City's quality should see them ride blip
ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and twice claiming the Ballon d'Or during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has also managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham.
I was as surprised as anyone to see Manchester City lose at Goodison Park on Tuesday night; I really fancied them to beat an Everton side hampered by injuries and playing with Tony Hibbert and Johnny Heitinga as a very makeshift centre-back pairing. Everton had no real height across the back four and as a big physical side, Man City should have taken advantage. The problem seemed to be that City's players thought it was on a plate for them, and Roberto Mancini even admitted after the game that he underestimated Everton. I'm sure there won't be a similar oversight this Saturday against Fulham, though it makes our ESPN game that bit bigger because City have really got to win. A draw or defeat at Eastlands would really see people start to cast aspersions on their title ambitions.
There are some who didn't appreciate the honesty of Mancini's post-match comments, with suggestions that it was a sign the pressure is getting to him, but I think it was refreshing to see a manager admit his mistakes. More than that, it was an attempt by Mancini to protect his players. He didn't want to lambast them because they've done so well for him this year and I believe he did the right thing, trying to take the pressure off them and put it on himself. They will certainly respect him for that.
The manager and his players are in it together and that relationship is critical. You've got to remember that, unlike Manchester United, Man City aren't used to winning things - and their supporters aren't used to winning things. If the club are going to take that next big step and win the title this season, they're going to have to do it together. The players will see Mancini taking the blame and not slagging them off as an extra incentive to go out and perform for him.
At the moment, City obviously haven't got the same confidence they had before Christmas and I think the loss of Yaya Toure has been a major factor. Their three key players are Kompany at the back, David Silva and Toure - Silva in particular has been outstanding all season, though he is just starting to hit a bit of a sticky patch now. I'm sure he will come through it because he is a quality player, but what City had before January was Toure to step in and drive the team when Silva wasn't firing on all cylinders. When Silva couldn't do it the other day at Goodison, there was no Yaya Toure and they didn't have another player to drag them forward. Fortunately he will only be missing for a maximum of two more games at the African Nations Cup and his return should provide City with a major boost.
They'll be without him or his brother Kolo again on Saturday, and will need to recognise that Fulham represent another potential banana skin. Despite being renowned for being poor travellers, Fulham have a remarkable record at City, who have only beaten them twice at home in the Premier League, suffering three defeats. Fulham also ended City's 100% record earlier this season, fighting back from 2-0 down to claim a 2-2 draw.
I've no doubt Martin Jol will have been reminding his players of their performance in that game at Craven Cottage and if they can keep City quiet for the first half an hour, the crowd will probably get a bit anxious and City's players might also get frustrated. Fulham must go with the belief that they can score goals - Dempsey's got 16 this season - though they are more of a side who will come and say 'what have you got', rather than going all guns blazing. They'll be organised, determined and the onus is really on City.
Both managers have made January signings, with David Pizarro arriving at City and Pavel Pogrebnyak joining Fulham. Martin Jol decided the time was right to let Bobby Zamora leave and he clearly wants another type of centre-forward. When managers come in, they look at the club and decide where they think they can change and improve things and Martin's wanted to go in a different direction. It's a big gamble that could of course prove a masterstroke but a lot of Russian players, nearly all of them in fact, have struggled in this league.
While Fulham managed to offload a striker, City have been left with one they were keen to get rid of in Carlos Tevez. It's a real drain on the energy of the club when a manager is going to press conference after press conference talking about a player who has got no future with them. It's something that City would have obviously have preferred to tidy up but they have stood firm and are not going to let him just get away with the way he's treated them. You have to admire them for that stance. It's a bit frustrating to have it lurking in the background but I don't think it's having any effect on how City are performing on the pitch.
I'm still convinced that the Everton result was just a temporary blip for City, they've got too much quality for it to be any sort of critical blow. They've got to get back to how they were playing when they were hammering five past Spurs and six past United, which is with a lot more energy and invention than they played with against Everton. I think we'll see them bounce back this weekend and despite Fulham's tremendous dedication and resilience, which they have had under just about every manager over the past few years, I think City will win this one and maybe quite comfortably.