A change of manager, a two-legged cup semi-final with their near-neighbours, a transfer window that saw City linked to dozens of players with only two arrivals and the saga of Robinho’s future, have all over-shadowed the Sky Blues’ Champions League qualification campaign. But now there is just the FA Cup to distract from the week in, week out toil of making the top four. Hull City are the first opponents of this refreshingly stress-free time at the City of Manchester Stadium, and Roberto Mancini’s two January signings, Patrick Vieira and Adam Johnson, could feature, while McDonald Mariga was set to join until a lack of a work permit put paid to that move. With both Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge set to return imminently and Emmanuel Adebayor re-finding his feet after the tragic events in Angola, Mancini’s squad is again looking positively robust, a good sign as spring will soon be upon us, and with it the final straight of the season.
February may be the shortest month, but for City, it could be one of the most important. After the trip to Hull tomorrow, the Citizens host Bolton Wanderers and follow that up with a double-header against Stoke City, first at Eastlands in the FA Cup and then at the Britannia Stadium in the league. Those four fixtures represent greatly winnable ties enabling City to build vital momentum ahead of season-defining games – at home to Liverpool and away to Chelsea. The former offers City a chance to strike a blow in the race for fourth, while the latter, although one of the most difficult games of the season, gives Mancini’s men the opportunity to prove their December win over Carlo Ancelotti’s league leaders was no fluke.
That is all for the future, however, as Mancio is not going to look past Hull, and nor should he. The Tigers visited Manchester in November and came away with a deserved 1-1 draw thanks mainly to a Jimmy Bullard penalty, but also a lethargic City performance. After sharing the spoils with Phil Brown’s men, City found themselves sixth in the table, one point behind fifth-placed Liverpool and three behind Arsenal in fourth. Matters have altered little then, as today City sit sixth, level on points with Rafa Benitez’s Reds and a point behind Tottenham Hotspur, who now occupy the last Champions League spot. But City have two games in hand on all the teams above them, and six more points would give them a comfortable cushion, provided there are no slips before those games are played. That is why the matches with the likes of Hull, Bolton and Stoke are so vital – City have a gilt-edged opening on the horizon and cannot afford to blow it by dropping points against teams in the middle of the table and lower.
City face six games in February’s 28 days, a packed schedule but they have the squad to cope. Kolo Toure’s return to the back four has been welcome and although Dedryck Boyata looked nervy against Manchester United, that is understandable and the young Belgian is a hot prospect from City’s prolific academy. The loan departure of Robinho is no great loss as the circus surrounding the Brazilian’s sporadic appearances was doing more harm than good considering the slight contributions he made on the field. A brief return to Brazil suits all parties and hopefully the undoubtedly talented forward can return to Manchester ready to cement his place in the side, possibly off the back of a strong World Cup. If the ex-Real Madrid star can rediscover the joy of playing football while at Santos, he will be excellently placed to come back to Manchester and contribute to City’s cause next season. If that is not an option, then a good showing in South Africa will encourage his suitors to take him off City’s hands in the summer transfer window.
But that is a long way off, and the focus now must be on leapfrogging Spurs and Liverpool into fourth place, and City cannot afford any more disappointments like the one they suffered against the same opposition three months ago. They failed to tame the Tigers in November and a similar result this month would give both Spurs and Aston Villa an opening they would not pass up.