It’s not often I agree with Paul Merson but – as the cliché goes – there is indeed a first-time for everything.
And lo and behold it happened last weekend.
In his Sky Sports column he described City’s campaign as a ‘strange one’, citing they have effectively had three seasons in one.
He then proceeded to predict a 2-0 win for Stoke; only a missed close-range sitter from Peter Crouch denying him a ‘three-pointer’. In fairness, minus the green and yellow specs, few could argue his logic – which, as it happened, was right on the button. It’s also hard to argue with his three seasons in one analogy; City’s campaign lurching dramatically from famine to feast, the description ‘roller-coaster’ never more apt.
The murmurs of discontent were already audible at we neared the end of season #1, with those consecutive defeats at the hands of Liverpool and Chelsea raising early, and obvious, comparisons between old and new regimes.
From the outset it was clear that the new broom was going to do things differently; the opening day disaster at Fulham merely confirming an improved defensive set-up as top of the list of priorities.
With the first seven games failing to register a victory, and with seventeen goals conceded in the process, eyebrows were understandably raised. Only the home win against Arsenal, closely followed by a spirited 1-1 at Aston Villa placated the murmurs and provided the springboard for season #2.
The ten-game unbeaten run was tremendous and propelled some of City’s more optimistic commentators (ahem) into believing the new regime were on the cusp of taking us up to the next level.
The home wins over Arsenal and Man Utd were the stuff of dreams but were arguably gazumped by that thrilling 4-3 away win at the Liberty Stadium. Little were we to know that victory at Swansea was to prove to be the season’s only away success, assuming the final day road trip to the Etihad doesn’t throw up the shock to end all shocks.
We were also blissfully unaware that following the 2-1 win over Wigan on 15th December we would then have to wait until 23rd February [Everton] for our next sniff of victory – even then only thanks to that last-gasp Grant Holt winner.
That season #3 has so far seen a return of just two wins has filled column inches aplenty and web pages galore and has also brought into stark view the limitations of the current crop. While I’m not about to add further to the debate about the rights and wrongs of the ‘Hughton way’, there’s no arguing it’s been dire; akin to having teeth extracted at times.
The two wins in eighteen in the third trimester [13 points collected in the process] are probably a fair reflection of how things have gone since mid-December and, in the cold light of day, is the form of a team heading southwards.
That City are still in with a shout of survival speaks volumes for the success of Merson’s season #2, but does mean they enter the final three games with inertia rather than momentum – the bounce of the Reading win quickly turning into a juddering halt (or should that be Holt) after events at the Britannia.
And here’s where Villa fans – a confident and chirpy bunch – feel they have the trump card. Their last-six form guide reads WLWDLW, and while they appear keen to ignore the two ‘Ls’ it does suggest a team that’s hit a run of form at the right time. And in the shape of Benteke, Weimann and Agbonlahor they do indeed have a triumvirate capable of wreaking havoc against the most solid of defences – even if they haven’t delivered consistently throughout the campaign.
Their Achilles heel of course is at the other end of the pitch, where Guznan has picked the ball out of the net 10 more times than Ruddy, Bunn and Camp. Despite the bravado, and as much as they’d hate to admit it, the Villains are vulnerable at the back; no question.
The question for Hughton – even more so on Saturday than normal – is whether to stick or twist. We’re acutely aware that his instincts will tell him to stick, but will the desire for goals against a defence that creaks be a sufficient incentive to break the current mould? Will he dare expose his back-four to an in-form Villa strike-force in the hope of getting joy at the other end?
While a 4-3 or a 5-4 may appeal to those in opposite dugout, Team Hughton would – I suspect – quake at the very thought; a narrow 1-0 or 2-1 probably far more appealing.
I fear the ‘just go for it regardless’ brigade will be disappointed, with the chances of a ‘basketball match’ ending in a City victory about as likely as a full-house at Portman Road.
The Colney bootroom will doubtless be mulling over will be how to strike the right balance, with Saturday not the day to set up to be tight at the back and hit the opposition on the break. While the need to start the game on the front foot and unsettle the Villa defence will be uppermost in their thoughts, it’s unlikely to be done at the expense of conceding early on.
A controlled performance, played at a high tempo and predominantly in the Villa half, would suit me fine, particularly if it’s accompanied by the same level of intelligence as displayed by the Under-18s on Monday night.
Not too much to ask is it?
And if that’s not excitement enough, the clappers are back!
On the Ball City…
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