If Manchester City’s victory over Chelsea last weekend grabbed the headlines, taking three points from Bolton Wanderers on Saturday would be a real statement of intent from Mark Hughes’ side – regarding their desire to continue climbing the table.
City were not the first team to beat Chelsea this season, and they will not be the last. Wigan Athletic sent Carlo Ancelotti’s team back to London without a point, but failed to use the result as a springboard to surge up the division. Hughes’ men cannot afford to let the same happen to them – they are within striking distance of the Champions League and momentum could be the key to a place in Europe’s top competition. Without the buoyancy provided by a series of good results, City could find themselves in the Europa League or out of continental action all together.
Of the other Champions League contenders, so far Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have travelled to the Reebok Stadium. Rafa Benitez’s Reds scraped a victory thanks to Steven Gerrard’s late goal, Chelsea hammered Gary Megson’s side 4-0, while Spurs returned to White Hart Lane with just a point. The Citizens must take a page from Liverpool and Chelsea’s playbooks and defeat the Trotters to send a message to the rest of the Premier League. The Reebok Stadium has been the graveyard of many high-flying sides, unsettled by Wanderers’ agricultural style of play. Hughes has fashioned a team that can slug it out with any group of long ball merchants but that is not how the Blues will win this game. The likes of Joleon Lescott, Kolo Toure and Micah Richards may be willing and able to fight the physicality of Kevin Davies and co with some of their own, but to do so would ignore City’s real strengths.
Technically, City are above and beyond most teams in the Premier League and enjoy playing quality football at a swift tempo, often cutting teams open with their incisive passing. Gareth Barry, Carlos Tevez and Stephen Ireland have the battling qualities needed to win the fight with Bolton, and more importantly the football ability to win the match. Once the City back four has survived the initial Bolton onslaught, it is the likes of Barry, Tevez and Ireland who will be vital to a City victory. They are three players who will not be intimidated by the Trotters, and will also have the skill to navigate a packed midfield and solid defence.
The absence of Craig Bellamy for the trip to Bolton will be a big loss to City as the Welshman’s pace would have greatly unnerved the Bolton back line. The gritty striker is recovering from both a knee injury and a bout of swine flu that also affected young midfielder Vladimir Weiss. Without the former Liverpool forward, Robinho will continue on the left of the attack. The little Brazilian has been in English football for over a year now and as City’s marquee signing, a strong performance that helps his side to victory would go a long way to quashing the doubts over both the player and the project at Eastlands.
Robinho finished as City’s top scorer last season, and has showcased his dazzling array of tricks while at times looking worth every penny of his massive transfer fee. But those showings have been the exception, not the rule, and Hughes will demand more of the ex-Real Madrid player. The fine form of Bellamy may however have led the City boss to reconsider Robinho’s future in Manchester – given the continued interest from Barcelona. Robinho has always been an odd fit at Eastlands, and his presence in Hughes’ squad came thanks to a set of circumstances that rarely come about.
City’s No.10 was so desperate to leave Spain that almost anywhere would do. His move to Chelsea collapsed over the asking price set by Madrid, leaving City as the only option available after his relationship with the hierarchy at Real deteriorated. The Kaka saga illustrated that City are not yet able to attract the truly elite footballers, and Hughes’ summer signings bear that out – none of the incoming names were of the stature of Robinho, but rather more reserved, intelligent purchases that will serve City better in the long haul. The departure of Robinho would not signal the end of City’s determination to reach the top, but rather the realisation that it will not happen overnight. It will be a long, arduous struggle – but it could start with three points against Bolton.