ESPN Soccernet Preview: Everton v Manchester City
While last month the critics were railing against the poorly handled dismissal of Mark Hughes and the appointment of Roberto Mancini, now the talk is that the Italian could be the man to lead Manchester City to a genuine title challenge.
The Manchester Evening News said this week that "everything he has done at City has turned to gold so far"; the Daily Telegraph added that "after just four games, he has revitalised the club and banished any discord among the supporters over the dismissal of his predecessor". Yet four wins out of four does not tell the full story: Saturday's trip to Everton is, by some distance, the biggest test of Mancini's reign.
They beat out-of-form Stoke 2-0 in his first match, won 3-0 against relegation-battlers Wolves in the next, knocked mid-table Championship side Middlesbrough out of the FA Cup by a solitary goal and then thrashed a woeful Blackburn side 4-1. So far, so good, of course, but they must now overcome an Everton team that look to be slowly recovering their form.
Leaving aside the defeat to BATE Borisov in the UEFA Cup - David Moyes selected a severely weakened side for that game - Everton have not lost since the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at the end of November, and they have gone on to secure draws with Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal. They are still contending with a number of injuries, but they look increasingly like the side that finished in the top six three seasons in a row and, on Saturday, they will be out for revenge against the club that prised Joleon Lescott away in the summer.
Everton player in focus: Steven Pienaar. David Moyes was full of praise for Pienaar's goal at Arsenal that nearly saw Everton leave the Emirates Stadium with all three points, and he has been a key figure in most of Everton's better performances. He has more talent than many realise and is a hard worker, so City will need to ensure they do not allow him the space to cause problems.
Manchester City player in focus: Carlos Tevez. While Craig Bellamy had been the club's star man earlier in the season, Tevez is taking all the headlines at the moment. Having scored a hat-trick against Blackburn on Monday, he has 11 goals in nine appearances and is now showing what he is capable of once he is made the focal point of the team.
Key battle: Marouane Fellaini v Nigel De Jong. Known as a defensive midfielder during his time at Standard Liege, Fellaini showed last season that he could score goals in a more advanced position, but he has now returned to his favourite positionahead of the defence. Whether Roberto Mancini will throw new signing Patrick Vieira into the match at Goodison Park remains to be seen - he has become an increasingly defensive player in recent years and could be responsible for using his intelligence, experience and power to screen the Everton attack - but Nigel De Jong has enjoyed an excellent season and there is little reason to think he will be dropped against such tricky opponents.
Tactics: Everton have become draw specialists in recent weeks, but that has owed more to conceding late and unnecessary goals than a defensive mindset. Nonetheless, Everton are a hard-working team and showed last week against Arsenal that they can stifle teams in the midfield and provide a threat of their own on the counter. City, meanwhile, have adopted a 4-4-2 under Roberto Mancini, with left-footed Martin Petrov on the right and right-footed Craig Bellamy on the left.
Quotes: Everton manager David Moyes suggests Manchester City should be looking at younger targets: "Patrick Vieira has been a magnificent player and I have a great deal of respect for him as a footballer, but is that what City need? I don't know. They'll know what they need. It's not our business. We would try to bring in young, up-and-coming players who we think we can have here."
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini on his success so far: "I have given City more balance and a greater sense of conviction. The potential is incredible, but you need to draw it out. And the road ahead is long."
In the news: Lucas Neill is joining Turkish side Galatasaray just four months after signing for Everton on a free transfer. At City, Emmanuel Adebayor is still recovering from the gun attack on the Togo team bus on Friday. "My head is not on football now," he said. "We are talking about lives - life is more important than football."
Everton team news: Long-term absentee Mikel Arteta is set to be out until next month at least, while Phil Jagielka and Jack Rodwell are still a couple of weeks away. Sylvain Distin is back in training after his hamstring problem, but he will not be considered for the match as he needs to rebuild his fitness. Victor Anichebe, like Distin, is training again but will not feature. Lucas Neill remains available for the match despite his imminent move to Galatasaray.
Manchester City team news: Emmanuel Adebayor will not be part of the City squad despite Togo's departure from the African Nations Cup as he remains traumatised by the incident, so Benjani could continue to partner Carlos Tevez. There are doubts over Robinho, Micah Richards, Roque Santa Cruz and Shaun Wright-Phillips due to injury problems, while Stephen Ireland's hamstring injury is likely to leave him sidelined. Nedum Onuoha and Wayne Bridge have no hope of making the squad due to calf and knee issues respectively, while fellow defender Joleon Lescott is spared the wrath of the home fans due to his own knee injury.
Probable Everton line-up (4-4-2): Howard, Coleman, Neville, Heitinga, Baines, Osman, Cahill, Fellaini, Pienaar, Donovan, Saha.
Probable Manchester City line-up (4-4-2): Given, Zabaleta, Richards, Kompany, Garrido, Petrov, De Jong, Barry, Bellamy, Tevez, Benjani.
Soccernet prediction: Everton will be desperate for all three points after a number of draws in recent weeks and City face a big task at Goodison but, given the quality available to Roberto Mancini and the current form of Carlos Tevez, the visitors should be able to take at least a point.