Manchester City have mastered the art of dealing with the Premier League’s big fish – now Mark Hughes must focus on the smaller fry.
After a run of seven successive draws had raised fresh questions over Hughes’ ability to turn the Abu Dhabi millions into a winning football team, City can now look to the future with confidence once more.
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Beating an essentially second string Arsenal side last Wednesday not only maintained interest in the Carling Cup – and set up a mouth-watering last four clash with Manchester United – it also provided a timely boost to flagging morale.
The 2-1 defeat of Chelsea at Eastlands yesterday confirmed the early season view that City can be a force without necessarily taking another plunge into the transfer market.
Had it not been for Michael Owen’s goal in the sixth minute of injury time at Old Trafford in September, the Blues would be unbeaten against the big four this term.
As it is, they have collected seven points, exactly the same number as that run of draws produced against the likes of Hull, Burnley, Fulham and Birmingham.
“We know what it takes to win against the bigger sides,” reflected Hughes.
“Once we get the knowledge of how to beat the lesser sides we will be OK.”
The test will come next Saturday when City visit the Reebok Stadium to face a Bolton side that have slipped into the relegation zone against a backdrop of supporter unrest.
After what has just gone, Hughes knows it would be a major disappointment if his side were to falter once more.
“We want to make the most of the results this week,” he admitted.
“As I have said many times, you cannot have short cuts. At this level, if you don’t put in the right level of work you will get beaten.
“We worked exceptionally hard to get this result because the challenge is there for us from the bigger sides.
“At the moment we are making it difficult for them. At some point in the future we want to supersede them.
“We are on a journey. We are not where we need to be yet but we are getting there quickly.”
It is an admission City will not be winning the title this season, although as Hughes never claimed they would it hardly constitutes an admission of defeat.
What he is looking for is consistency, a demand that applies equally to individuals as well as his team as a whole.
Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott for instance have produced a couple of towering central defensive performances after previously lacking the edge required to keep weaker opposition attacks at bay.
Nigel de Jong controlled a central midfield area containing Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Michael Ballack having seven days earlier been outplayed by Jimmy Bullard.
Up front, Emmanuel Adebayor, who equalised his own unfortunate own goal yesterday, looks sharp for the first time since serving his three-match ban in September, while Carlos Tevez has scored two stellar goals in a week to silence the doubters who have questioned exactly what the South American brings to the City team apart from the obvious hustle and bustle.
“Carlos is now getting to the level of fitness he needs,” said Hughes.
“He is a high energy player and if he doesn’t have that base level of fitness, it lessens his impact.
“He missed all of pre-season so he was playing catch-up. But now he is fit and well and everyone saw the effect he can have, not only on his own team but the opposition as well.”
All this would have meant nothing without Shay Given’s penalty save to deny Frank Lampard eight minutes from time, a contribution that received warm praise from Adebayor.
“We shouldn’t forget Shay’s performance,” said the Togo frontman. “He is one of the best.”
The result allowed City to jump above ailing Liverpool into sixth, within striking distance of the top four, which was always a more realistic target this term.
“We must keep going until the end,” said Adebayor.
“We won’t give up – we’ll keep playing for a top four place until the last kick. It will be difficult, but we believe we can do it.”