On the heels of the Richard Scudamore’s latest proposal to tinker with the Premier League’s format, Manchester City and Liverpool engage in their own little Champions League play-off game on Sunday, when the two teams meet at Eastlands in a battle of fourth versus fifth.
Following the 1-1 draw with Stoke City, Roberto Mancini’s side climbed to the all-important last Champions League qualification spot at the expense of this weekend’s opponents. Now the Blues have something to hold on to as opposed to chase, hopefully their performances start to show the focus that has been lacking in recent weeks. While City were not the first side to be unsettled by Stoke and they will not be the last, Tuesday’s game showed they had learnt little from the previous Saturday’s clash with the same opposition. Defending remained shaky, the midfield was again overmatched and their forward power was lacking, even with Roque Santa Cruz joining Emmanuel Adebayor up front. Despite that, Gareth Barry’s late goal has left City exactly where they want to be.
What City need now is staying power. Taking fourth place can give the Citizens a shot in the arm and the realisation that the Champions League really is in their grasp, holding as they do a one point lead over the Reds with a game in hand. After a series of muted performances following the Carling Cup disappointment, the time for wallowing in glorious defeat is over and Sunday is the perfect opportunity to shore up their invitation to Europe’s top table next season. With all the Champions League hopefuls in action on Sunday, as Aston Villa host Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur travel to Wigan Athletic, City cannot afford to stand still and loosen their grip on fourth place.
A few weeks ago, hosting Liverpool was the chance to take a famous scalp such was the poor form Rafa Benitez’s side were in. Now, however, Liverpool are a much more dangerous proposition even without Fernando Torres. Sunday’s game will be the first for Liverpool after they taste the discomfiture of Europa League football, used to sipping from the Holy Grail of the Champions League as they are, and another lacklustre City performance could result in a backlash if Europe’s second tier competition does not agree with the Merseysiders’ delicate system. Nullifying Steven Gerrard will be key but that is far easier said than done. Much has been made of Mancini’s over-reliance on defensive midfielders, with Barry, Nigel de Jong and Patrick Vieira subduing City’s own attacks rather than the oppositions, but Sunday is the chance for one of the trio to do what they are good at and shackle the opponent’s most devastating player, although Vieira may find himself watching from the stands after lashing out at Glenn Whelan.
If ever there was a time to re-introduce Shaun Wright-Phillips from the off, Sunday may be it. Emiliano Insua, while a promising young player is nevertheless vulnerable and City must take the initiative by putting the explosive Wright-Phillips in direct competition with the Argentine. A one point advantage is not something you maintain by being cautious, but rather like a one goal lead the best form of defence is attack, and exploiting Insua’s poor positioning could be City’s best tactic. The 21-year-old left-back is too often caught out up the field and while he boasts more pace than the average player, he is surely not in Wright-Phillips’ league when it comes to sheer, unadulterated speed. Even if Insua misses out in favour of Fabio Aurelio, Wright-Phillips should have the beating of the slower paced Brazilian. City have arguably the best squad of the Champions League contenders, certainly possessing greater depth than Liverpool and Aston Villa, and now is the time to use it.
There is an analogy from American sports appropriate to City’s current standing: You’re a baseball coach. You have two players running for home base, one with perfect form and one with lousy form. They reach the plate at the same time. Which one do you pick? The temptation is to choose the former but a smart coach will select the latter, because when you teach him the right form he beats the other guy. City are the baseball player with lousy form, but they have reached home base. If Mancini coaxes the best form out of them, Liverpool and the other runners and riders will be left in the dust.
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