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Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Manchester derby full of intrigue


LONDON — Manchester City has been collecting strikers for fun over the past year yet it goes into Sunday's derby against Manchester United with only one fit front man — Craig Bellamy.

Christopher Davies

Carlos Tevez's knee injury rules him out of facing his former club, which at least will lower the temperature at Old Trafford by a couple of degrees.

Robinho has an ankle problem, Roque Santa Cruz, yet to play for City since his summer transfer from Blackburn, is only just back in training after knee surgery, while Emmanuel Adebayor is suspended (more on him later).

Manager Mark Hughes will have little option than to adopt a more defensive 4-5-1 formation against United in one of the most eagerly awaited derbies in years.

From being Manchester's other team, City is now on superior financial footing to United (and everyone else) thanks to its Middle East owners led by Sheikh Mansour, while its opening four wins represents the Blues' best-ever start in the Premier League.

The 4-2 home victory over Arsenal last Saturday showed City is ready to make a serious challenge for the title, and former United striker Hughes said: "People have been looking at these two games as the indicator of how we are going to do, to see how far we have come and whether we can go to the next level. This is a great opportunity to show we can cope with the expectation."

Arsenal at home is one thing, playing the champions on its own patch is another matter. City will be up against Wayne Rooney playing the best football of his career, clearly benefiting from the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. While he operated effectively alongside Ronaldo, Rooney was often sacrificed to accommodate the Portugal international's free spirit.

Asked to play wide left to give United a more compact midfield, Ronaldo was allowed to roam free. As a result, much of Rooney's best work had to be done in areas where he was less effective.

With Ronaldo gone, Rooney is rising to the challenge of being the main man and his display in the 3-1 win over Tottenham last weekend was a classic center-forward's performance of strength and selfless running.

It is impossible to think the derby will be dull. With so much at stake and tensions high, let's hope the match is memorable for the right reasons, but sadly I have my doubts.

* * * * *

MARK HUGHES, the Manchester City manager, is a serial critic of referees.

Rarely a defeat goes by without Hughes taking a pop at the referee.

But! Lo and behold! Hughes seems to have changed his tune.

He believed Mark Clattenburg was correct to take no action against City striker Emmanuel Adebayor for raking his studs — whoops, accidentally making contact — down the face of Robin van Persie who, there but for the grace of God, could have lost an eye.

"The referee had a great view of the challenge from Ad," said Hughes. "He deemed at the time it was not worthy of either a yellow or red card."

I wonder had Adebayor been the recipient of such a horrendous challenge whether Hughes' view would have been the same. A wild guess: no.

On Wednesday, Adebayor pleaded guilty to a charge of violent conduct and was handed a three-game ban by the Football Association, ruling him out of this weekend's Manchester derby. Justice was done belatedly after Clattenburg told the F.A. he had not seen the incident and had he done so, he would have sent off the Togo international.

* * * * *

THE MOST high-profile case of diving in Champions League history — maybe football history — came to a predictable if embarrassing end for UEFA which was left with not so much egg on its face, but a giant omelet.

Eduardo's two-game ban for allegedly diving to earn a penalty against Celtic was overturned on appeal and the wording of UEFA's charge is so poor that Arsenal's lawyers drove a coach and horses through it:

"Players may be suspended for two competition matches, or for a specified period, for acting with the obvious intent to cause any match official to make an incorrect decision or supporting his error of judgment and thereby causing him to make an incorrect decision."

The words "intent" and "intentional" (apart from handball) were removed from the laws some years ago because FIFA realized, in these litigious times, proving a player's intent was nearly impossible.

So how could UEFA possibly prove what Eduardo's "obvious intent" was?

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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