Manchester City head to the Hawthorns tonight needing to lift the dark clouds hanging over their away form once they leave the nigh on impregnable Fortress Etihad.
It’ll be an extremely black night in the Black Country for Manuel Pellegrini’s perplexing underperforming players if they somehow succumb to a fifth defeat in seven matches on the road.
Kit Manager Les Chapman could be key, needing to ensure he’s packed travel sickness tablets and a big warm ‘comfort blanket’ along with all the shirts, shorts, socks and boots, as City take on the unpredictable West Bromwich Albion.
City, like anybody who feels vulnerable, will undoubtedly benefit if they don’t feel isolated, so some re-assuring company would be most welcome. A quick change of a consonant and the Premier League favourites may have just that, with the anticipated return of Captain Fantastic, Vincent Kompany.
The ‘Belgian Boulder’ – the rock on which City have built the PL’s meanest defence over the past three seasons – should be back to shore up a back line that has been conceding at the rate of just under a goal per game, since Vinny limped out of action 10 games ago against Everton.
A Kompany-less City have won eight and lost two of the matches in his absence – not the worst statistics in the world by any stretch – but most folk agree the Sky Blues would be at least four points better off had he been playing.
A win tonight, with the assistance of the Commander-In-Chief of City’s ground forces, could be a significant turning point in the season. Imperious at home, if City were half as good in their opponent’s backyard, they would be clear at the top of the Prem.
Instead they languish six points behind leaders Arsenal. The better news is that they are scoring at the rate of more than four goals per game and threatening to tear up the table, gobbling up the Gooners’ advantage and welcoming in the New Year at the pinnacle of the PL.
The boing boing Baggies are always a tough prospect, especially at the ground that sits as the highest above sea level venue in the country.
Hopefully City won’t require any altitude tablets tonight, but few among City’s fanatical support will complain if the team hits dizzy heights in three away games on the trot in the Midlands, Southampton and Bayern Munich.
Surprisingly, for those who have bad memories of pathetic City capitulations in the hotbed of the Hawthorns, the Baggies have failed to beat the Blues since December 2008 and, in the process, scored just one goal in six PL match-ups.
Under Steve Clarke, Albion have shown themselves more than capable of competing with the top teams; beating Manure at The Swamp, forcing a draw with Arsenal and being cruelly denied a memorable away win at Chelsea by the diving cheat Ramires and the Muppet of a referee, the reprobate Andre Marriner.
Surely, surely Pellegrini will not underestimate ANY team on their own turf, not after the horror outcomes of Cardiff, Villa and Sunderland. Those are three defeats that quite simply should not have happened and City should have taken nine points. The loss at Chelsea should have been an equitable draw.
The City boss is still on his own learning curve in English football in tandem with his players coming to terms with the demands, requirements and tactical approach of their South American leader.
The flurry of December fixtures – three away in the PL, plus visits to Bavaria and Leicester in cup competitions, as well as crunch home fixtures against Arsenal, Liverpool and Palace – could well define City’s whole season.
Kompany’s anticipated return and Matija Nastasic overcoming an ankle injury in a fortnight, could soon present Pellegrini with a luxury not so afforded him – a settled back four.
Full backs Zabaleta and Clichy are markedly better than Richards and Kolarov this time out – a worry because it owes more to the decline of the ‘reserves’ rather than the unbridled excellence of the first choice pairing.
If that can be achieved Pellegrini needs to show his hand and unequivocally endorse either Hart or Pantilimon in goal…unless Iker Casillas is actually to swap Madrid for Manchester. Personally, I want Joe back in goal asap – he’s a class act who suffered a dip in form.
As for the boys at the sharp end, Aguero and Negredo have 16 PL goals between them so far – one more than Albion’s whole team.
Aguero was visibly disappointed to be substituted in the 3-0 win over Swansea, having to depart play without putting his name on the score sheet. Always a good sign, it illustrates Sergio’s insatiable appetite for goals and more goals.
As for the Beastly Alvaro, if he keeps up his levels of performance he will prove to be a £22m bargain. His telepathic link play with fellow Spaniard and former Sevilla team mate, Jesus Navas, is obvious to see, whilst his understanding with Sergio is a joy to behold.
Silva is still missing but likely be back in contention for the last Champions League Group D fixture. Merlin is a creative wizard but the emergence of Samir Nasri has finally given Pellegrini options and alternative playmaker permutations.
The Baggies away will be a chance for Yaya Toure to show his critics that he is actually ‘up’ for games against so-called lesser opponents. His dreadful display at Sunderland was replaced by a superlative showing against Spurs. He just needs to put on a performance every game.
City’s Ivorian stand-in skipper exerts enormous influence, both positive and negative, depending on his mood or mode of play. His blossoming midfield understanding with the unsung Fernandinho is a partnership every bit as important as the strike duo of Aguero and Negredo.
A win tonight is hugely desirable but Albion are the division’s draw specialists, so City might be faced with the proposition of either a point gained or two points lost.
God forbid they head up back the M6 pointless after a fifth away defeat – Pellegrini’s preparations or the player’s failure to execute the Chilean’s match strategy, will be subject to microscopic scrutiny and distasteful dissection.
Let’s hope the men in white coats are not required for any post match post mortems.
By David Walker