Musical chairs at Manchester City

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini“There may be trouble ahead,” I said to one of my Windows Live Messenger contacts as I settled down in front of my computer screen to follow the official online updates and radio broadcast of Wednesday night’s League Cup tie with West Brom. The City team had just been announced and there were eleven changes from the side that won at Wigan the Sunday previous.

It was like the old days for me. I used to love listening to away games in the back of my dad’s blue Peugeot 405, while the rain poured down outside and Kevin Horlock was sent off for walking too aggressively. City used to lose those games, too.

And it was very little consolation to me that I was right. Especially not being old enough to have seen this club in the final of any competition (though I didn’t need to be especially young for this to be the case), despite the years I have seen them regularly in the top flight of English football.

For a short while, I thought I was wrong – that wouldn’t have come as a surprise, either, because I’ve spent two decades trying to predict what City will do and I’ve found it’s easier to predict what Lady Gaga will be wearing to an awards ceremony. Or what Manchester’s weather will be like in the afternoon after a cloudless morning.

Jo scored with City’s first of two efforts on target in the 90 minutes. In fairness to City, from what I had heard on the radio, when they did score, it didn’t seem to be against the run of play. It was a shame that, after that goal, the run of play meant that City posed as much offensive threat as eleven fluffy rabbits. In a bag.

The tie at The Hawthorns was always going to be tough, whether or not City fielded a full strength line-up. I had expected a full strength West Brom side too, for instance, though that wasn’t the case. And I fully understand why Roberto Mancini decided against playing his strongest team, especially with a Premier League match with Chelsea on Saturday and then a Europa League match with Juventus the following Thursday.

Certainly with the current injuries in the squad it would seem sensible to save the strongest team for Chelsea just three days away. But had this been a Europa League tie with a difficult weekend game approaching, I wouldn’t have expected eleven changes and the recovery time from Wednesday to Saturday is the same as Thursday to Sunday. And there was no flight home to endure, either (I’m not a good flier, I’m only assuming everyone else ‘endures’ flights, too).

It’s clear there, then, that Roberto Mancini sees the League Cup as the least important competition for City this season – in line with most, if not all, other Premier League managers for their respective clubs. But knowing that the toughest teams in the competition will be fielding weakened sides and having seen several of them eliminated already, for a club that hasn’t won a trophy in over three decades it is doubly disappointing to not have a fair shot at their first tie.

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Last season, the City fans at the League Cup semi final that I was sitting with and those I spoke to beforehand thought the competition was important for the club. Yet a lot of those same City fans have changed their position after Wednesday night’s game, one of which in particular expressed that he would rather finish fourth than win the League Cup.

To an extent, I agree. Finishing inside the top four must be the biggest target for Roberto Mancini this season and anything else will probably be considered a failure. But with a weaker squad than this season, City came within one game of finishing inside the top four and one game of making the League Cup final last time around. There’s no reason why progress in both competitions couldn’t have been an aim – it wasn’t a mutually exclusive situation and there’s no correlation between City’s League Cup progress and their final position.

With the injuries already in the squad, I understand resting some players so they would be fit and ready for the visit of Chelsea. But giving six inexperienced youth team graduates a chance at once was a little over the top, especially with the likes of David Silva and Shaun Wright-Phillips, who haven’t had a lot of first team game time this season, not even making the starting line up.

The defeat against West Brom put City out of a competition that they had a fair shout at winning. The first team did pretty well in it last season and the squad strength and depth has improved since then. Should City have played a stronger side and won, then gone on to lose against Chelsea on Saturday, they would have eight months’ worth of fixtures to make up the points needed for fourth or above. Should City still go on to lose to Chelsea, that situation doesn’t change, except they are now out of a winnable competition, too. Though, of course, a stronger team might not have won at West Brom, either. This is City we’re talking about.

Having said that, a victory against Chelsea on Saturday and everything I have written here will be meaningless… I’m as fickle as the next football fan and victories against the league winners is always fun. But it isn’t games against Chelsea that decide whether City will finish in a Champions League position. It’s improving on last season’s results to the sides in a relegation battle – home draws to relegated Burnley and Hull, for instance.

Not being in the League Cup might well stand City in good stead to win one of the other trophies and finish in the top four this season. But, right now, it feels like a missed opportunity to a man who’s never seen his side even make the final of a competition, let alone win a piece of silverware.