Despite the rather leading headline, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to Manchester City’s slip-up in Hamburg last night. As they have already demonstrated in Europe this season, Martin Jol’s side are a fine outfit. Furthermore, we all know about the vast disparity between City’s home and away performances. The net effect of their UEFA Cup defeat will be that a more fired-up Manchester City take the field for our televised encounter on Easter Sunday.
Hughes is a very good manager but he’s probably having to deal with unrealistic expectations brought about by the influx of Arab money at the club. City’s fans are amongst the most loyal in the country – their crowds when they were languishing in the lower divisions still rivalled those of clubs plying their trade at the highest level – and deserve some success. Yet, we all know that football’s horribly cruel and rarely does it work like that.
City find themselves comfortably clear of relegation – largely due to some smart signings from Hughes in Janaury and the extra time he’s had to impart his footballing philosophy to his players – and, give or take a couple of positions, are just about where Sven-Goran Eriksson left them at the end of last season. Quite apart from the big name players that Hughes can now call upon when he needs to, perhaps the biggest long-term positive that the Eastlands club have at their disposal is their seemingly never-ending production line of young talent. The likes of Nedum Onouha, Micah Richards and Daniel Sturridge all have the ability to push for full England honours in the years to come.
The threat that City will pose could come from all over the pitch. They have a whole host of creative players and, at home in front of a passionate crowd, have the ability to unlock the most stubborn of defences. Steven Ireland has had another fabulous season at the heart of the City midfield and has been one of the shining beacons in what has largely been a disappointing season for the club. Whilst the Brazilians – Jo, Robinho and Elano – have largely flattered to deceive during their time at Eastlands, the potential return of the excellent Martin Petrov could give City a real lift as the season approaches its final stretch. Factor in Shaun Wright-Phillips, who has been recapturing the form that persuaded Chelsea to pay a king’s ransom to facilitate that ill-fated move a few years ago, and you’ve got a very dangerous midfield quartet.
Putting Thursday’s debacle to one side, City’s defence has started to look a little more robust recently. They might have lost tough fixtures to Chelsea and Arsenal of late but they don’t look like a sky blue imitation of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side of the 1990s anymore. If Onuoha and Richard Dunne can forge an effective central defensive partnership between now and the end of the season, the last pieces of the jigsaw might come together. Wayne Bridge was an astute signing – I certainly rate him as a better left-back than Ashley Cole – and Richards has already showed that he’s got international class on the other side of the defence.
Roy Hodgson probably won’t change too much from our late, late defeat against Liverpool. We took a pounding from the title contenders but so nearly emerged unscathed. His task over the past week will have been to lift the side for another tough fixture – something he might have accomplished simply by replaying the highlights of that remarkable game last season. The memory of that crazy afternoon certainly should lift the lucky people who will be heading up to Eastlands this weekend.
Hodgson might have been thinking about freshening up his side for the trip to City. His plans to replace a tired-looking Clint Dempsey might have to be rethought if Zoltan Gera doesn’t shake off a foot problem. Toni Kalli could be missing with a virus as well but Hodgson expects both to train tomorrow ahead of the game. In all likelihood, Roy will probably stick with the tried and tested method. There’s nothing with that, of course, as we’ve seen the benefits of sticking with a settled side for much of this season. It would be nice to see young Giles Barnes at some point, mind.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Dempsey; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Dacourt, Gera, Nevland, Kamara, Barnes.