It is often said that the sign of a good team is to win when not playing well. That is exactly what Manchester City have achieved in their last two victories, over Portsmouth and Bolton Wanderers, but more is needed when Roberto Mancini’s side host Stoke City on Saturday evening.
A similarly lethargic performance to the one that saw off Bolton is unlikely to be enough to get past Tony Pulis’ combative team in this FA Cup fixture, with Stoke possessing more than enough talent and tenacity to dump their hosts out of their last real chance of silverware this season. Against Wanderers, the only spark in a light blue shirt was new boy Adam Johnson, but the winger is cup-tied after playing half an hour for former club Middlesbrough against his current employers in the third round.
The performances of Johnson and fellow January capture Patrick Vieira were arguably the best on display on Tuesday night, with the Frenchman providing a calm head in the centre of the field as well as something of an attacking threat, although Vieira did not appear capable of the same surging runs he utilised as an Arsenal player. He remains an intelligent footballer, however, and his lofted through ball for Emmanuel Adebayor displayed vision lacking from his midfield colleagues that night, Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong.
Mancini struggled to find the right balance to his midfield on Tuesday night as he has done a number of times already in his short reign at Eastlands. The Italian was again forced to alter proceedings mid-match and while that is evidence of a keen eye for a problem and a willingness to make the necessary changes, he has to get it right from the start soon. While Mancio is still adapting to his new surroundings and the unfamiliar names in the City dressing room as well as the Premier League as a whole, the last few months of the season cannot just be about a new manager settling in.
City have a great chance of earning their first major trophy in over 30 years through the FA Cup, with numerous Premier League teams already falling by the wayside including Liverpool, Manchester United and last season’s beaten finalists Everton. That leaves Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea as the favourites, along with City, and having already beaten both the Gunners and Carlo Ancelotti’s Blues this season, City should have no fear. Their only meeting with Spurs this term did result in a 3-0 defeat and the end of Mark Hughes’ tenure, but Wolverhampton Wanderers have shown Harry Redknapp’s side are anything but invincible and revenge can be a strong motivator should the two meet in the Cup.
But before they consider the likelihood of celebrating at Wembley come May, City must first see off Stoke. The first of a double header between the sides, Saturday’s game takes place less than two months after their first meeting of the season, a comfortable 2-0 victory in Mancini’s first game in charge. The Boxing Day tie, won thanks to goals from Carlos Tevez and Martin Petrov, provides a useful reference point for City’s evolution under Mancini, allowing fans and pundits alike to compare the team from then to the line-up that will take to the field this weekend.
The majority of the names will be same, but it is the formation that will be under the microscope. A midfield three of de Jong, Vieira and Barry proved too restrictive against Bolton, with Barry eventually moving to the left of midfield and Johnson taking up a more orthodox position on the right. In December, it was Stephen Ireland and Martin Petrov on the wings, with Barry joining his Dutch teammate in a central role. How that vital area of the pitch lines up on Saturday remains to be seen, but the return to fitness of Shaun Wright-Phillips could provide the answer to Mancini’s balance problems.
The diminutive former Chelsea winger would provide natural width on the right or left, if Mancini continues his policy of selecting wide players on the opposite side to which they are most comfortable, with left-sided attackers being in good supply thanks to Petrov and Johnson. Two from Barry, de Jong, Vieira and Ireland would provide all-round ability in midfield and Tevez would be free to flit about the forward line, using Adebayor as the focal point in attack. For City’s season to end in Cup glory, Mancini must get the team’s balance right. Prolonged failure to do so could leave him walking a tightrope.
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