Club Focus – Manchester City – City aim to capitalise on Birmingham’s Hart-break

After a performance so ruthless it drove at least one Burnley player to – if not quite drink – then at least the nearest bar, Manchester City head back into the fray with the visit of Birmingham City to Eastlands. This battle of the Blues promises to be an eminently winnable encounter for Roberto Mancini’s side as for all their good work this season, Alex McLeish’s Birmingham do not have an away record to boast about.

The Citizens’ intimidating home record means three points should be as close to a formality as it gets in the Premier League, but expecting Mancini’s team to do anything obvious usually leaves one disappointed – if any side was going to blow last weekend’s 3-0 seven-minute lead and the single point advantage in the race for fourth place it eventually brought, it would be the boys in light blue. Happily, City kept their foot on the pedal and steamrollered the Clarets, sending a message to the rest of the Premier League and Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Aston Villa in particular. With six games to go, Mancini has steered his players into the driving seat but it is imperative they stay there until Spurs visit Manchester next month. Three points in that increasingly-important fixture would all but guarantee City’s involvement in next season’s Champions League – barring a very City-like last day collapse, of course.

Birmingham will be weakened by the absence of Joe Hart – the on-loan goalkeeper cannot play against his parent club. The 22-year-old has been one of Birmingham’s star performers this season and while Mancini talks of the former Shrewsbury Town player returning to the City of Manchester Stadium next summer, his list of suitors is growing – with Birmingham at the head of the queue. Hart, surely a future England No.1, will be loath to spend next term sitting on the bench as Shay Given’s understudy – and at 33, the Irishman has plenty of time left between the posts. Extending his loan at St. Andrews would be the best thing for Hart’s future career – a temporary move to another Premier League club would be a further disruption to the player’s development, requiring as it would a further settling in period in his new surroundings.

Hart’s progress in his brief career to date has been somewhat astounding. Having joined City in 2006, with just 50 Shrewsbury appearances under his belt, Hart had two brief loan spells at Blackpool Town and Tranmere Rovers respectively, before establishing himself as City’s No.1 under Sven Goran-Eriksson. The ex-England boss touted Hart as “one of the biggest talents in this country as a goalkeeper” – a judgment confirmed by the current England manager Fabio Capello, who handed Hart an international debut against Trinidad and Tobago in June 2008, just two years after Hart was playing League 2 football with his hometown club. A second-string England line-up it may have been, but Hart was clearly on the Italian’s radar and this season’s performances have done nothing to diminish that presence. Given the fearsome goal-scoring prowess, City demonstrated last week that the loss of Hart is a huge blow to Birmingham’s chances on Sunday.

Mancini will not care about that, although it does raise questions as to how fair the loan system is when City’s Champions League rivals had to contend with the stopper in his best form. Instead, the City manager will focus on keeping the dagger-sharp edge his team displayed in dismantling Burnley just over a week ago. Birmingham’s defence is adept at dealing with crosses and high balls into the box but that could play into City’s hands – the pace of Carlos Tevez, Craig Bellamy and Adam Johnson may well unsettle Roger Johnson and Scott Dann at the heart of the visitor’s defence. Meanwhile, any passes that do have to be played aerially will be fought for by a revitalised Emmanuel Adebayor, who looked close to his excellent early-season form against Burnley’s admittedly generous rearguard. Birmingham will not roll over in nearly the same manner as last week’s opponents, but a similar performance from the home side may leave the second city outfit with no choice.

With Spurs not in league action over the weekend, City have the chance to extend their points advantage over the FA Cup semi-finalists who face a north London derby with Arsenal when they resume Premier League competition on Wednesday. A four-point gap between the Blues and Spurs would give Mancini ample breathing space in the Champions League tussle, prior to the forthcoming clash between himself and Harry Redknapp.

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