City's day of reckoning
The hurt. The ridicule. The jealousy. Manchester City fans haven't had much reason to cheer in recent decades.
Perhaps that changes Saturday, when City faces Manchester United in the FA Cup semifinals. Beating United would be enough in itself, yet the winner is virtually assured silverware, landing either Bolton or Stoke at Wembley in May.
The last time the blue side of Manchester won a coveted trophy, disco was in vogue. "Staying Alive" in the top division hasn't been a given, either, with relegation to the Championship in 1996 and even the third tier of English soccer two years later. Demotion from the Premier League ensued again in 2001. City supporters would rather forget those experiences.
All the while, City's main rival -- not vice-versa -- can't stop winning. Guided, unbelievably, for the past 25 years by Alex Ferguson, Manchester United is on the verge of overtaking Liverpool, its public enemy No. 1, as the most successful team in English league history with a 19th title.
But hope reigned supreme for long-suffering City supporters in the late summer of 2008, when rich folk from the Abu Dhabi United Group -- so rich they probably ridicule Chelsea's billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich -- arrived. Here was their chance to grab a collection of stars, start competing for major trophies and take away some of United's glory.
Success hasn't been instant, however, and at the start of this season the goals at Eastlands were twofold: win a trophy (any trophy) and qualify for the Champions League. While manager Roberto Mancini has been criticized for his typically cautious Italian approach to the game, he still has his team in the hunt on both fronts. But beating United and winning the Cup might not be enough. The real priority must be to finish in the top four and qualify for Europe's premier competition next season. And that's hardly a lock, as fourth-place City is just three points ahead of Spurs.
So if City fails to finish fourth, don't be surprised if Mancini gets the sack. For one, his rapport with his own players isn't very good. Even more troubling for Mancini is that City is slumping ahead of its biggest game of the season so far -- a match that will be played without talisman Carlos Tevez, who hobbled off the pitch with a hamstring injury against Liverpool on Monday night.
In that match, Mancini -- some said unwisely -- failed to start the suave David Silva and midfield enforcer Nigel De Jong. The results were catastrophic. Liverpool's 3-0 victory flattered the visitor; it was one of the most comprehensive wins for any team this season. Manchester City had no answer to the Reds' pressing game, with workhorse Dirk Kuyt, forwards Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, and midfielders Jay Spearing and Lucas, now coming into his own, particularly impressing. Silva provided a little relief when entering deep in the second half.
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James Milner, considered a fine professional, showed his displeasure when replaced by Silva, the latest City starlet to rebel against Mancini. The manager subsequently claimed to reporters, in his still developing English, that Milner's reaction "is not a problem," and that he likes it when his players show passion.
But it can be a fine line between players who want to fight for the cause and malcontents who could end up undermining it.
Take Mario Balotelli. Mancini's most dubious purchase so far, Balotelli suffered the ignominy of being substituted -- as a substitute -- against Liverpool. And fellow forward Edin Dzeko, who cost 27 million pounds, three million more than Balotelli, was a non-factor.
Rio Ferdinand, United's influential defender who limped through Tuesday's Champions League win against Chelsea, took pleasure in it all. He could hardly believe Milner's display, or at least that's how it sounded.
Arsenal vs. Liverpool
Arsenal hosts Liverpool in this weekend's other huge game in England, knowing a win is required to stay close to United in the Premier League. Defeating the Reds in London on Sunday would narrow the gap to four points, and if United's lead was to stay at four points, the May 1 clash between the top two would mean something.
And some good news for the Gunners: Wojciech Szczesny, lesser of three evils in goal, and Johan Djourou, who has turned out to be the team's most reliable defender this season, both might return from finger and shoulder injuries, respectively.
Not so good, Arsenal must deal with Andy Carroll. The towering striker scored his first two Liverpool goals Monday and has already found the net at the Emirates this season with Newcastle. His aerial ability is sure to cause havoc, with Suarez's trickery a concern, too. --Ubha
"You don't see people coming off shaking their heads or being disgruntled or sitting on the bench in a sulk at this club, because everyone is delighted to be at this club," Ferdinand told reporters following the Chelsea game. "They want to be here."
Ferdinand later said his words were taken out of context, not aimed specifically at City. (Roll eyes.)
Of course, Mancini has bigger issues to worry about, such as deciding which of his flops, Dzeko or Balotelli, starts up front on Saturday in lieu of Tevez. "We don't think, 'If Carlos doesn't play, we can't win,'" Mancini told reporters. "Anything can happen in one game against United.
"Who would have thought Birmingham could beat Arsenal," he added, referring to the Carling Cup final in February.
At least City, which last downed United in the FA Cup in 1955, won't have to contend with Wayne Rooney, serving the second of his two-game suspension for foolishly swearing into a television camera.
However, in Dimitar Berbatov and rookie Javier Hernandez, United possesses the league's top scorer and one of the most clinical finishers in the league. Mediocre for a large chunk of the season, the Red Devils have upped their game, as Ferguson acknowledged Tuesday, boosting chances of winning another treble.
"I think we've hit our form," the Scot said in a news conference.
The signs, then, aren't great for City and its fans.
That's the bummer about hope. It can lead to so much despair.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.