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Aug 15, 2007

Old Blue Eyes' comeback has City singing

Manchester City 1 - 0 Derby County

There was a tangible and distinctly unusual feeling outside the City of Manchester Stadium. It was a sensation that many City followers had forgotten for the last year: optimism.

A club that has become a byword for tragicomedy has started to sense it may actually achieve something. Normally that only fuels City's capacity for anticlimactic results, but Derby were duly dispatched.

It provided the ideal introduction for City's new manager as well as seven of their eight recruits. As the Manchester billboards proclaim, 'Ol' Blue Eyes is back' and the City fans saluted their new manager with a loud chorus of Sven-Goran Eriksson's name during the second half.

Popularity is an unusual state of affairs for Eriksson in England and he greeted it with the usual air of mild bemusement, mixed with helpful, yet uninformative answers.

'When you win football games, you will only see happy faces tomorrow,' Eriksson said. 'I am very, very happy. We are young - I am not young but they are - and we could not have had a better start .

'I'm more than happy with six points after two games and two clean sheets is very, very good. I strongly believe we will play better football in the future when some of the new players are better fitness wise.'

That bodes well. Because, after Michael Johnson scored their first home goal in the Premier League for 227 days, City find themselves in a position they are unaccustomed to occupying: second in the Premier League, four points ahead of Manchester United.

Within six weeks, this is a club transformed, even if that frankly disturbing number of mentions of Thaksin Shinawatra in the match programme served as a reminder that the change is not to everyone's taste.

On the field, anyway, renewal was required after a season to depress under the unlamented Stuart Pearce. Given City's unique identity, perhaps the worst crime in the eyes of their supporters is being boring. No wonder that the City of Manchester Stadium was engulfed by despondency. Their proud identity has not never endangered by incompetence. Sheer tedium, however, was another matter.

Now City intrigue. They have a new assortment of heroes even if, for various reasons, the bar is set at a low level. In one sense, taking over a club that had reached rock bottom has its advantages. Whatever the merits of Eriksson's signings, they are almost certain to be superior to their predecessors.

The price of the first standing ovation in Manchester appears to be around £120 million. That, at least, was what Shinawatra paid for his reception; £20 million in buying the club, £60 million in absorbing its debt and £40 million for furnishing Eriksson with the majority of a new team. Presumably few members of Amnesty International are City season ticket holders.

Those who are had much to admire on the pitch. If his England sides were too rigid and inflexible, and Eriksson himself appeared to have similar flaws, City were more fluid and inventive, technically proficient and aesthetically pleasing.

Their goal epitomised that, even though it came from one of the few survivors from Stuart Pearce's regime in Johnson. Though Kasper Schmeichel had made a fine block to deny Stephen Pearson it was largely uneventful before Johnson played a one-two with Elano, the Brazilian acting as the pivot and playing a pass that was perfect in his simplicity for the teenager's overlapping run. Once freed, he lifted his shot, struck with the outside of the right boot, into the top corner of Stephen Bywater's goal.

So, for the first time since David Beckham netted against Ecuador 14 months ago, an English player scored for Eriksson, but it still represented a triumph for his radical approach. If his recruitment policy appeared that beloved of fans on football management simulation games - buy an entire team within a month - perhaps his perpetual public blandness masks a wisdom as well as an enviable contacts book.

Certainly this was an evening that aided Eriksson's case in his argument that he gets better value for money on the continent as his video stars made a favourable impression in the flesh.

One of Eriksson's more interesting assertions was that England has not produced a player like Elano. There may not be a Brazilian counterpart of Andy Todd, and he was detailed to pay particularly close attention to the former Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder. It was an unenviable task, and one he struggled with against the elusive Brazilian.

A delightful nutmeg of Todd was one indication of his delicate skills. The awareness to skip away from would-be tacklers was further evidence of his quality, together with an instinctive sense of positioning. Moreover, he did not just enable a 4-2-3-1 formation; he was integral to it.

I strongly believe we will play better football in the future when some of the new players are better fitness wise.
Sven Goran Eriksson
On this evidence, Martin Petrov probably ranks next among the summer signings. His pace and directness on the left gave City penetration on the flanks, something they lacked last season. If they may appear a little lop-sided at times, at least Eriksson has added genuine width with the Bulgarian.

If Rolando Bianchi will be judged by his goals, his display tonight contained much else. The role of a sole striker can be a lonely one but Bianchi, besides winning enough aerial balls to suggest he will be a competent target man, proved particularly adept at deft flicks for the supporting midfielders

For the two newcomers in defence, a second clean sheet in four days suggests that they are performing their primary tasks well. The Croatian Vedran Corluka appeared the more adventurous of the full-backs, though Javier Garrido was dependable enough when called upon.

They were joined by a sixth and a seventh signing from the bench. Geovanni's juggling makes him a natural crowd-pleaser while Valeri Bojinov, replacing Bianchi, made less of an impact.

'We acquitted ourselves reasonably against an expensively-assembled squad,' said the Derby manager Billy Davies, quick to point out the financial disparity between the two clubs.

Eriksson, however, wanted to deflect attention from his spending. 'We very often talk about the new players,' he added. 'But when you take players like Micah Richards, Johnson, [Stephen] Ireland, they were absolutely fantastic and the goal Johnson scored was beautiful.'

MAN OF THE MATCH: Elano - A second stellar showing. Is it to early to suggest that the big four will regret not signing the Brazilian?

CITY VERDICT: The real test awaits on Sunday but, while it is inevitable that attention has been focused on the newcomers, one of the keys to their start has been the renaissance of Dietmar Hamann, ineffectual last season but quietly influential in the midfield.

DERBY VERDICT: His team selection suggested Billy Davies, with his focus on planning, will prioritised certain games for specific players. It also suggests that he will favour 4-5-1 away from home, while opting for 4-4-2 at Pride Park. Derby held their own until Johnson scored, but thereafter an equaliser always looked unlikely. Nonetheless, Tyrone Mears and Matt Oakley continued their excellent starts to the season.


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