Monday, 26 July 2010

City of Culture

Is Manchester going to be the most interesting city in European football next year?

Remember the theatre of last year’s Carling Cup semi-final. Here we had a derby with a potential trophy at the end rather than just local pride. Against all odds, the Milk Cup had become interesting again.

The first leg at Eastlands was engrossing, Tevez sparkled but his two goals failed to earn the column inches of Gary Neville’s middle finger. A 2-1 home win set up the return leg at Old Trafford perfectly – could Manchester City get to their first Worthington Cup Final since 1976?

United moved into a 2-0 lead through Scholes and Carrick, Rooney missed a chance to all but secure back to back Rumblelows Cup Final appearances. Out of the blue Tevez bristled past a static United defence to pull one back and it looked for all the world like extra time. Cue the second injury time winner in the Manchester derby of the season, this time Rooney rather than Michael Owen headed arms outstretched to the corner flag. United went on to lift the Littlewoods Cup again and City finished without a trophy despite showing glimpses of what might have been.

The prize of a potential Coca-Cola Cup added an indisputable edge to a derby that has occasionally sparkled, but largely mattered to fans more than either clubs trophy cabinet. City’s injection of cash added a layer of interest to the league encounters but as has been the case since Elton Welsby was presenting ‘The Match’, City never looked like troubling United’s title ambitions.
However, next season is going to be a very different proposition.

Looking at the two teams individually it’s almost impossible to separate their domestic ambitions. Both teams will see a top 4 league finish as a minimum; both teams will see semi-finals as realistic. While United have history and experience on their side, City have BP pushing oil prices up.

Much is being made of City’s current transfer policy. Many journalists have been quick to deride their purchases and say they can’t believe fans are happy with the size of the first team squad. While there is no denying the size of City’s player pool isn’t necessarily conducive to squad harmony, are their purchases really that misjudged?

Firstly, there’s the persistent reinforcement in the defensive midfield position. In the biggest games Mancini’s preferred deployment of two defensive midfielders in front of the back four requires a minimum of three players capable of filling the position. Patrick Vieira hasn’t been signed to consistently play in this position, he’s been signed to guide and cajole those that have.

The regular playing rotation will most likely revolve around Kompany, de Jong, Yaya Toure, and Barry. All have played internationally in the position and both Barry and Toure are capable of playing in the more advanced position at the base of an attacking diamond. David Silva can also play in this position if not expected to drop quite as deep. All options will get plenty of game time in various different midfield patterns and where Mancini attracted criticism last year for his overly defensive approach, he now has the midfielders he wanted capable of changing the game at the base of the diamond.

Sir Alex Ferguson has problems in the centre of his midfield. Owen Hargreaves is a desperate loss in a vital position again, only Darren Fletcher can really be counted as approaching a specialist defensive midfielder. Filling in Michael Carrick can do a passable impression but no more than that, every time Paul Scholes attempts a tackle an angel dies so is a liability in the role. United’s strengths lie in their attacking areas and this season, they will rely on them more than ever.

On the flanks the red half of Manchester carries its real threat. If Nani can continue his end of season form he might begin to look like the £17m that was allegedly paid for him. Valencia had a stunning first season and his delivery was consistently Rooney’s greatest goal threat. Obertan is emerging in the reserve league as a lightening quick winger and goalscorer, Park Ji Sung provides industry in the Dirk Kuyt envelope with the rather useful habit of saving his goals for big games. On top of these four options Ryan Giggs continues to keep an aging portrait of himself locked in an attic somewhere.

City have spent time developing genuine wide players that can slip into a more orthodox front 3 like their neighbours chose to on occasion. If Silva displays none of the often cited home-sickness issues, he could prove to be their most intelligent purchase. He’s more than capable of playing through the middle, as a support striker, or as an out and out left winger happy to get chalk on his boots. While there’s no denying Craig Bellamy did an excellent job in the left of City’s attack last year, his natural instinct to come inside and provide a goal threat meant Wayne Bridge ploughed a lone furrow at times. With Silva, Shaun Wright-Phillips, and Adam Johnson already in the squad, and either James Milner and Landon Donavon talked about as further recruits on the wings, it appears width is going to be an important aspect to Mancini’s ambitions this season.

Couple this to the options for the front 3. Tevez continues to be an excellent runner either left or right of a central striker, 23 goals proved he can couple work-rate with threat. Silva can operate on the left of a 3, Tevez on the right, Johnson and Wright-Phillips represent decent back-up options. Interestingly if potential signing Balotelli does join the revolution, he is comfortable in any position across a front 3. Adebayor will remain temperamental but sometimes brilliant through the middle, Robinho…well who knows about Robinho and where he’ll be next year.

United move their wingers higher up the pitch and allow their fulcrum Rooney to play freely through the middle. When playing with a more conventional 2 it brings the Berbatov issue back into focus. A supremely talented footballer whose demeanour masks his work ethic, he forces United to work their angles in a different manner. Even though playing as a striker Berbatov likes to arrive late which generally nullifies Scholes’s main threat. He struggles as a focal point as witnessed in his abject display at Ewood Park where Ferguson was forced to play Macheda to provide a foil. Undoubtedly a good player, Berbatov remains a puzzle that Ferguson needs to solve to allow Rooney the rest he consistently earns.

City’s recruitment of defender Jerome Boateng is intelligent. The most successful teams can call upon 4 quality centre backs - City now have Boateng, Lescott, and Kolo Toure. If injuries devastate the area, Vincent Kompany can drop in, as can Micah Richards from his preferred position at right-back. Wayne Bridge now has the much needed competition Garrido isn’t providing at left-back in Aleksandor Kolarov, and with a choice of Zabaleta or Richards on the right they’re in rude health at the back. To complete the set City can choose from two of the best keepers in the league – Shay Given or heir apparent Joe Hart.

Despite the rumours of their demise, United are far stronger defensively than some would have you believe. Injuries permitting, a back four of Neville, Vidic, Ferdinand, and Evra is as good as anything in the league. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are two of the brightest defensive prospects in the English game, Wes Brown and John O’Shea continue to provide steady if unspectacular support. United also have talent coming though although the timescale for development might prove too strong for the current ability of Fabio, Rafael, and Cleverley if they don’t up their game a level.

While City can continue signing if they truly want to, United will look to potential to provide a difference. Welbeck, Hernandez, Diouf, Gibson, Macheda, and Obertan will all see minutes in the Premier League. Whereas Mancini will look to settle his new signings in quickly, Ferguson will be looking to continue certain player’s development. The key members of United’s squad will be more important than ever if they are to resist the challenge of the noisiest neighbours in England.

Both sides first elevens are a match for anyone in the country and what's more, almost any team in Europe. Next year United and City will be competing for the same domestic prizes on a level playing field. What was once about bragging rights is going to be about trophies and expect each team to run neck and neck for most of the season.

And so this brings us back to the original question – will Manchester be the most interesting city in European football next year?

In Milan one side will take time to adapt to Rafa, the other shows no real signs of slipping out of the malaise so horrifically exposed by United in the Champions League. In Madrid most of the stories will come off the pitch, the fans will have to warm to Jose Mourinho’s tactics if they want to win again but like Barcelona, they face no real competition at the highest end from within their city walls. London will boast 3 clubs in the Champions League but the sheer spread of its area makes its derbies less high octane than others. Only really Arsenal versus Tottenham can match the venom of Manchester’s match up and despite Redknapp’s claims, Spurs will not be contesting the title this year as they learn to cope with the demands of the Champions League. Chelsea have long held the real power in the city when it comes to the trophy cabinets and their games with Arsenal have been mostly one-sided.

No other city can really match Manchester’s genuinely prize winning credentials. Rome will enjoy two clubs in Serie A, Roma and Lazio, but only one who will trouble the title race long term. Munich has its Champions League runners up but no other competition locally - arguably nationally. Ajax’s outstanding performance in the Eredivisie last season only earned them runners-up medals, but the 22 point gap from relatively local rivals Feyenoord suggests nothing to rival the race in North West England.

Sir Alex Ferguson now has a new playmate to try and rile without having to travel all the way to Liverpool, Newcastle or London. Mancini and City’s performances will be fascinating - can the new signings gel and produce what they are truly capable of? United will continue to compete at the highest level and their interest will lie in the development of the young players - can one or two end the season as a first team regulars with medals in their pockets?

Questions like these will see journalists decamp on mass to Manchester as it becomes the epicentre of the English league season. It maybe Chelsea and Arsenal taking the cups, but City and United are almost certain to make the biggest headlines.

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