Monday, February 9, 2009

Manchester City v Middlesbrough, February 7, Premier League

Mark Hughes made his name as manager by making his erstwhile Blackburn Rovers team the best in the business at snapping and snarling accompanied by a constant supply of over-performing or under-appreciated strikers. Such was his impact with Rovers that not long ago he was touted as the man who would step into the shoes of Sir Alex Ferguson whenever the time comes.

To that end Man City is the perfect challenge for Mark Hughes. Responsibility to build a team challenging for the crown in a couple of seasons with the resources to get the best of players. While it is too early to pass judgment on his tenure at Man City, it can be fair to classify it as a non-fairytale baptism into the really big league for Sparky. With one super star and some battlers to make an impact in the first half of the season, Hughes and City fell short of expectations and showed no consistency and very often little steel.

But now that the transfer window is done and dusted and City have come out of it with flying colors, the circus surrounding the failed bid for Kaka notwithstanding, the pressure is truly on to make a surge up the tale and make it to one of the UEFA cup spots. A home game against struggling Boro was the perfect occasion to parade his new boys and to my mind, it turned out to be a little bit of a letdown.

Shay Given and Craig Bellamy had a direct impact on the result and Bridge and de Jong made involved contributions as the new foursome did their thing all together for the first time. And a one-nil result, though not scintillating would be fairly acceptable for all involved with City. But if this performance is going to be repeated, City will find it difficult to put any winning or undefeated streak together. It was uninspiring, unambitious and rather fortunate.

For starters, they seemed to be playing three men in deep midfield – Ireland, de Jong and Zabaleta. Ireland did get forward frequently, but he was often enough way too deep than was really needed against a Boro side that only got dangerous in sudden flashes. For that matter even two deep lying midfielders would have seemed cautious. Hughes could easily have had Zabaleta on the bench and an Elano or a Benjani or a Caicedo lying behind Bellamy. So that left a usually understaffed attacking unit who frequently ran out of ideas when they neared the box and were reduced to looking cute and passing pretty till they lost possession. Credit to Bellamy though, for getting the goal and his form is going to be critical for City.

Near their own flag, the dropping of Dunne had little impact, because they made as many mistakes as they have in any of their recent games. With de Jong in, Kompany will have to re-learn being a central defender soon enough or Hughes will soon start having to answer for not buying someone in that position as well. It was only a great debut performance by Shay Given and some second grade finishing attempts by Alfonso Alves that helped them keep a clean sheet.
Gareth Southgate on the other hand has a completely different set of problems. Every point is a point earned for his team and they did the job 99% of the time. Their goalkeeper was brilliant and had their striker shown anywhere near that form, Boro could have at least drawn this one.

Then again, the point would have come if almost the only momentary lapse of concentration in defence, not been so severely punished. It will not be easy for Boro, but I think they will have to start seeking the points more aggressively rather than chasing them in desperate situations. Getting Tuncay at his best and starting is going to be critical and apart from discipline and courage, they are soon going to need inspiration and finishing.

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