Manchester City’s ‘Ministry of Defence’ is creaking under the stresses and strains caused by an ailing department of health and the continuing absence of leader Vincent Kompany.
The team which has boasted the least goals conceded for the last three seasons, is facing a shortage of manpower across the backline as they square up to the annual rigours of the Battle of Britannia.
It’s vital that Manuel Pellegrini’s company of men don’t crack in the Potteries, as they go about their mission to garner maximum points for the first time since 1999.
City will be missing their Captain Fantastic as well as flying wing backs Gael Clichy and the perennially injured, but hugely unfortunate, Micah Richards in defence, as well as playmaker David Silva on the frontline.
Stoke has traditionally been ‘Operation Stalemate’ in the Premier League, with each of City’s last four visits ending in 1-1 draws, but the sky blues desperately want to get their away form on track after the shock defeat by Cardiff.
A last ditch FA Cup victory, courtesy of Pablo Zabaleta’s late strike in January, saw City victorious in front of a subdued home crowd, but you have to tumble back in time and down the divisions, since Gerard Wiekens’ winning goal in the third tier of English league football.
Of course, there’s the added spice of an ex-City manager scorned and an erratic midfielder, who misguidedly ‘mourned’ the passing of his very much alive Granny, to contend with this time out.
An eternally embittered Mark Hughes has still to put one over his ex-employers, while the enigmatic Stephen Ireland – City’s Player of the Season 2009 – will be busy trying to resurrect a career once so full of promise. A loan move from Aston Villa will see if he can recapture the form that so captivated the City faithful, but alas, appears to have been a one season wonder.
Pellegrini’s dilemma is who plays alongside Matija Nastasic in the heart of the defence. Does he opt for the capable, but presently erratic, Joleon Lescott, or, does he go for wholesale changes and drop Yaya back, or even draft in Jack Rodwell?
One thing is for sure – I hope and pray – Javi Garcia is not given the job. It’s unfair on the player and will spare the travelling supporters anxiety attacks.
The jury is still out on Javi but, under Pellegrini, the man who sold him to Benfica while at Real Madrid, City must hope the best is yet to come. If not he could be on his way in January.
Another selection ‘no brainer’ has to see Alvaro Negredo leading the line from kick-off and Edin Dzeko left to contemplate ‘Supersub status’ as per 2012/13.
Negredo looks every inch a 20-goal PL hitman. He’s scored two – it should be three after a perfect finish was ruled offside against Newcastle – and brings aggression and movement, sadly lacking in Dzeko’s play.
Ironically, it was the far less prolific Jesus Navas who netted a late equaliser in Spain’s 2-2 draw with Chile in midweek. Both ex-Sevilla men are showing great promise so early in their City careers.
The loss of David Silva could herald a first competitive match for Stevan Jovetic – out injured and lacking match fitness for the PL. Pellegrini has a glut of riches for the vacant berth. He could go with with Samir Nasri (a midweek goalscorer for France in Belarus) or he could opt for the more physical presence of England stalwart James Milner, to combat Stoke’s traditionally ‘robust’ approach.
The arrival of Hughes as Tony Pulis’ successor at Stoke has signified a shift to a slightly more sophisticated style of play – but it won’t happen overnight.
Spurred on by Hughes’ hatred for City and the manner in which he was unceremoniously sacked, Stoke won’t be taking any prisoners as they look to maintain a promising start to their campaign. If they were to take all three points it would mark not only the club’s best ever PL start, but also that of Hughes’ managerial career.
Fresh from a trio of clean sheets for club and country, Joe Hart will once again be under close scrutiny and comparisons made with his opposite number, Stoke keeper, Asmir Begovic.
The disproportionately criticised Hart, would have been shipped out of City – allegedly – if Roberto Mancini and his assistant, David Platt, had stayed at the club. Bosnian international Begovic was rumoured to have been earmarked by Mancini as Joe’s replacement.
Apart from home advantage, Stoke’s players should be the fresher with the majority of their squad ‘spared’ international duties. City had a dozen players representing a host of nations, whereas just Geoff Cameron and Wilson Palacios were called up and played for the USA and Honduras respectively.
Despite underwhelming performances – that’s putting it mildly – against Cardiff and Hull, City sit a respectable third in the table with a +5 goal advantage – the best in the division. That said, it’s not often that a Stoke win would take them above City, but that would happen come 17.00hrs Saturday.
Winning ugly is not, and hardly ever, will be a problem for Pellegrini as he acclimatises to a domestic league unlike any other in Europe or South America, but it’s not his way.
It’s a habit that has long served the Manure types to great effect.
The Chilean won’t want to surrender two points let alone three. He will also be mindful of a Champions League campaign that gets underway 72 hours – give or take – after the final whistle at the Britannia.
Too many draws and the unexpected proverbial ‘bad day at the office’ cost Mancini’s City, dearly last season.
His successor is wise enough to know the PL title is won at the likes of Stoke, Southampton and Swansea and not exclusively at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane.
Stand-in skipper Yaya Toure needs to marshall his troops and demand every last ounce of effort in pursuit of maximum points. City undoubtedly have the talent, they just need to apply themselves to the job in hand.
By David Walker