Club Focus – Manchester City – Champions League crunch time at Eastlands

After the furore over Manchester City’s goalkeeping problems, attention can now turn back towards matters on the field of play. The Blues’ season will be defined with their next two fixtures, home games against Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. Six points all but guarantees Champions League qualification and the first three are on offer when Martin O’Neill’s Villains go to Eastlands on Saturday.

Despite Roberto Mancini’s protestations to the contrary – the Italian said: “I don’t think I will have failed [if we finish fifth]” – City’s season has been building towards reaching the Champions League. Mancio may have been right in that finishing fifth, for him, in his first managerial experience outside of Italy and taking over a team with many members closely allied to his predecessor, would not be failure, but his bosses are unlikely to agree – owner Sheikh Mansour did not spend over £120m last summer to reach the Europa League. The club admitted as much when sacking Mark Hughes, revealing how that may have been their original goal but things have changed, with 70 points now the aim. Three wins from their last three games would take City to 72 points and, more importantly, the Champions League – it would also give them the same points total that Arsenal managed last season when the Gunners finished fourth. Pipping Villa, Spurs and Liverpool to that last Champions League spot would provide City with a foundation to attract bigger names to the club in preparation for an assault on the very top of the table next season.

They cannot romanticise the future just yet. First come Villa, who are just as determined as City are to break into the top four. How Mancini approaches this game is one of the most intriguing aspects of the fixture – does he use home advantage to take the game to the Midlanders with an attacking line-up, or will he settle for a point and look to Wednesday’s visit of Spurs as the real crunch tie? With Villa a place and a point ahead – level on 64 with Spurs – there would seem to be little option but to attack from the off. Spurs meanwhile face a tricky game with Bolton Wanderers and a slip up there could hand the initiative firmly to City should they beat Villa, leading up to the midweek clash. Villa are amongst the lowest scorers in the Premier League’s top half with 51 goals – only Sunderland and Birmingham City have found the net fewer times of the top ten sides – with 22 of those strikes coming on the road, compared to City’s 31 notches when on their travels. There are likely to be few surprises from O’Neill’s team selection and so a hard working, hard to break down and quick on the counter attack Villa side is sure to pitch up at the City of Manchester Stadium.

With Villa’s industrious midfield in mind, having Gareth Barry fit will be vital to City’s hopes of overcoming the side who currently sit in fifth position. Barry, the former Villa captain, has been one of City’s most reliable performers this season – solid if unspectacular, Barry is the only one of City’s midfielders to have a decent bled of defensive sturdiness and attacking gumption. Patrick Vieira and Nigel de Jong both sit firmly in the former category while Stephen Ireland lacks any real qualities of a defensive nature, but, at his best, is of a high class going forward. Barry is struggling with a hamstring injury but will be loath to miss the visit of his former club – even more perhaps than Mancini would be to go without him. Barry is the perfect City player to put a handle on the energetic James Milner, who often provides Villa’s main threat as he flits around the field, predominantly from a central position. The more static Vieira or de Jong can handle the equally stationary Stiliyan Petrov, but asking either the leggy Frenchman or his limited Dutch teammate to track the 24-year-old PFA Young Player of the Year for 90 minutes would be a risk.

These next six days or so will decide many things, most immediately being who reaches the Champions League. But more than that, two of the final three games of the 2009/10 season will go a long way to determining Mancini’s future and that of the City ‘project’. A year in the Europa League would not fatally derail City’s ambition but could certainly keep superstars bearing the stature of Fernando Torres away a little while longer.

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