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Oct 11, 2012

The rise and fall of Joleon Lescott

Pre-eminence came courtesy of controversy. Joleon Lescott was England's finest central defender at Euro 2012 but he owes his status as the first choice in his position to John Terry's international retirement and Rio Ferdinand's exclusion. The golden generation and the more garlanded talents - defenders like Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher, Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate who have kept Lescott out of the squad, let alone the team - have left the scene. Lescott is in pole position.

Just not for Manchester City. While the 30-year-old has gone up in the pecking order for places with his country, he seems to have been downgraded by his club. Lescott has only started three of City's last six matches, and one of those was in the Capital One Cup. While the Premier League winners are two games into their Champions League campaign, he is yet to take the field in Europe.

He has been dropped and snubbed. In place of Lescott, the teenager Matija Nastasic was given the most intimidating of debuts, away at Real Madrid. The Serb started, too, against Borussia Dortmund last week.

While there have been 57 attempts on Joe Hart's goal in the Champions League, Nastasic acquitted himself reasonably. More to the point, his presence was a sign his manager lacks faith in Lescott. While Roberto Mancini talks of using plenty of players from his squad, the reality is that Vincent Kompany would not have been demoted. While goals have gone in at the wrong end, the Italian has been criticised for chopping and changing, particularly during City's long wait to keep a clean sheet this season.

The accusation is that Mancini has taken something that was fixed and broken it. And while the holes at the back stand in stark contrast to the last two seasons, when City had the Premier League's joint best and finest defensive records respectively, it is an entirely separate issue from Lescott's uncertain status.

Because votes of no confidence in him are nothing new. Maybe Mancini has never really believed in the man Mark Hughes made the world's third most expensive defender in football history when he signed him from Everton in 2009.

The Italian's initial achievement was to recognise that the costly and calamitous partnership of Kolo Toure and Lescott needed disbanding because Kompany, underused by Hughes, was the club's outstanding centre-back. But the notion that the Belgian and the Englishman have been inseparable ever since is incorrect - they have not been City's answer to Nemanja Vidic and Ferdinand; Terry and Ricardo Carvalho; Tony Adams and Steve Bould... in short, the two first names on the teamsheet.

In the 2010-11 season, Lescott only started half the league games, many while Toure served a suspension for taking a banned slimming pill. Strange as it sounds, he was omitted for Dedryck Boyata when Arsenal visited the Etihad Stadium in October 2010, a decision that backfired when the Belgian was sent off in the fifth minute. Recalled, Lescott was the common denominator when Leicester and Wolves scored seven goals in three games against City the following January.

Last season, meanwhile, Toure was parachuted in against Bayern Munich when his ban ended and picked instead of Lescott again for the visits of Arsenal and Liverpool. Squad rotation means being omitted for Wigan and Wolves, not Arsenal and Liverpool. This was a simple case of choice. In major matches, Mancini often went with the more experienced performer.

Indeed, while otherwise ignored, Toure started again at Anfield in August. It was partly a systemic issue but another indication that Mancini has reservations about Lescott. City played 3-4-1-2 on Merseyside and the manager has only deployed the Englishman once - against Aston Villa in the Capital One Cup - in that formation, and then in the middle of the trio, the position that also suits Kompany best. Perhaps the feeling is that Lescott is not assured enough on the ball for the wider roles; perhaps he prefers Gael Clichy's pace instead.

But it does not seem a coincidence that, despite having the left-footed Lescott and the comparative rarity of left-footed central defenders, Mancini spent the summer chasing one, Liverpool's Daniel Agger, and eventually signed another, Nastasic.

It may not help that the final impression Lescott made last season was with a disastrous header to QPR's Djibril Cisse, who advanced to score the goal that almost cost City the title. His outings this season have included another error when Laurent Koscielny scored for Arsenal despite the fact that, with the number of times the City back line has been breached, even the normally ultra-reliable Kompany has been culpable as well this season.

But the captain is the cornerstone of his defence; Lescott, despite his fine season last year, is just the man who has partnered him when Mancini has not found a preferable alternative. Now, with Nastasic signed and the possibility that Micah Richards will be used in the centre of defence after the arrival of Maicon, attractive options may be abounding.

While, after his defiant displays in Euro 2012 and aided by an understanding with Phil Jagielka that was established in his Everton days, Lescott is primed to face San Marino and Poland, it is rather harder to predict if he will figure for City, especially in the season-defining games. When Mancini is asked about Lescott, he will invariably reply: "Joleon is an important player." But he is nowhere near as important for City as he is for England.

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