The Balotelli Incident now means that Roberto Mancini enters yet another critical phase of this season of critical phases with diminishing prospects upfront. Whilst many are gnashing their teeth and rubbing their armpits in anguish (some perhaps even reduced to Roy Hodgsonesque temple-agitation) I believe this is an opportunity for City to put down a serious marker. Clubs at the top are obviously being forced to take the Blues seriously, but a positive outcome at Anfield would really underline the fact that, despite all the water seeming to flow in the opposite direction at the moment, we can canoe with the best of them.
Shorn of our captain, the best central defender in Europe at the moment, without our most influential midfielder bar one in Yaya Touré and with a mounting press campaign to get the likes of Balotelli and Lescott removed from the playing fields of England, City have come through a period of form loss and massive disruption with a three point lead at the top of the Premier League.That's some slump.
The gap to 3rd placed Tottenham now stands at eight points. Chelsea in fourth, are thirteen points adrift and 5th-placed Arsenal eighteen points behind. We are eighteen points ahead of Arsenal. With a goal difference of +42, you might as well add a point to each of those figures. We can clearly see that, whilst the marauding goal form of September has settled a little, there is still oil in the tank.
City now face two critical games on Merseyside, needing at least a one nil win in the first to survive to penalties in the Carling Cup semi and something similar to prove that the Everton bogey is dead and buried. Does Mancini err on the side of caution or go for broke? The papers love to nail Italians for their adherence to the old Catenaccio thesis and its modern offshoots, but it is many months since Mancini brought City out of her cocoon and let her spread her wings.
The result of this has been breath-taking one touch football, played incessantly to feet, at pace, into spaces that only the eye of a surgeon could spot. David Silva takes this to another plain, producing passes that other players do not even see. Manchester City have been playing like this since August and, despite current travails, should persevere with the system that has reaped so many plaudits up to now. The beauty of it is that Balotelli, frequently a substitute anyway, need not be missed at all. The fluidity of interchange on the Silva-Aguero-Nasri-Milner axis has sucked opposition defenders all over the place for the last four months. If Dzeko plays too, another major headache is introduced. How to mark him, who to mark him. For a big man, he has impressive acceleration and, despite currently possessing a first touch more iron filings than cushioned, he presents a clear goal threat. Without him City fall into a sort of 4-2-4-0 which makes it nigh impossible for a defence to pick anyone up without first tying themselves in knots. There is often no discernible centre forward, just an arcing conveyor belt of little troubleshooters, revolving through 360 degrees to find, make and exploit space wherever it occurs.
With a four of Silva-Milner-Nasri-Aguero floating and interchanging, the opposition defence is pulled into all sorts of interesting shapes, leaving gaps for any of these to exploit, plus space for the marauding Clichy and the unstoppable tank Micah Richards to charge into down both flanks. It must look like the Alamo out there. Plug one gap and you immediately spring a leak somewhere else. Whilst this was seen to work excellently with Yaya Touré in the early months of the season (see here for the shape that worked brilliantly v Spurs at The Lane http://www.zonalmarking.net/2011/08/28/tottenham-1-5-man-city-dzeko/, it had not been so fluid in recent weeks - possibly down to enforced personnel changes - but was making an evident and welcome comeback in the weekend crunch against Spurs, where City's habit of dragging the opposition upfield to fetch the ball was working well until a defensive aberration from the until-then solid Savic and a wonder goal from Bale restored parity. From then on it was anybody's game and City were fortunate to come out with the three points.
Despite the closeness of the encounter, the stats tell us that City beat the form side in the league and the press pack's darlings on practically ever count. see here Danny Pugsley's excellent piece covering the numbers: http://www.bitterandblue.com/section/manchester-city-stats
Also at United http://www.zonalmarking.net/2011/10/23/manchester-united-1-6-manchester-city-tactics/ these tactics worked a treat. The interesting thing is that Dzeko played at Tottenham and Balotelli was the striker at Old Trafford. Seemingly, it matters little who is the man at the pointy end, as long as the shuffling mini dynamos behind him are functioning well. Admittedly, Dzeko was also on the pitch for the final three goal burst at Old Trafford, but by then the damage had been done. The point is, then, Balotelli can be missed without it becoming critical. If Dzeko is played, which I think he will be, Mancini can fit a strong banner across the pitch to support him.
The giant Yaya is missed much more in my opinion. he works tirelessly for the defence, cleaning up and holding possession in midfield, as well as those unstoppable runs through into the attacking third, which cause such delicious panic. De Jong, clearly struggling for form after being injured, then surplus to requirements, might be the answer, but his usual crunching tackles and safe short passing routine has been offset by the latter going awry in recent weeks. Giving away possession is contrary to the City mantra this season. We have seen time and time again that whilst we have the ball, no damage can be done. The patient accurate passing game across defence and through midfield and- if necessary back again - has become a feature. It is fascinating to watch and thrilling to know that at any moment we are but a sudden dart from Aguero or a slide rule chicken tikka taka pass from Silva away from creating a scoring opportunity.
With Yaya sitting alongside Barry, behind the four, you could watch without clenched buttocks. Tonight, it will not be so comfortable, despite Liverpool's evident form slump and a far from happy house after the Suarez affair, the malfunctioning Carroll, the assist-less Downing and the Bolton / Stoke performances. With Gerard still looking for old form, Liverpool are ripe to be picked off. City need to be brave, control possession and go for the jugular. This is a cup, after all, where some of us came in as City fans. In the 70s we featured in three finals. For the sake of Mike Doyle, the last City man to hold that famous pot aloft at Wembley stadium, let's hope we are very close to the next occasion.