References to Ebeneezer Scrooge are more readily associated with Christmas than New Year celebrations, but January 1st sees two of the Premier League’s meanest defences go head to head.
Manchester City, under the tutelage of Roberto Mancini, have cultivated a defence tighter than comedian Jimmy Carr’s tax advisors over the past two seasons, enabling Joe Hart to win back-to-back ‘Golden Glove’ Awards for keeping the most ‘clean sheets’.
With three goals conceded at Norwich at the weekend, the Sky Blue’s rearguard have slipped behind both Chelsea and the New Year’s Day opponents Stoke City as they come to the Etihad.
Tony Pulis’ side has conceded just 17 goals in the PL in their opening 20 games, one less than a resurgent Chelsea, and two less than the PL Champions. Set against that, Stoke have mustered just 21 goals. It bodes well for City’s eighth shut out of their opponents.
Nonetheless it could be a long hard slog for City to breakthrough the backline of the boys from the Britannia, especially in the absence of the suspended Samir Nasri.
The feisty Frenchman is banned following the coming together of craniums with
’s Sebastian Bassong. His absence is unfortunate, given that City will need all the craft and guile they can muster to get the win.
It’s always been something of a paradox that Stoke present such formidable opposition on their home turf but capitulate so easily on their travels, especially at the Etihad, since returning to the top flight four years ago.
A Robinho hat-trick had given City a 3-0 win in 2008 before Roberto Mancini made his English managerial debut with a 2-0 Boxing Day victory in 2009.
Two 3-0 home victories have followed, but the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth will ensure Aguero, Dzeko and Tevez will be as black and blue as their City shirts, come the final whistle.
Stoke fans protest that their team is wrongly tarred with a brush from yesteryear, when they were more like pugilists from the Potteries than footballers, but undoubtedly some of those traits remain.
Charlie Adam is a player who, quite rightly incurs the wrath of City fans – a dirty, niggly nasty individual who in his Liverpool days, baited Balotelli to get maverick Mario sent off. If a player like Adam features in their team, Stoke still deserve to be eyed with suspicion when spouting protests that they no longer indulge in the loutish, less desirable side of the game.
Buoyed by a tremendous attacking display at Norwich – even when reduced to 10 men – there are grounds for optimism that City still have the belief and tenacity to put up a proper title defence.
Had they not been a man down and on the receiving end of some appalling refereeing decisions by the truly awful Mike Jones, City would have crucified the Canaries. Aguero was electrifying, Silva at times sublime, Yaya on form and Dzeko deadly in his finishing and City will need a repeat of those standards and intensity of performance once again.
Dzeko deserves to start. He provides an aerial threat against a big physical Stoke defence and his confidence must be high after his ‘hat-trick’ – notwithstanding the pedantic postulations of the dubious goals panel.
Whether Mancini feels he can go with Aguero as the second striker and play Tevez behind the front two remains to be seen. It’s feasible, if only for the Argentine’s indefatigable industry against a very well drilled, hard working side.
City must up the overall tempo of their approach play because Stoke will deploy at least two rows of four across the park and challenge the champions to find a way through, or less likely, around them.
The ever changing City defence could conceivably stay the same, despite conceding three goals on Saturday, or there could be a case for the size and physicality of Lescott to be drafted in for the more sophisticated offerings of Nastasic.
Stoke have had slender pickings when it comes to scoring, but, in Peter Crouch and Mr Charisma (as in Missed a Charisma) Michael Owen, City could be facing their nemesis of recent years. It’s more likely a combination of Jones and Walters, but all four are containable.
It’s true of most PL games at present, in that City must win if they are to bridge the points divide with United. The start of 2013 will not be without its trials and tribulations, but, with more of a shoot on sight policy and real fire in their belly, they are perfectly capable of compiling a winning streak to give Fergie a fright.
Let Mancini’s Mean Machine roll out with a New Year resolution to retain that title and lay the ghosts of Christmas past – and Manure’s domination of English football – finally to rest.