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