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Triply disappointing (West Brom 2, City 1)

22 September 2010

Roberto Mancini looks about as pleased as I was about the result.

Squad depth wasn’t supposed to be an issue for City this season. Not after a second summer spending spree that resulted in a squad so expansive that even after selling off and loaning out a number of players, established talents like Roque Santa Cruz were left off the 25-man Premier League squad list. There was supposed to be enough depth to compete on four fronts without sacrificing quality or being forced to prioritize one competition over another.

Yet after a rash of injuries to the defense and the strike force, Roberto Mancini entered tonight’s Carling Cup tie at West Brom faced with a choice between fielding a strong team at The Hawthorns and having a rested starting XI for Saturday’s early crunch showdown with Chelsea.

With defenders Wayne Bridge, Aleksandar Kolarov, Joleon Lescott, and Jérôme Boateng all unavailable, Mancini is left with Micah Richards, Kolo Touré, Vincent Kompany, and Pablo Zabaleta as his only experienced defenders. The Italian opted to rest the four for Saturday morning, going with Academy products Javan Vidal, Dedryck Boyata, Ben Mee, and Greg Cunningham as his back four. The four defenders boasted an average age of 20 years and all except Boyata made their first starts for the club.

With fowards Mario Balotelli and Emmanuel Adebayor also injured and winger Shaun Wright-Phillips’s status uncertain, Mancini faced a similar situation in his midfield and strike force. He ended up giving a City debut to promising Swedish youngster John Guidetti and a second career start to Abdi Ibrahim.

Things started out well enough, with Patrick Vieira picking out Guidetti, who flicked on to Jô for a nice finish to give the visitors a 1-0 lead on their first shot of the game. That goal awoke West Brom, who proceeded to put serious pressure on the City goal. If not for some wayward shooting and a sparkling performance from Shay Given in his season debut in goal for City, it could’ve been 3-1 at half time.

Following some more brilliance from Given early in the second half, West Brom equalized on a play in which Boyata was pretty clearly fouled just prior to Gianni Zuiverloon beating Given from distance. Within two minutes, the hosts were on top after Simon Cox got through and Given couldn’t stop a fairly tame effort to his right. Oddly, both goals came immediately after the introduction of Zabaleta at right back for Vidal — a move designed to shore up the defense.

Mancini brought on the big guns late in search of an equalizer, subbing on James Milner and eventually David Silva, but a nice save by West Brom keeper Boaz Myhill denied Milner in the final minutes. At that point, I wasn’t too disappointed, as the prospect of extra time less than 72 hours before the critical Chelsea match with some key players out on the pitch was the last thing City needed.

Even with the controversial equalizer, I can’t argue with the fairness of the result. City were outplayed badly by the Baggies, who themselves made 10 changes to the team that beat Birmingham City this past weekend. It’s pretty damning of the youngsters who featured that they weren’t able to compete with the second-choice players on a newly promoted side.

More disappointing is the way Mancini was forced to essentially make the Carling Cup a low priority for the club. As I mentioned yesterday, this was the easiest path to silverware, between the maximum of just six cup fixtures for a club playing in Europe and the fact so many competitors field weakened sides. The fourth round wouldn’t have been played until late October, and by then it’s reasonable to expect a fair number of the injured players to be back for City.

The fact Liverpool and Chelsea suffered even bigger upsets tonight will keep City off the back pages, but it only makes the cup exit feel like an even bigger opportunity lost. The setback also raises the stakes for the Chelsea match on Saturday. Despite his immediate claims that he has no regrets about his team selection tonight, Mancini can’t sacrifice the club’s Carling Cup chances and have nothing to show for it. That would just be too great a pity.

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