Carlos treble flatters borish Blues

A soggy Eastlands tonight played host to an even damper display by City, who somehow came away having beaten a brave Wigan side by three goals. A twelve minute Carlos Tevez hat-trick sees us back up to fifth, and whilst job well done we again did the business at home without playing at all like a team worthy of Champions League football.

Roberto decided to risk wholesale changes to the side which lost against Everton last week. Craig Bellamy, Gareth Barry and Micah Richards were all relegated to the bench, and Stevie Ireland's shin injury meant he didn't make the squad. Javi Garrido came in, with Pablo Zabaleta moving back to the right. Pat Vieira partnered Nigel de Jong in a central two, with Adam Johnson and Shaun Wright-Phillips wide and Emmanuel Adebayor returning after his four-match ban.

Wigan lined up in a 4-5-1 as expected, with top scorer Hugo Rodallega left and promising youngster James McCarthy right of lone striker Marcelo Moreno. Diame, Thomas and Scharner formed a physical central three, with Serbian 'keeper Vladimir Stojkovic replacing Chris Kirkland in the only change from their recent 1-0 victory over Burnley.

The first half never really got going and in the end we were treated to more of the same old drab fayre we're slowing beginning to get used to at Eastlands as the flowing football that not so long back was earning us plaudits seems a dim and distant memory. The first half-chance came on ten minutes, Johnson finding Tevez down the left and his cross picking out Ade in the area but Bramble doing well to block. Tevez then forced a great stop from the stand-in goalkeeper, on the end of a great one-two with SWP. It never really got much better.

Though Wigan didn't have a clear-cut chance themselves they were certainly more confident in possession, Rodallega working the left channel well and Moreno proving an effective target in attack. Our defending was rushed and nervy, and as was our undoing against Everton, not to mention several other games this season, we were constantly lethargic picking people up from set-pieces. A last-ditch tackle from SWP prevented Rodallega making more of his unchallenged run in from wide, Given eventually tipping wide.

On the half-hour Vincent Kompany elbowed Rodallega in the jaw and was lucky to escape punishment. Moreno's free-kick was straight at the wall but Scharner's half-volley from the edge of the area forced a great stop from Shay. As the half ground to a halt and most struggled to stay awake, the home fans frustrations became more obvious as Patrick Vieira began to look every bit his fifty-three years, pass after pass woefully adrift of blue shirts.

Mancini bowed to public pressure and introduced Bellamy at the break, Sean Wright-Phillips making way after becoming less effective once moved to the left. Early on we looked bright, and the passing more crisp, occasionally even accurate. Vieira found Johnson who spotted the run of Tevez infield, the Argentinian unleashing a shot that rebounded off Stojkovic for Adebayor to prod home, but he was a yard off and it was correctly ruled out.

In the fiftieth minute Johnson went on a mesmerising run, his twinkle toes somehow preventing the ball going out for a throw and him then making the beating of four men look like playground stuff. Caldwell could have been penalised for handballing inside the area, one of around a dozen penalty shouts we had, almost all fanciful, and at the other end Rodallega's pace almost caught us out.

The game changed ten minutes into the second half, Caldwell's horrid start to his Wigan career continued as he was given his marching orders for a foul on Tevez. It was clearly mistimed, high and dangerous but probably not deserving off a sending-off, and though it certainly worked in our favour it summed up the official's evening quite well, as he was repeatedly off with decisions.

Still, down to ten men Wigan soldiered on, and could have taken the lead on the hour, Moreno exquisitely controlling a long ball from Scharner with one foot, splitting our centre-halves, and crashing a left-pegged volley just wide of Given's goal. The big Bolivian worked his socks off all night, and if Wigan can keep him, Rodallega and N'Zogbia fit i don't envisage they'll be lured into the battle just below them.

Both our full-backs were booked before the opening goal, and both were correct decisions. Garrido scythed down Rodallega on the halfway line, then Zabaleta blocked his man after being beaten for pace and will now serve a two-game ban having accumulated ten yellows.

The breakthrough came eighteen minutes from time, a move leading to a hopeful Vieira prod through, the hapless Serbian sticksman unwilling to put his body on the line due to a high Adebayor foot, and Tevez notching his nineteenth in as many games. It should have been two within a minute, Carlos lobbing over the Wigan defence to Adebayor, but he dwelled on it and Scharner made a good late block.

Before long it was two-nil, Tevez again. A corner was laid back to Garrido, the stand-in full-back sailed a cross in low, Vincent Kompany backheeled across goal and Tevez finished with ease at the far post. Not a lot else of note happened before Carlito had bagged his second treble in City colours, some great closing down from Johnson, a ball down the right channel to El Apache who took Scharner one way and the other before effortlessly beating Stojkovic at his far post.

Someone who didn't watch this evening's performance could be given the impression it was relatively comfortable. Not so. For the most part we were bloody awful. Three points and a clean sheet can't be sniffed at, but there was very little endearing about another soulless home display. The main point of concern was again the central midfield, which just doesn't seem to be working whichever formation or personnel the manager tries. For most of the game there was a forty yard gap between the midfield and attack, meaning our threat off second balls was virtually nil.

More than that, the general standard of passing was well below par, the bar set alarmingly low by Vieira. He did improve, and played a part later on, but at times it was as if he was blindfolded, and whilst you can understand a player losing pace with age he should still be able to spot a pass and even occasionally execute it. There's an obvious lack of creativity through the centre, something we often get away with due to moments of magic by Tevez or Bellamy. The former salvaged us tonight, but in possession we're a mile of a Spurs side that are so much easier on the eye.

Bottom line is a win's a win, and we'll take them every week until the end of the season irrespective of performance. The lack of confidence in the side is quite discouraging, though, and for all the money spent we don't look like a team, a side, a set of players pulling in one direction. The season as a whole has been peculiar, on the verge of our best finish in years it really feels like a bit of a damp squib. Let's not procrastinate for too long, however, we needed to win and we did. Well done, just.

Given, Zabaleta, Garrido (Sylvinho '88), Toure, Kompany, de Jong, Wright-Phillips (Bellamy '46), Vieira, Tevez (Onuoha '88), Adebayor, A.Johnson


City on Woman's Hour

City were the subject of a feature on Radio 4's Woman's Hour this past Friday. The piece tells of the club's formation as St Mark's (West Gorton) by Anna Connell. Borne out of the need to both curb anti-social activity in East Manchester at the time, and enable players of a recently-formed cricket team to keep up their fitness, we're now thought of as being the only professional football club in the world founded by a female, something i was unaware of despite being familiar with the story.

Within two decades we had undergone two changes of name, first to Ardwick before becoming Manchester City in 1894, and had won the Second Division title, achieving our first major honour within a quarter of a century with a side that featured the prolific Billy Meredith.

Anyhow, if you didn't catch it at the time there's a link below. Excuse the clueless few outside the ground who the media often do such a great job in picking out. Best to forward to around 18:12 if you want to avoid listening to a studio of old ladies talking about biscuits.

Woman's Hour, 26/03/10

Preview: City v Wigan

A fixture that would have been widely considered our most straight-forward of the season's remainder has now taken on extra significance in light of the recent reverse at the hands of David Moyes' Everton. The knives are out for Mancini again, and a general losing of cool as well as our undefeated home record means we approach the game not certain of three points as we might previously have.

Emmanuel Adebayor has now completed the four-match ban for his red card at Stoke. Stevie Ireland hurt a shin during that painful defeat and will have a fitness test. Other than that the bodies missing are the same as expected - Joleon Lescott (hamstring), Wayne Bridge (groin), Martin Petrov and Michael Johnson (both knee).

Wigan are likely to be without influential midfielder Charles N'Zogbia who has injured a hip. The former Newcastle man bagged the opener during the reverse fixture in October and has excelled in a right-sided role this season. Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner have groin and thigh problems respectively, but are both expected to make the Latics final eighteen.

The visitors have won only two away games in all competitions since a splendid opening day victory at Villa Park. Last time out saw them making the short drive back from Bolton having been on the end of a Lancashire Derby mauling. They do have a relatively good record against us, however, earning a couple of wins at Eastlands over recent years, and although those were against a very different City side, they generally prove stubborn opponents.

Now that Eastlands has been breached it will be interesting to see if the Blues can do what good sides tend to and put a poor result behind them and get back to business. I thought we lost the physical battle in midfield on Wednesday, and if Wigan line up with a central three as expected then we mightn't have it all our own way.

Though his form has been patchy this season i'm sure Mancini will opt to recall Manu. Seven points from twelve without him hasn't been a bad return, but on Wednesday especially we struggled to keep the ball upfield, and despite our better football of the season coming in his absence there's only so much work Carlos Tevez can do.

I thought Pablo did okay at left-back against Everton, and he should continue there. Hopefully we'll see a more mature performance from the centre-halves, too. Both were disappointing, and as has been covered several times both here and elsewhere, that came as a bit of a shock to the system after the progress Vince and Joleon had been making over previous weeks.

If Martinez does attempt a containment job on our midfield then impressive youngster James McCarthy and Rodallega could play wide of a lone targetman, ether new arrival Marcelo Moreno or Jason Scotland. Either still to open their Premier League accounts has the nerves atwitching. Livewire winger Victor Moses, allegedly a target for us before making a £2.5m move to the JJB, may also figure from the bench.

Given Spurs winning yet again, and Liverpool overtaking us, this is absolutely must-win, and i think we'll get a real clue about our credentials for a top four place. Several times this season the lads have proven us wrong when approaching potential 'typical City' trip-ups, and though this isn't the most exciting of fixtures we must make sure that we turn up, cut out the wobbles, and get the job done. A fixture that tends to be settled by a single goal, a repeat of last season's scrappy 1-0 will be fine.

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

Wigan: Kirkland, Melchiot, Figueroa, Bramble, Caldwell, Scharner, Diame, Thomas, McCarthy, Moreno, Rodallega

Prediction: City 1 Wigan 0


Friday mp3: Asobi Seksu

Asobi Seksu are an American/Japanese MBV-schooled shoegaze band based in New York and consisting of Yuki Chikudate, James Hanna, as well as tour and session bassists and drummers. Describing them as a mix of Slowdive and Lush mightn't be completely accurate, but it's the best i've got.

The band's third LP, 2006's Citrus, is certainly the best starting point. This is a track from that splendid record.

MP3: Lions and Tigers
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Fourth or not, calm and humility needed

So, eight games left, five of which are at the only-recently penetrated fortress that is Eastlands. The club in the best financial position it, or any other has ever been, a tried and tested foreign manager, a squad assembled at eyebrow-raising cost, a season which has seen us make an impression at least on those we hope to ultimately catch. You'd think we'd be dancing jigs, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong.

Perhaps it's natural that as the stakes get higher the tension increases, but i get the impression that a good number of Blues are enjoying following the side less than ever. A support well-known and generally respected for it's ability to not take itself so seriously now seems fractured, short-tempered and in lots of cases a bit too keen to play the kid hard done by, perhaps as much a complaint about top-level football nowadays as anything.

Attitudes from the outside changed pretty much overnight as the takeover came to fruition, i think that's quite natural. How we're thought of outside of the club and its support is certainly a bone for contention. As a football fan in general as well as a Blue a certain part of me is against money dominating the game, but you sweep those calls of conscience under the carpet in the hope of seeing the club you love and live through better itself.

My concern is that we're beginning to live up to the image that a proportion of others have of us, that we're demanding of success despite not having had sniff of it in almost two generations, gradual improvement not good enough, glory wanted overnight, and the financial position we now find ourselves in cause enough for a swagger that we really haven't in any way earned.

Not that our olde place as a favourite of the neutral wasn't borne out of a certain deal of sympathy. A formerly great club stifled by a stubborn chairman and dwarfed by the rise and rise of its nearest neighbours, we had little choice but to have a sense of humour, we didn't have a leg to stand on. Without wanting to come across all Schindler, i do feel that's ebbing away, but then again, in the modern game maybe that's to be expected, i'm sure there are those over the city who would agree.

As we approach the business end of what should prove our best season in donkeys years you'd think that there might be a celebratory mood around the club, a sense of relief that for the third consecutive year we've made obvious progress, and a general air of excitement at the possibility we could achieve Champions League football. Thing is, i don't feel it, more so an anticipation that we're bound to fail.

The midweek loss against Everton was our first defeat at home in any competition in almost a year. A year. Twelve months. Afterwards the 'typical City' tosh was trotted out as usual, despite the fact that the position we now find ourselves in is completely new to us. All our rivals, let's not forget, have suffered late season heartbreak and wobbles when competing towards the top of the table. We haven't, blips will occur, we'll be stronger for them, and lessons will be learned, it's a natural case of a club growing.

In the day of instant opinions it seems that any football club is one disappointing result away from its latest crisis, or an unexpected three points off temporarily being the best thing since sliced bread. A handsome victory at Stamford Bridge and we're "certs for fourth", Mancini a genius, three dropped and he's suddenly under pressure, criticised for making changes, mocked for losing his cool.

I'm always slightly uneasy when people hark back to our darkest times as reason for us to not be disappointed with occasional lapses in either form or performances at present, but ten, five, even three years ago we could have only dreamt about being in the position we find ourselves now - on the verge of a place in the elite club competition in the world, and with it all in our own hands. Though only mismanagement had us there in the first place our ascent up the top three divisions of league football in just over a decade means we should be especially proud of where we now find ourselves.

Our remaining eight games will quite rightly be billed as cup finals, so in that sense perhaps the pulling out of hair is understandable. You could argue that the next few weeks are the most important in our history, but that's not to mean that falling just short would be reason for ripping everything up and starting again, or that any result which goes against us on the way is a crisis, or decision a conspiracy.

I can only speak for myself, but though nervous to the extent of occasionally feeling physically sick as we approach such a vital run of games, can we not just sit back and enjoy the bloody ride, keep our sense of humour, win and lose with dignity, accept that we're moving forwards, not get on our high horse because we've got so much to lose, and should it come off or not then graciously take the plaudits or accept defeat, win friends on the way up and all that?

I sincerely hope we can.


Lescott sorely missed as workmanlike Everton sneak all three points

A plucky Everton side tonight ended our unbeaten home record as a jaded City struggled to penetrate a well-organised defence. Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta grabbed the goals on a frustrating evening, the result leaving the race for fourth place well and truly in the balance.

Berto decided to bring Stevie Ireland back into the side after a period of bench-warming. Roque Santa Cruz made way as we reverted back to our favoured 4-5-1. Pablo Zabaleta filled in at left-back in the absence of Wayne Bridge, with Micah Richards returning on the opposite flank. Kolo Toure continued to deputise for Joleon Lescott. Nige de Jong replaced Patrick Vieira.

Everton started with Johnny Heitinga in a central midfield role, Phil Jagielka partnering former Blue Sylvain Distin in defence. Tim Cahill started off lone striker Louis Saha, with Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Yakubu having to make do with places on the bench.

The visitors pressed early, keeping the ball well for the opening ten as we tried putting our stamp on the game with several crunching tackles. The first incident of note was a booking for leading goalscorer Carlos Tevez. After forcing Jagielka into an error down our left flank, Phil Neville's saving clearance led to a 50/50 between Tevez and the former Sheffield United man, Carlos opting for a bit of an odd challenge with his head that was never either dangerous or unfair.

Neither side really created much in terms of clear-cut chances. Leighton Baines was having his fair share of luck down his wing, but it was Micah Richards who forced the first stop, Howard getting his fingertips to a header that seemed destined to test the woodwork. Tevez then had a good shout for a penalty, latching onto Ireland's hook over the defence he was clearly brought down by Howard, but Peter Walton, he who had such a poor game during the visit of tonight's city rivals last month, wasn't interested.

The incident came during a spell of around twenty-five minutes solid possession - Tevez almost beat Howard to a Johnson cross, Bellamy tested the American after a good move down the right involving Richards, Johnson and Ireland, then Carlos wanted one too many touches on a scrappy run through two or three defenders inside the area.

Completely against the run of play Everton hit us with a sucker punch. Whilst the tackle judged to be a foul by Walton was very soft, Barry adjudged to have brought down Cahill, there were a couple of bites on the way, so i'm not sure we can have any real complaints on that one, though the ref was awful overall. The ball was rolled back to Baines, completely unmarked to the left of the penalty box, and his cross found the head of Cahill, who has a habit of bagging goals against us.

Stevie Ireland was replaced five minutes short of the break, forced to hobble off just as he'd began to have some impact on proceedings. Shaun Wright-Phillips initially replaced him like-for-like, though he did move to his natural right side later on. Everton might have added to their lead after some sloppy defending gifted them a free-kick just outside our box. Pienaar was booked for a late challenge, Arteta somehow wasn't, yet Given was for protesting, summing up the official's kamikaze evening.

If anything it was the visitors who started the second period the brighter. A lethargic Vincent Kompany pass out of defence fell to Osman whose shot took a slight deflection and curled wide of Given's upright. Cahill then almost scored a goal worthy of sealing any game, chipping just left of the post. For a while Everton looked dominant, Johnny Heitinga proving especially effective turning defence into attack.

Just shy of the hour Mancini tried changing things again, taking off Adam Johnson and replacing him with Roque Santa Cruz in a switch to 4-4-2. It appeared to do us good as we again went on a twenty-plus minutes surge, wave after wave at the Toffees goal but with Tevez well taken care of by a surprisingly unrusty Jagielka we could turn little of our good possession into chances. For a while even Kolo Toure did his bit - galloping runs from one end of the field to the other, but we struggled to breach a solid Everton backline.

As much as you might argue that we had much more of the ball, the simple facts are that we did nothing with it in or around the area for the entire game. We were restricted to half-chances, and it's rare, if at all, that that's happened on our own patch this season. Santa Cruz blazed over, but we were never going to score, and with Everton by this point playing what in effect was a 4-6 formation, there was always a chance their extra midfield bodies would count as we wore ourselves out.

With five minutes left on the clock Mikel Arteta settled the game. Osman picked the ball up to the right on the halfway line and prodded forward to sub Rodwell. He went round Kompany with relative ease and pulled back for the Spaniard to strike home low right-footed past Shay. Moyes and Mancini were both ordered to leave the field later on, both probably unfairly, especially Moyes whose crime seemed solely being pushed by his opposite number.

I think we have to give Everton some credit. We were below par, but they made us look so. Our tempo is set, week after week, by two players, and as touched on before, the most dangerous of those, Tevez, was outdone by Jagielka. Bellamy had his fair share of possession but didn't look as lively as usual, and both of those things meant we were very blunt going forwards. We've seen Moyes send his teams here hoping to get lucky off a set-piece many times, and they were again, but you have to ask why no-one chose to pick Baines up knowing he can deliver pinpoint balls in like he did.

At the opposite end we again suffered from Toure Syndrome. His efforts going forwards can't be ignored, but the sheer presence of the Ivorian in the defence has us looking more like the Keystone Cops of the last days of Hughes than the disciplined pack that's matured under Roberto. The distribution of both centre-halves tonight was as big a negative as anything. Whenever we cut out an Everton attack the ball inevitably made its way back to a player in a dark blue shirt. With Joleon alongside Vince we'd drastically improved on that front.

Things, as they stand, are still in our hands, and hopefully tonight can prove a wake-up call. We're not as good at home as our record suggests, but neither are Everton anything less than a true challenger for fourth place only put back by serious injuries. Walton was poor, sure, but so were we. Everton didn't play particularly well, but they came with a game plan and stuck to it, we again assumed we'd wing it and were caught out. Fair cop.

Given, Richards (Vieira '75), Zabaleta, Toure, Kompany, de Jong, Ireland (Wright-Phillips '41), Barry, A.Johnson (Santa Cruz '57), Tevez, Bellamy


Preview: Fulham v City

This week has been a historic one for Fulham Football Club - an unexpected mauling of Italian giants Juventus seeing them reach the last eight of the Europa League. On Wednesday they can reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup. A club writing its own history before our very eyes, and all whilst, since Roy Hodgson has been at the helm at least, winning the hearts of the neutral. How far they've come since them and Ray Graydon's very good Walsall side forced us to settle for a Play-Off place in what we then referred to as Division Two.

Truth be told, i bloody enjoy watching them, and there's very little of fault at all that i can find about the club, especially given the decreasing public profile of owner Mo Al Fayed. Roy Hodgson's reign as manager must have surprised even him. His appointment at the time was generally thought of as one of desperation, a minstrel whose early successes as a boss seemed well behind him, he's transformed Fulham into a splendid team.

Anyhow, enough of my increasing admiration for Roy and his lads, we've got a game to win. Wayne Bridge has had surgery on a troublesome hernia and is expected to miss four to six weeks. Emmanuel Adebayor serves the penultimate game of his ban. Martin Petrov is still missing with a knee problem, but other than Michael Johnson being out long-term Roberto Mancini has a full squad to pick from.

Fulham's injury problems are improving, though the game will come too soon for John Paintsil (knee), and David Elm (sickness). Andy Johnson is unlikely to play again this season after a serious knee problem. Danny Murphy, suspended for that brilliant victory midweek, will probably replace Stephen Kelly, though given the Cottagers' comfortable league position, and with the cup trip to White Hart Lane midweek, Hodgson could choose to freshen things up.

Javier Garrido seems most likely to come in as a direct replacement for Bridge as Mancini sticks with the midfield three of Barry, de Jong and Zabaleta. Another option would be to give Pat Vieira a start, with either Barry or Zab moving to full-back, both having played there of late. Adam Johnson, whose spectacular injury-time goal at Sunderland earned us a deserved point that day, should get the nod over Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Provided Hodgson doesn't choose to make changes as previously discussed, Zoltan Gera should continue to support in attack. Clint Dempsey, whose cruciate ligament injury in January was expected to keep him out for up to six months, is most likely to start on the bench, with Damien Duff and Simon Davies providing the width and sixteen-goal Bobby Zamora leading the line. Chris Baird, employed in various positions this season, is most likely to revert to a more familiar right-back in an otherwise rarely-changed back five.

The Mayor's Show line has been trotted out by all and sundry since that stunning dismantling of Juve on Thursday, and though Hodgson doesn't deny that the cups are now their priority, their players, though a few may well be leggy, will be as up for the occasion as ever, and their respectable home record, including a hefty win over our near-rivals, commands respect.

This afternoon's three points for Spurs at Stoke certainly puts even further importance on us getting a positive result. Redknapp's side now face Pompey and Sunderland, games where you'd imagine they'll earn at least four points, so it's imperative we don't lose ground. Where a point would have been credible before this afternoon's games, all three might be necessary if we're to hold on to our tag as favourites for that last Champions League berth.

Fulham's main strength at Craven Cottage has been a water-tight defence breached on only nine occasions so far this season, a record bettered only by the club currently in first place, their name escapes me. They come into the game on the back of three successive home victories, January's 0-2 defeat by Aston Villa the only time they've come off second-best in their last nineteen attempts, which perhaps proves just how tough a task picking up three points will be.

My main worry against a team like Fulham, who use their widemen to such good use, is that our full-backs will be terribly our of their depth. The problems on both sides, some steady Wayne Bridge form of late aside, get regular mention, and with good reason. At Sunderland again, despite being quite proactive in an attacking sense during the first half, Micah Richards continuously afforded Steed Malbranque far too much space.

The main problem at present, though, isn't so much tactical, more that we seem to lack motivation early on in games, only able to stamp our authority on teams after the interval, as witnessed at both Sunderland and Chelsea. The gaffer, then, is right in saying that a positive start is essential, though the stats show that the Cottagers are rarely early birds themselves.

It's a tough one to call, a very difficult place to go but by no means a game that's beyond us. I've learned to not write us off, but Fulham keep the ball much better than we do, have a better shape and are generally more well-drilled. With games running out and Spurs pushing on three points would be particularly welcome, but it depends whether we see the Jekyll or the Hyde of a side which continues to be unsure of itself on the road.

Possible teams:
Fulham: Schwarzer, Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland, Etuhu, Davies, Murphy, Gera, Zamora, Duff

City: Given, Richards, Garrido, Kompany, Lescott, de Jong, Zabaleta, Barry, A.Johnson, Tevez, Bellamy

Prediction: Fulham 2 City 2


Friday mp3: Flashguns

Flashguns are a young four-piece from London who have toured with the likes of Jamie T and Bombay Bicycle Club during their relatively short time as a band. Quintessentially English lyrics and rolling stop-start chords have earned them (perhaps prematurely) comparisons to The Smiths, amongst others.

Their debut album, the shitely-titled The Beginning, is due out in the summer. Definitely one worth a punt.

This track is an early demo.

MP3: St. George
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Vieira has a role to play

The signing of former Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira from Inter Milan in January was met with a mixture of criticism and shrugging shoulders. The newspapers did their obligatory doubling of any new arrival at Manchester City's probable weekly wage, every idiot vaguely capable of stringing a few words together, and some not, were quick to label the signing as puzzling, bar a couple of his ex-Highbury teammates, and overall the cheaper of only two major arrivals in January was thought of as being underwhelming.

There are some things that can't be denied here. Vieira is thirty-three, and past his prime. When that 'prime', however, was almost a decade as one of, if not the best central midfielder in the country, possibly Europe, you can appreciate that emphasising that fact is pretty pointless. The body can only take so much before it begins to decline, and hunger levels will inevitably drop once any player is in the autumn of their career, particularly if they've been lucky enough for their time served to be decorated with major honours.

His City career so far hasn't involved a great deal that may prove the doubters wrong, but in my opinion there are signs that he'll prove a useful acquisition, that he brings something none of the other candidates for his position do, or at least are doing at present, and that he might possibly just have as much impact on the pitch as he's expected to have off it.

What he's blatantly not capable of is dominating a game like he once could. His body, after a tough fifteen-year slog in Europe's elite divisions, just isn't up to it. So far we've seen mistimed challenges and a depreciated reading of defensive duties in general, yet at times he has demonstrated that his football mind at least, when given time on the ball, is still as sharp as it needs to be.

With Stephen Ireland struggling to command a regular place in the starting eleven, Vieira is at least open to the idea of passing the ball through the middle of the park, something Barry, de Jong, even Zabaleta when he's shifted forward, seem incapable of doing. None of those three players are confident enough on the ball, willing to take a few touches or able to spot the run of a teammate. They're all there, very occasional instances excepted, to be spoilers, to break up play and give.

I honestly don't think Vieira is or has ever been, since he became a regular at Arsenal at least, a defensive or holding midfielder, yet his introduction is often met with grumbles from fans and talk of substitutions being defensive. If anything he's showing glimpses of being a player who can have an impact on games in an attacking sense, both in terms of occasional defence-splitting passes and as an extra bit of bulk in the final third.

Whats undeniable is that the next ten games will decide whether we achieve our goals for the season, and i think Pat can play a big part, especially given Wayne Bridge's recent surgery. Noise from the club seems to indicate that Javi Garrido will come in as a like-for-like replacement for Wayne, and although the Spaniard did okay in patches when called on earlier in the season, i'm not convinced he's the best option.

Ruling out the ridiculous calls for our best player over recent weeks, Joleon Lescott, to shift to full-back, i'd be more confident about either Gareth Barry or Pablo Zabaleta filling in for the short-term. Both have proved themselves capable when called upon to play there of late, and though neither are the most mobile of creatures, at least they're capable of putting their foot in now and again.

We'll see how things pan out, but i really think that Pat could prove a useful weapon over the final weeks of the season. I appreciate that most Blues want to see Stevie back in the side, but if Mancini doesn't fancy him, and more so when he's given the chance he doesn't impress, then that's that. Vieira, taking that into consideration, then, in terms of a central midfielder player being capable of changing a game, like it or lump it, and though many of us will have questions about if being fitting of the world's richest football club, is the next best we've got.


Patience needed with Johnson

When Adam Johnson signed from Middlesbrough in January many doubted the role in the deal of manager Roberto Mancini. Linked with the club a couple of months before he arrived, being the only cash transfer of that window, and given the gaffer's likely limited knowledge of the Championship, it had been thought Johnson was more of a club signing than someone the Italian had identified.

Whatever the truth about that, no-one could argue that the player didn't impress during his brief appearance against us in that dreary and quickly forgettable New Year third round cup tie. There's the strong possibility that Berto could have been quite taken with what he saw that day - a player capable of effortlessly skipping past bodies, with an end-product better than that of any of his current crop in a traditional winger sense, and generally the sort of bums-off-seats wide-man loved by fans throughout the game.

On signing, given that the names in front of him included probable Player of the Year Craig Bellamy, first-team mainstay, until recently at least, Shaun Wright-Phillips, and the then in-form Martin Petrov, and with the shadow of our most expensive ever signing lurking somewhere, probably half-heartedly, Johnson had been expected to at best be used as a bit-part player.

Though i'm sure he had made an impression during his time at Boro, the boy who has rocked up at City looks far from the punt made out at the time. During his debut from the bench at Hull he showed more interest than the entire starting eleven combined. His home introduction versus Bolton was one that will live long in the memory, always looking for the ball and to take on his man, it was the single highlight of an appalling evening's football, and at Sunderland on Sunday he well and truly saved our bacon.

It's becoming quickly apparent that we've bought a special player, and not just that but one capable of making an instant impact. I'm quite sure of his ability, but i do have slight concerns that we may be putting too much on his shoulders too soon, and talk of him being the man to replace England's most high-profile modern-day international, albeit one well past his prime, strikes me as a bit of a double-edged sword.

With the World Cup edging nearer, and questions over either the fitness of form of pretty much all the candidates for the right-wing position, there's a real chance that if Adam continues to have an impact then he could sneak one of the final places on the plane. As much as a finals littered with City players would be exciting, Johnson, in my opinion, needs time, and i'd rather his rise into the ranks of the full England side be a more natural one, and he not be the latest built-up and inevitably knocked down tabloid wonderkid.

Examples can be easily found at both club and international level of too much being expected of promising young players far too early in their careers. For England, the obvious reference point would be Theo Walcott, lauded as the next big thing far too early, ridiculously included in the final twenty-three for the last World Cup, his career suffering since save the odd bit of unexpected magic - that great run at Anfield in the Champions League springs to mind.

Our own fans need only look at Stephen Ireland's disappointing season. Last year he was our complete driving force, key to absolutely everything we did, but due to several factors - the integration into the side of Carlos Tevez, changes in formation, position, manager, competition for places, he's now struggling to be involved at all. That should be neither as unexpected nor as much a problem as it is, he's a young lad still learning his trade, not the second coming.

To be fair to Adam, he comes across as an extremely level-headed young fellow. He'll know that his move here will involve a tremendous amount of hard work, and that there are a number of players ahead of him in the running for England. Whilst i'm certain he'd never let them down, and could provide that unpredictable spark few others possess, we all - Blues, the media, England fans, and those who manage him, need to be a bit patient. He's one for the future, what will be will be, but kid gloves will do for now.


Johnno breaks Sunderland hearts to earn deserved point

A late pearler from new fans darling Adam Johnson this afternoon earned the Blues a valuable point at the Stadium of Light. Truly a game of two halves, the Mackems had put us under pressure for much of the first period, Kenwyne Jones bagging the opener. A change in formation and likely stiff words from Roberto at half-time, however, saw us return rejuvenated, and after much pressure sub Johnson snatched an injury time leveller.

Tigerish midfielder David Meyler earned a rare start in place of suspended captain Lorik Cana. Otherwise the opposition lined up as expected, with Steed Malbranque and Fraizer Campbell wide of their usual strikers, and Anton Ferdinand continuing as a makeshift left-back. Mancini made one change, Shaun Wright-Phillips replacing Adam Johnson on the right after his good performance from the bench at Chelsea a fortnight previously.

The home side started extremely brightly, backed by a capacity support whose continued vocal encouragement seemed somewhat unbefitting of the Stadium of Light. Steed Malbranque almost fed Darren Bent in inside three minutes, a late interception from Vince Kompany sparing our blushes. Moments later the buoyant Jones galloped down the left flank and cut inside his marker, firing tamely at Given.

With a mere nine minutes on the clock they took a deserved lead. Steed Malbranque, frequently a City tormentor when at Fulham but whose form for his clubs since could at best be described as fitful, turned in onto his preferred right peg and floated a cross into the penalty area where Jones rose like a salmon to head home with relative ease. It had certainly been coming.

Carlos Tevez, increasingly alienated in attack, picked up a booking for a late challenge on Michael Turner as we struggled to create any real efforts on goal. The half-chances that did follow were generally at the other end - Meyler's hopeful scuff trickled into Given's arms, Jones put another header wide and Malbranque went close, picking up the ball to the left of the area after Pablo Zabaleta appeared to have been unfairly felled.

The 4-5-1 patently wasn't working. With the threat of Bellamy nilled by Alan Hutton, SWP struggling to make the most of being up against a centre-half, and no obvious ball-player in the middle of the park, we were causing them few problems. To his credit, Mancini put his marker down quite early, introducing the still-not-fit Roque Santa Cruz and dropping Pablo Zabaleta back into the left of defence just after we'd created our first chance, Gareth Barry steering the ball wide after a tenacious run down the flank by Richards.

On another day Sunderland could have put the game to bed before the break. Darren Bent made a great run into the box, switching his feet but missing the ball completely when, given his form, you'd half expected him to drill home. Joleon Lescott then brought down Campbell and could have given away a penalty. The ref probably got it right but you wouldn't have been surprised to see it given.

If the first half had been relatively routine for Steve Bruce's side, the second was anything but. Trailing, we should probably have been expected to come out the brighter, but by the looks of it the Italian's half-time talk did the trick, as we relentlessly stalked their back five, pressuring them right from the off and gaining complete control of the game.

With Jones having been replaced at half-time, they became short of someone to hold the ball up in our half, much like we'd done early on. Santa Cruz should have levelled on fifty minutes, forcing a save from the impressive Gordon after being nodded in by Tevez. Almost immediately afterward, SWP was set away after a reverse ball into the area by Barry, but he chose to shoot low to Gordon's left instead of centring, the Scot again stopping well.

Either side of a bout of handbags between Meyler and Barry, both overreacting and earning yellows, but the Irishman showing some particularly unsporting behaviour trying to fire up the crowd to influence the official to dish our more severe punishment, Craig Bellamy almost beat Gordon with a dink off the outside of his foot. We were continuing to go close but as the heavens opened you began to wonder if it would be a barren afternoon.

Pat Vieira was introduced just after the hour, taking the place of Micah Richards, Zabaleta switching flanks and Barry becoming our third left-back of the game. Tevez had our best chance, beating his marker to the near post to get on the end of Bellamy's cross from the right, but again Gordon was equal to it.

With just shy of twenty minutes to go Mancini introduced Adam Johnson. Within seconds he'd gone on a mazy run, skinning two players and feeding Santa Cruz down the right channel, but the cross left a lot to be desired. Each time he got the ball he looked like doing something, with Sunderland having to double up to keep him at bay. Tevez blazed high and wide after a good turn from Santa Cruz, and Bellamy again tested Gordon.

As the game fell into four added minutes we continued to batter the home goal - a corner was smothered, Bellamy's goalward strike was somehow deflected off a defender, then Gordon and wide. Midway through the added time, however, we got our goal. A corner from the left ran long, Johnson picked up play, stopped the ball with his second touch and effortlessly curled into the top corner as the entire Sunderland defence stood stranded. A genuinely breathtaking finish.

For me, the positives of the second half far outweigh the poor performance first, and i stand by my opinion that a point at Sunderland is respectable. They bullied us early on, didn't let us settle and defended doggedly. Their centre halves did a real job on Carlos Tevez for large parts of the game, and their back five all did well enough. In the end quality told, and with rockets up arses and the change in tactics we began to play as we know we can.

No-one can really question the side Mancini started with, nor the formation given that it served us so well at Stamford Bridge. He was brave enough to make changes early, and again that's quite refreshing. We probably did deserve to sneak it, but enough encouragement can be taken from the last forty-five, where we demonstrated a hunger to take the game to the opposition.

The two substitutions after the break both had a positive impact. Vieira, though deemed a defensive midfielder, was at least willing to forge forward and also proved more useful as a body in the penalty area late on. Johnson's moment of magic won us the deserved point, but all round he seems more clinical in possession than Shaun, more capable of beating his man, has better movement, a far superior first touch and more of an end product.

Bar the penalty shout just before the break, Joleon Lescott again performed admirably, a steady head at the back, always in position, calm on the ball, generally reading attacks well, and on an afternoon where i thought Vince appeared a little irritable. A word for Santa Cruz, too, who despite not having his shooting boots on at least gave us some presence. He's some way off yet, and i doubt that he'll score consistently as at Blackburn without more direct play from the flanks, but he did okay.

How we go now is in our own hands. I believe we'll need around nineteen points to be sure of fourth position, and that's taking into account the worst-case scenario of Spurs getting the better of us at Eastlands as they tend to, though our results against the top sides so far should see us fancying our chances. If we play as we did post-bollocking today we've a real chance.

Given, Richards (Vieira '64), Bridge (Santa Cruz '33), Kompany, Lescott, de Jong, Zabaleta, Barry, Wright-Phillips (A.Johnson '73), Tevez, Bellamy


Preview: Sunderland v City

A season which promised so much for the North-East's top club has somehow contrived to fall apart at the seams. With the funding of new-ish owner Ellis Short, a proven Premier League manager in place, albeit one with Geordie tendencies, and the additions of several decent players - Bent, Cana, Turner, Cattermole - the Mackems have somehow been lured into a relegation battle.

Though their form over recent weeks has been awful to the extent that they've gone from being considered a dark horse for a Europa League place to one for the drop, at the Stadium of Light they've done quite well, and the block of four successive home fixtures that they're currently in the middle of gives them a good chance to pull away from sides that, though sides are where they deserve to be, Sunderland are much better than.

Midfielder Lorik Cana is suspended, and the other contenders for the central roles - Lee Cattermole, Kieran Richardson and impressive youngster Jordan Henderson are all carrying injuries, though you'd expect at least one to be passed fit. Benjani is prevented from playing due to the terms of his loan agreement, and the leaner than he once was Andy Reid has a hamstring problem, but otherwise Steve Bruce would appear to have a fully available squad to pick from.

You would have thought that Roberto's team selection would be relatively routine given our last result. In a way it's a shame we've had to wait a fortnight for our next game, but the fantastic win at Stamford Bridge should still give us the confidence to improve results on the road. Pat Vieira returns from a three-game suspension, with Martin Petrov the only player likely to be missing from the squad due to injury. Emmanuel Adebayor remains banned.

I expect we'll stick with the three-man central midfield that served us so well that day. The main decision will likely be who lines up on the right wing. Shaun Wright-Phillips impressed during the second half at Chelsea, but Adam Johnson has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water since joining from Boro, so it's a tough call, but either will find themselves playing against an unorthodox full-back in Anton Ferdinand.

The omens are certainly good for us. Sunderland have been one of a select few sides we've regularly got the better of over recent seasons, with nine consecutive victories stretching back to December 2002. We've also won on our last four visits to their place, and have only been beaten once against sides occupying bottom half positions. The Mackems also haven't won two on the bounce in a year and a half, but we know that such stats can mean little come the day.

Despite most folk seeing this one as an away banker, i don't envisage it being anything other than a very tough game. I'm slightly happier to be playing them after they've finally ended their winless streak save the inevitable 'typical City' result, but last time round aside we've hardly been imperious on the road, and often find ourselves losing both our shape and the physical battles.

The key battle should be between our central defence - both of whom have played very well over recent weeks and seem to be forming a real understanding, and their main attacking threats, - the dominant Kenwyne Jones and nineteen-goal record signing Darren Bent, who's proving his form at Charlton was no fluke after a disappointing spell at Spurs. If Vince and Joleon are even half as effective as they were against Drogba and pals then we could have a good afternoon.

I've no choice but to sit on the fence. Their relatively solid home form (just one defeat in sixteen), our patchy away results, the inevitability of us following up perhaps our greatest ever Premier League away win with a televised 'after the Lord Mayor's show' non-event makes me fancy a draw. Three points would be huge given Spurs' win over Blackburn and Liverpool's home fixture on Monday, but a point wouldn't be a bad result. We know that how we do at Eastlands will ultimately seal our fate, and points on the road are merely a Brucie bonus.

Possible teams:
Sunderland: Gordon, Hutton, Ferdinand, Turner, Mensah, Cattermole, Campbell, Richardson, Bent, Jones, Malbranque

City: Given, Richards, Bridge, Kompany, Lescott, de Jong, Zabaleta, Barry, A.Johnson, Tevez, Bellamy

Prediction: Sunderland 2 City 2


Friday mp3: The Walkmen

The Walkmen, a five-piece originally from Washington, are expected to release their sixth studio record this summer. 2004's Bows + Arrows is considered their best release to date.

In truth, this and the odd other track aside, i've always been a bit disappointed with the rest of the band's output, and this, their most popular track, is certainly not representative of their body of work. The two records i've bought are nice enough, but a bit plodding, whereas this track, 'The Rat', is pretty balls-out.

MP3: The Rat
Buy the records

Race for 4th: Villa

Whilst a top four finish would have been the aim at the start of the season, and especially given Liverpool's continuing awfulness, the prospect of a second cup final as well as a top six finish would surely represent another year of progress for O'Neill and Lerner. That defeat against United will have hurt, opinions on that particular competition aside. Villa were poor on the day and will want to make up for it. I think they've got a real chance against Chelsea.

Though we're above them in the league, and sit here with a bottomless pit of cash and able to attract most players in world football, i must admit a slight twinge of jealousy regards the Villa. They're more of a team than we are, and amassing a side of mainly likable and British players on a fraction of what we've blew really appeals to the football purist in me. Having to replace an entire defence doesn't seem to have slowed them down, and the moving of James Milner into a central midfield role has so far proved inspired.

Potential banana skins:
Their home run-in sees them playing none of the other European candidates. The majority of their dropped points at Villa Park have come against the sides near the summit, with the opening day defeat against Wigan and draw with West Ham the only exceptions. Wolves, Sunderland, and Blackburn should present few problems, but the visits of rejuvenated Everton and the third-city derby against the league's biggest overachievers this year, Birmingham, will both be tricky.

Sublime on the road last season, the Villains haven't managed to be as consistent this, although good wins at Old Trafford and Anfield shouldn't be ignored. The majority of their away fixtures are against sides who will most probably still have something to play for at the time, be it the title, fourth place, or maintaining their place in the division. Stoke are pretty much safe, but the Britannia remains one i'm sure no side looks forward to, and Pompey's inevitable points deduction could make that one an away banker, but Hull, Wigan, Chelsea, Bolton - all tough to call, plus they have to come here.

Despite the handbags between the two clubs over the summer transfer of Gareth Barry, i'm sure the majority of those who support either would count themselves in the 'if it ain't us, anyone but Liverpool' camp, and though them managing to outdo us would result in smugness from some considering we relieved them of one of their best players, and in turn sold them one not deemed good enough here who has since improved ten-fold, i genuinely wouldn't mind seeing them do it providing we don't.

Villa will be there or there abouts, and i don't imagine us, them and Spurs being separated by more than three or four points come the end. If they can stay solid at the back and keep Milner, Young and Agbonlahor fit then you can't write them off. Whilst i doubt we'll see a capitulation like last season i do see them going for broke in the FA Cup, a trophy that famously still eludes O'Neill, and hopefully that may work in our favour.

Remaining games and probable points:
H - Wolves (3), Sunderland (3), Everton (1), Birmingham (1), Blackburn (3)

A - Hull (1), Stoke (1), Wigan (3), Chelsea (0), Bolton (1), Portsmouth (3), City (0)

Prediction: 6th (65 pts)


City Vox Pops, part 9

Fourth place. Who do you see as favourites, what will be the difference, and can we do it?

Gary, We've Got Robinho

"I honestly think that City are favourites for fourth. I am sure if you read my blog you will know I am very very biased at times when it comes to City but in this case I think it's there for all to see that we are favourites. We are level on points with Spurs with a game in hand and we still have to play them at home, we are a point above Liverpool with a game in hand and we are four points clear of Villa and we still have to play them at home as well, it is in our own hands!

My opinion is that we are better than all of the other fourth-place contenders and if we play well for the rest of the season the difference between us getting fourth and one of them getting it will be our class.

Of course, I am going to say that I think City can get fourth, the thing is my optimism this time round is actually backed up by the fact that we have a good team now. We will ultimately just have to wait and see but I am quite sure that we can do it".

Danny, Bitter & Blue
"Although there are four sides going for it, I think Aston Villa will fall away as they have done in previous seasons. I did think it would be a battle between ourselves and Liverpool, but Spurs have impressed (and surprised) me with their consistency.

It's amazing to think we are just six points and nine goals shy of setting new Premier League records and shows just what a good season we have had to date so far even if there has been a sense of underachievement.

People have pointed to our run in as being the toughest, but in our favour is we have to play both Aston Villa and Tottenham at home, plus some other big games in which we usually reserve our best form for. You have a feeling that when the Tottenham game is re-arranged, it will have a huge bearing on the final outcome such will be the tight margins involved.

It will take late 60's, possibly as high as 70 points to secure fourth. Of course we can do it, but from an outsiders point of view you might say Liverpool are favourites.

We had a big win over Chelsea which could be the result to really generate some momentum and if we can profit from the break we are currently on - with Mancini being a key component - then I wouldn't back against us to achieve fourth come the end of the season".

Jason, This Is Our City
"Looking at the four clubs fixtures I think Aston Villa are going to struggle. The Spuds don't have a bad fixture list but still tough and they have lost an influential player in Tom Huddlestone.

I think it's between Liverpool and City. What's needed is a run of wins as of now and I really do think we can do it if we perform like we did at Chelsea".

Alan, Blue Days
"Looking at the league table, we appear to be favourites, but that assumes all remaining games are equal - and in the Premier League that's patently not the case. I think we have the hardest run-in, which more than cancels out our game in hand. If Torres and Gerrard stay fit until the end of the season, then I'd make Liverpool favourites.

One advantage is we're not in any Cup competitions. Spurs and Villa will still be giving their all for the FA Cup while Liverpool are naming strong sides for the Europa League. This could be a costly mistake if fatigue and injuries affect their league form.

The Chelsea result can't be a one-off as we'll require a consistency in churning out victories that we've yet to show. We could do it as the manager's had time to settle in and we've now got Tevez back. Mancini was entitled to focus on the defence when he arrived and, having sorted that out, he needs to restore the attacking balance required to win rather than draw games.

I'd love us to pull away from the pack, but fear it's going down to the wire - which raises the dreaded prospect of a 'typical City' moment. I'll just close my eyes and hope for a Gillingham '99 rather than Luton '83!".

Wallace, ESPN Soccernet
"Can we do it? In a word, no. I thought sixth at the start of the year and I've seen nothing from Hughes and Mancini that ever gave an indication that the club wasn't going to end up in that position. With the exception of right-back, City are a completely rebuilt team over the past 14 months. Such a situation rarely ever generates instant success. Liverpool, for all of their troubles, remain my pick to take fourth. Spurs fifth, followed by City, Villa and Everton.

Injuries remain the key. If Torres is fit then Liverpool should be fine. Modric is critical to Redknapp's regime in North-East London and the fitness of Tim Cahill will help determine where Everton finish. Villa have to get over the psychological barrier of O'Neill's winless March syndrome.

City can play some magical football and are excellent on the counter attack. The diamond formation used in the first thirty minutes against Bolton has potential to open up the most challenging of defences, but our problem remains simple - there is no midfield play-maker and
without such a player we run the risk of drawing against sides they should beat, Stoke being the prime recent example.

Sixth would be a great success for the club and it is disappointing that we seem to be in a cycle of it's either fourth or it is failure. A strong top sixth position and some needed fine tuning in the summer and I would see City as the clear favourite for fourth next season with a points total much closer to the top three than those chasing the pack.

There is no quick fix. I disagreed with Hughes on a lot of issues, but in that point he was dead on".

Lloyd, Man City Issues
"I think it's between us and Liverpool. I'm not sure Villa have enough goals in them and Spurs (like City) are too inconsistent. Obviously, Liverpool slipped up last night at the DW, but it's definitely going to go down to the wire.

Torres has just returned and if he starts scoring again then Liverpool could start to pull away. However, don't write Villa and Spurs off just yet because they could easily go on a run and gain some confidence.

Fourth place is Mancini's to lose and I honestly think that we will can do it, with Tevez and Bellamy making all the difference in attack. But the most important factor will be the defence and to see if Kompany and Lescott can build on the foundations they have already set.

It'll be very interesting and our season will be defined on how we perform against the likes of Villa, Spurs and Everton in the coming weeks".

Boris, CityShout
"When people have asked me about City’s chances, my stock answer all season has been 'Ask me after the next two games' – not because I’m indecisive but because we always seem to be approaching some sort of hurdle or we’re in some sort of mini-crisis. The truth is that we are approaching the business end of the season and there’s nowhere to hide.

This fortnight has seemed like a year. Two weeks is a long time to go without football when all around others are still actively involved, after Sunday though it’s back to business and barring freakish weather or some other catastrophe, the matches will come thick and fast. This will suit City - as long as we get off to a flyer against Sunderland. Historically we’ve had mixed fortunes at the Stadium of Light but it has hardly been one of our graveyards. The trip to Fulham doesn’t usually bode well but they have to shoe-horn our visit in between trips to Old Trafford and Juventus, plus a cup replay against Spurs somewhere in the mix. I just wonder where we lie in Roy Hodgson's plans.

After that it’s more straight forward – nine games left, six at home. Could we remain unbeaten at home this season? Yes we can. The defence is starting to look resolute; the midfield has bite though it’s still missing the Stephen Ireland of last year. Adebayor still has three games left of his ban but Bellamy and Tevez seem to be running on horse adrenalin. The injury list gets shorter by the week and at last we’re starting to gel as a unit.

If you class Villa and Spuds as our true rivals we have to remind ourselves that they have cup distractions and we don’t. Noises from the club suggest we’re going to take a single-minded approach to finishing in the top four. I believe we can do it".

If you run or write for a city blog or website and would like to contribute to the Vox Pops, please send a quick email to norfstander[at]live[.]co[.]uk.


Race for 4th: Liverpool

Until tonight's defeat at Wigan i had viewed Liverpool as favourites to grab that last Champions League place. Their run-in, on paper at least, has been said by the majority of those who have compared them thus far to be the most favourable. You'd certainly fancy them to pick up at least twelve points from their remaining home games, their form at Anfield strong as ever, just two defeats, both against sides nearer to the top of the table - Arsenal and Aston Villa.

Their performances away from home, however, will be both a cause of concern for their supporters as we approach the run-in, and of optimism for those of the clubs around them. This evening was another example of a shapeless and badly-coached side completely void of any ideas in the final third, and they'll have to improve greatly on the road to take maximum points at the likes of Birmingham, Hull or Burnley, the latter two of which will be fighting for their lives.

The return of Glen Johnson may just give them a bit of attacking drive. Hopeless in defence though he is, there's no doubt he's a real outlet going forward. Martin Skrtel is expected to miss at least another six weeks with a broken metatarsal. Fernando Torres will eventually regain fitness and put the fear of living god up all who mark him, but let's hope that happens later rather than sooner.

Potential banana skins:
The trip to Old Trafford stands out, United will have a point to prove, but should they get past Lille in the last sixteen of the Europa League the Dippers face Birmingham at St.Andrews the following weekend, most likely to be moved back to the Sunday. Any potential jaunt into the semis would mean European ties followed by games away at Burnley, and at Anfield against Chelsea on the penultimate weekend, which could see the Stamford Bridge side need a result to stay in the title race.

Remaining games and probable points:
H - Portsmouth (3), Sunderland (3), Fulham (3), West Ham (3), Chelsea (1)
A - United (0), Birmingham (1), Burnley (1), Hull (1)

An awful side, but never write them off. They were never as good as their position last year suggested, but neither are they as bad as they've been for most of this season. Well capable of having the last laugh by pushing on, and much more experience than the other contenders, but almost certainly the worst Liverpool side i've seen. They'll quite probably win the Europa League and paper over the obvious huge cracks. I know their lot get defensive when outsiders attack Benitez, but those who go week in, week out will tell you they think it's about time.

Prediction: 7th (64 pts)


Friday mp3: The Verlaines

The Verlaines were/are from Dunedin, allegedly the most Scottish city in New Zealand. Formed in 1981, the band went through multiple line-ups before going on an extended hiatus after their nineties album Over The Moon. In 2003 a career retrospective You're Just Too Obscure For Me was released, earning them a new wave of fans. Two albums have since followed.

Still perhaps one of the most underrated bands of the last few decades they and their Flying Nun colleagues - The Chills, The Clean, and others, continue to be indie favourites. Their first record, Juvenilia, a collection of their early EP's, is especially worth delving into, though their best work, those early records, aren't all that easy to come by.

MP3 - Death and the Maiden

Ian Wright - Clearly a bit of a plank

The paternal outrage of Burnley legend Ian Wright regards our enforced employment of his son hasn't come at the best time. With more than half of his four-year deal still to run SWP Snr has decided that now, as we approach the run-in of such an important season, is a suitable opportunity to run his mouth and try and earn his boy a few more measly quid.

Wright's opinions, much like those of almost every other presenter employed by Talk Sport, change with the wind. He's always struck me as an identikit gobshite, whose white van man shtick, as pointed out in this morning's Guardian, generally just involves him shouting a bit.

The idea that someone on £70,ooo each and every week is in any way being 'mugged off', which i assume means short-changed, is pretty ridiculous. Somewhere there probably is a valid point. Shaun is being paid tens of thousands of pounds less than players who contribute no more to the team, but i doubt he's in any danger of having to walk to the corner shop with a pocketful of shrapnel for a loaf any time soon.

SWP's return to the club he professes to love certainly came at an unfortunate one for him financially. Within days we were the richest club in world football, and Robinho had arrived on double-bubble. Whatever line of work you're in, it's natural that you'd feel some regret over agreeing your terms just before your employers were able to wipe their backsides on notes like there was no tomorrow.

As much as the phrase 'not about the money' has never sat well with me, Shaun's return to the club was viewed as one for the best in terms of his football, a homecoming to the place he truly felt most comfortable, the opportunity to play most weeks and enhance his chances with the national side. In those senses it's certainly been a success.

With the increase in competition for places now there's no surprise that those who don't perform week in, week out aren't pleased when they're left to gain splinters in their arse every now and again. Shaun has had some poor games, but it would be unfair and incorrect to label his season as as a whole a bad one given that he's bagged himself six goals and around a dozen assists in all competitions.

I think it's very important that we separate issues here. Shaun is a great asset to Manchester City, and has never ever done wrong by the club. On the other side of the scales, it must be said, is the fact that his dad is a balloon, and although i'm sure Cook and Marwood aren't the sort of people most would enjoy sitting around a negotiating table with, the fact that the lad probably does deserve parity with certain other players at the club shouldn't make a debate via press necessary.

I sincerely hope that this issue doesn't drag on. You would think that the logical step would be the club offering him a payrise to put him on the sort of wages the likes of Gareth Barry, Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge take home, an extra year or two, with the condition that the old man buttons his gob. All much easier said than done. Sadly, Wright's comments could lead to a stand-off between the parties involved. Cook and Marwood can quite rightly feel aggrieved, and you wouldn't blame them for being keen to not bow to the pressure placed on them.

It's a tough one to call, but the best way for Shaun to get what he wants is for him to do his talking where it matters, on the pitch. If he shows over the remaining games that he's vital to our future, as he did when brought on at Chelsea, then the club will have no option but to reward him. Despite some criticism, him staying is what most of us want, too, it's just a shame that what should have been a relatively straight-forward resigning has turned into a very public game of chicken.