The importance of being fourth
The word important can often be overstated or overused, but it has been consistently in Roberto Mancini's pronouncements since his arrival two months ago in reference to games, goals or players. His English vocabulary may still be limited, but the Manchester City manager has highlighted how much is at stake.
If ever there was a time the word was apt it is today. City's game against Liverpool could be the key to unlocking the prize of a place in the Champions League. For all the qualities Tottenham and Aston Villa possess, Mancini and his counterpart Rafa Benitez know fourth place in the Premier League is likely to come down to a battle between their sides. With a trip to Chelsea next Saturday and then Spurs at Eastlands the following week - should neither reach the FA Cup quarter finals - it is a significant period for Mancini's side and brings undoubted pressure.
But following the jeers that greeted last weekend's 1-1 home FA Cup draw with Stoke and increased media attention following an argument with Craig Bellamy, the Italian has remained calm. "For me, this is not a difficult time," he said. He has his reasons to be defiant. It is City who occupy fourth place and victory today would put them four points clear of Liverpool with a game still in hand. "We want to win and so do they, so it will be difficult," added Mancini. "But more so for them. We are above them and they have to try to get past us."
But Liverpool have been in this situation before and that could be decisive, according to Ian Rush, who won five league titles with the Reds. "That experience makes a big difference at this stage. Liverpool have been there and know what it takes to get into the Champions League," said the club's record goalscorer. "City do not and you can see by games against teams like Stoke recently that they are feeling the pressure. They are not playing as confidently.
"Liverpool are going well, looking more solid and getting results, and this is the time of the season when they are at their strongest. "Once Fernando Torres is back from injury up front, they have a team that can beat anyone. Fourth place won't be decided by this game, but, for me, Liverpool are favourites to get it." It won't be easy for them at Eastlands. City are unbeaten there this season and have not failed to score on home soil since Nottingham Forest upset them 3-0 in the FA Cup in January 2009.
Rush is also aware of the threat posed by Bellamy. The Welsh striker will be under scrutiny if he recovers from a knee injury in time to face his former club. Bellamy's sole season in 2006 at Anfield was marked by a lack of first-team starts and an alleged attack on teammate John Arne Riise with a golf club. But Rush added: "I was sorry to see him leave Liverpool because I could see what he had to offer.
"A lot of people don't like Craig, but not the supporters of the team he plays for because you can see how much he cares. He is a winner and that fiery side is part of his character. "If you take it away, you would lose an edge to his game. A manager has to know how to handle that to get the best out of him. "Craig is passionate about his football and just wants to play every game. "So when he doesn't, he gets frustrated.
"He is a match winner and without Carlos Tevez, City will need him. After what's happened, Craig will be fired up and a massive danger." email@example.com
Published: February 21, 2010 04:00 AM