Manchester City shrugged off the disappointment of their first defeat under Roberto Mancini with a hard-fought victory over Manchester United at Eastlands, but for much of the game the Blues looked second best to their near-neighbours. In the end, however, it was City who took a welcome upper hand into the return bout at Old Trafford next week.
After a riotous chorus of Blue Moon greeted the teams onto the field, it was more like the Sea of Tranquillity following Ryan Giggs’ 16th minute goal. But once the dismay of falling behind to their rivals had dissipated, City’s fans re-found their voice and were again willing their players forward, led by the ceaseless Carlos Tevez. It took a fortuitous penalty to let the home side back into the game and when the little Argentinian stepped up, there could only be one outcome. One of the reasons for City’s initial malaise could be found in Mancini’s team selection. A lop-sided line-up saw a true winger, Shaun Wright-Phillips, stationed on the right-wing while the left was taken up by Pablo Zabaleta, a right-sided full-back, giving the midfield a defensive bent with just one attacking figure, the aforementioned Wright-Phillips. With a midfield also containing Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry, there was not enough craft to compliment the willing runs of Tevez and Craig Bellamy. But there was a method to Mancini’s madness.
Bellamy loves to exploit space on the left wing, pulling wide to attack the right-back and looking to cut inside on to his right foot. By placing Zabaleta on that side, the industrious Argentine could, in theory, provide cover for Bellamy and left-back Javier Garrido, who rarely needs a second invitation to overlap. It did not work and Mancini made a change mid-way through the first half. Bellamy took a more orthodox position on the left and Zabaleta made up a midfield three with de Jong and Barry, but that left Tevez isolated. After the tireless ex-United star levelled the scores and put City ahead after 65 minutes, Mancini was understandably content to preserve the status quo and ensure his team retained their lead – a problem City have suffered from all season. Mancini was criticised at half-time by the BBC’s blinkered pundits for being overly defensive, bringing up words like catenaccio and dismissing Italian football as negative, which did little but prove none of the assembled names had watched a Serie A game in quite some time. Similar comments were made when Tevez was replaced by Benjani, a more defensive forward player, and after Sylvinho came on for Wright-Phillips. The substitutions Mancio made were designed to contain United, but it would take a brave manager to go for the jugular against the league champions when already in front. By shoring up City’s team, making them more difficult to break down, Mancini ensured City got right back on track and created some much-needed momentum as the season enters the home straight.
The hard work in the Carling Cup semi-final is not over yet, however. United’s away goal means a clean sheet at Old Trafford is vital. Young Dedryck Boyata did struggle, although he is not the first centre-back to get the run around from Wayne Rooney, but it would be a surprise to see him in the starting line-up for the second leg. City’s second meeting this season with Scunthorpe United, this weekend, is more likely to see Boyata make an appearance. It is essential Mancini’s men keep up the impetus gained from defeating the Red Devils with a convincing victory against The Iron. After comfortably seeing Nigel Adkins’ side off 5-1 at home in October, the F.A Cup tie provides an interesting measuring stick to see where Mancini’s priorities lie. Mark Hughes put out a strong line-up, featuring Wright-Phillips, Tevez, Barry and de Jong, as well as Shay Given and Joleon Lescott, for the first clash with the Lincolnshire side. But that was before injuries robbed the squad of a number of players and the Africa Cup of Nations further depleted the ranks. Scunthorpe, currently 20th in the Championship and four points clear of relegation, caused City a few problems in the October game before being overwhelmed by their illustrious opponents.
Travelling to Glanford Park threatens to be a tricky prospect and it could be made more difficult by wholesale changes, but Mancini will know a convincing victory there could be the catalyst to do likewise at Old Trafford.