Manchester City have started their 2011-12 season at a blistering speed as Premiership betting odds declared them favorites for the title, but any club fans that thought the Etihad Stadium outfit were simply going to whitewash every team that crossed their paths with ease may now be having a second thought. The 2-1 defeat to Napoli in Italy on Tuesday night will test Roberto Mancini’s men’s resolve, as three difficult opponents lay in wait over the next 11 days.
Roy Hodgson is the type of Manager that Manchester City’s high priced squad would excel under. An English tactical maestro, who has lots of continental football management experience, Hodgson is as good as an English manager gets.
City, however have chosen a manager who as recently as 2007 downplayed the role of tactics in favor of player psychology. No doubt in my mind, that many of the non-British players in the squad have excelled under Mancini, but the form of the Gareth Barry among others causes concern.
Fulham is coming off one of the biggest nights in the club’s long history: a European triumph over Juventus. Just a few years ago, the thought of the likes of Juve playing a meaningful match at Craven Cottage was a fantasy of the highest order. But today, under Hodgson, the Cottagers are flying.
October’s reverse fixture at Eastlands exposed the frailties of the Blues under Mark Hughes. Conceding a two goal lead at home and allowing countless chances for Fulham to score even more than the two second half goals they tallied. Whatever Manicini has done tactically or psychologically, a significant change is that it is often City that is playing from behind and gutting out results, not the opposite which was os often the case under Hughes.
This match will tell us a great deal about City’s quest for fourth position. A victory, and the Citizens are well on track to grab fourth, a draw and we’re still very much part of the discussion. A loss means perhaps we’ll be dreaming of replicating Fulham’s good fortune in this season’s Europa League at this time next year.
For all the laughter Phil Brown elicits, Hull City’s side has been remarkably competitive the past two months. Beginning with a 2-1 win at home to Stoke, and then continuing through the Jimmy Bullard goal celebration at Eastlands, Hull has gone from seemingly dead and buried to having a real opportunity to escape relegation.
Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea at the KC Stadium provided proof of how well Hull can defend at home. Given, that City’s two point blown in the earlier matchup will be critical in the final table, three points is essential tomorrow.
The experienced Stephen Hunt leads Hull’s attack, which features lots of depth but questionable quality. No question that Brown, partly through overspending has brought more attacking options to Hull (the latest being Zaki) than any other team fighting relegation has, save West Ham who aspent big in this recently closed transfer window.
But Brown has failed to develop a continuity among his strike partnerships of his midfield and Hull often times resembles a disjointed group of players not accustomed to working together. City will have the opportunity to exploit this.
This game is critical for City’s remaining hopes of making the Champions League. Hull has played reasonably well lately, but taking the full three points at the KC Stadium would make a strong statement that City, under Roberto Mancini can deal with the type of squads that troubled MArk Hughes’ Blues.
City get the day off due to a frozen pitch.
A straight forward fixture against a side at the bottom of the table awaits City on Sunday. West Brom has been far worse than the two other newly promoted sides, Hull and Stoke despite having far more footballers with prior Premiership experience than the aformentioned clubs. But West Brom in their previous Premier League lives have served as a boggy team of sorts for City: much like Wigan whom City have never beaten in Premier League play.
City’s 17 pts are the lowest the club has has at this point in the Premier League season since 2000/01. That year City was relegated under Joe Royale. If you recall two years ago, City was sitting on 18 pts and hovering near the relegation zone entering the Holiday fixtures and won three on the bounce when Joey Barton was suspended to eliviate relegation fears for a few months. For all the criticism of Stuart Pearce he was able to keep a low payrool City squad in the Premier League two consecutive seasons with arguably inferior quality to one or more of the sides that were relegated.
City should have Richard Dunne back for this match but may be without Robinho who according to club call has aggravated his injury. Dunne is the unquestioned leader of the side but even he has not been immune from mistakes during City’s recent poor run of form. However, after watching Tal Ben Haim’s display in the UEFA Cup midweek any change at the back is a welcome one.
My guess is City will be lucky to get a point out of this fixture. The current set of players seem to be going through the motions both in the league and UEFA Cup, where despite advancement City’s last two matches have been poor outings. Thus West Brom desperate for points and not without quality must sense the opportunity to get three points at home.
Tonight’s UEFA Cup clash between City and Racing will determine whether the Blues can avoid facing a Champions League side in the first knock out round. City has already clinched advancement to the next stage and sits atop Group A with 7 points. However, Steve McLaren’s FC Twente sits a single point behind City and could jump the Blues for first place with a City loss or draw today. That would place City in the unenviable position of facing a Champions League third place team in the next stage.
City will be without Jo and Richard Dunne for this clash limiting Mark Hughes flexibility in submitting his team sheet. Irrespective of the City’s poor league form, winning a UEFA Cup group would be a signature achievement for Hughes so early in his tenure, especially when you consider the number of injuries the manager has had to contend with during this campaign. We’ll have full post game coverage after the match.