many out as it was a great team performance, and to a man they all played very well, but the left-back Smith was also outstanding - comfortable defending but always wanting to push on. Hippias, too, demonstrated a nice touch and strong work ethic and caused the opposition defence terrible trouble.

Wood, Mitchell, Smith, Vaseli, Wabara, Kapsalopodas (Grandison), Paris (Bunn), Benali, Elabdellaoui, Hippias, Olle (Robinson)