Mark Hughes’ men continued their best start to a season in 48 years with an impressive 3-1 win over West Ham at the City of Manchester Stadium last night. Despite being only six games into their league campaign, it can reasonably be said with a fair degree of certainty, that Manchester City will end the season in a better position than the 12th they managed in season 1961/62.
Hammers boss Gianfranco Zola – following this author – is the latest to be convinced of City’s credentials this season. In fact, after watching his side be totally outclassed on the night he is “certain” that City will finish in the top four. The Sky Blues currently lie fifth in the Premier League, with a game in hand to go joint top with Manchester United and Chelsea. If you consider that they have already faced Arsenal and United, and contrast this with Liverpool who have yet to play anyone in the supposed ‘Big Four’ then it is pretty difficult to disagree with Zola’s sentiments. Indeed, before City meet the Anfield club on Saturday November 21, Rafael Benitez will have locked horns with both Carlo Ancelotti and Sir Alex Ferguson, while the only stern test – on paper anyway – for Mark Hughes is a tricky away trip to Villa Park next Monday night.
Another factor operating in City’s favour, suggesting a successful season is on the cards, is the absence of European football this season. Both Liverpool and Arsenal – the two clubs who are probably in the most danger of slipping out the top four – have five additional matches in the Champions League between now and Christmas, and fatigue is always liable to take its toll and result in dropped points. Let’s not get carried away though. West Ham undoubtedly contributed to their own downfall with some shoddy defending, not least for Carlos Tevez’s second goal of the night where he was one of three unmarked City players at the back-post waiting to head home from a simple free-kick. City also still have some defensive frailties of their own which were again in evidence as Joleon Lescott failed to deal convincingly with a crossed ball which led to Carlton Cole’s equaliser on 24 minutes. However, it is difficult to ignore City’s early season form and the confidence and pizazz with which they are playing.
The Citizens went into the match without their top scorer Emmanuel Adebayor, their record signing Robinho and their best player of the season so far Stephen Ireland, yet still proved far too strong for a team who finished one place higher than them last season. It would be hard to imagine Liverpool being so impressive when missing just Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, or likewise Arsenal without Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. Therefore Hughes deserves massive credit for making some great signings and building a squad which can definitely compete with the best the league has to offer.
It has been reported that Robinho will be sidelined for at least another three weeks, and Adebayor faces the prospect of missing additional games if the FA decide take action later this week after the hearing on his improper conduct charge. However, the continued resurgence of Martin Petrov – who scored one himself and left Tevez with a simple tap-in for another goal last night – coupled with the appearance of Michael Johnson and Roque Santa Cruz as late second-half substitutes, will certainly help to ameliorate any injury problems facing Hughes.
Another immensely pleasing factor for the Welshman is how well his fellow countryman Craig Bellamy responded to the bad publicity which has surrounded him since last weekend’s Manchester derby, and the excellent partnership he is establishing with City’s Argentine buzz-bomb, Tevez. Their energy and determination clearly impressed Hughes who said after the match: “All night Carlos and Craig were a real handful for the opposition, they just couldn’t handle them.”
So far this season the City manager has never had a full compliment of strikers to choose from but this has almost worked to his advantage in that every player has made the most of any opportunity coming their way and performed well. Over the next month however, inevitably some hard decisions will have to be made. These decisions themselves, coupled with the individual players’ reactions, may end up having a major bearing on whether City continue their challenge and earn the chance to truly test their squad next season with Champions League football.
Manchester City Club Focus
E.A. sports both sides of his game against Arsenal – September 15
City travel across town £100m-worth of talent lighter – September 18
Error-strewn defence to blame for derby-day heartbreak – September 22
Perfect opportunity to consolidate – September 25
The Real Deal – September 29