It could be two months, it could be four, but Manchester City is going to be without Micah Richards for a while. For manager Roberto Mancini, that means more personnel juggling and fun with formations.
This could get pretty interesting pretty quickly.
Mancini has already received scrutiny for his selections and how he has deployed them during recent matches. Essentially, Mancini is trying to decide whether the Sky Blues can play three at the back without getting gashed.
These are strange times for City. They are the only unbeaten team in the Premiership, but the way they have gotten to this point hasn't been anything like the form of a defending champion.
City has kept two clean sheets in nine league fixtures despite facing non-juggernauts such as Southampton, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers out of the gates (and Liverpool is not exactly covering itself in glory these days, either). City has trailed in the second half three times in those nine league fixtures (home to Southampton, at Liverpool, at West Bromwich Albion).
Without repeated late-game heroics from Edin Dzeko against Southampton, Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, City would almost certainly be a mid-table club just short of the quarter pole.
After Chelsea's controversial—is there ever another kind for them?—loss at Stamford Bridge to Manchester United, City is within a point of the Blues. That it took one iffy red card, one undeserved red card, and an offside goal for United to prevail is of no moment to City as they chase the league lead.
Mancini gets a lot of stick for his tinkering and maneuvering of players. "You manage the defending league champions and have one of the most talented sides," goes the logic, "so just pick an eleven, line them up and leave them alone."
In the manager's defense, though, that seemingly easy path to glory really has not been available thus far this season. Week to week, Mancini really has not known who he will have available and what he will get from the players he selects.
Sergio Agüero missed a number of matches and has yet to round back into goal-scoring form. David Silva is injured, and before he left the lineup, his play was desultory.
Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell were brought in at the transfer window to bolster the midfield. Both are injured now, and when Rodwell did play he made some unfortunate misplays that sent him to the bench in advance of this injury. Pablo Zabaleta and Maicon are also nursing nagging injuries.
Then there are the challenges that healthy players face. James Milner was sent off early against West Brom, which led to his being suspended for the Swansea City match.
Ironically, the one area of the field that has given Mancini the least trouble—aside from keeper, where Joe Hart has been predictably spectacular—is in the attacking front line. Carlos Tévez has been consistently excellent, while Edin Dzeko has scored important goal after important goal. And Mario Balotelli...well, never mind him.
City has a difficult run of matches ahead: at West Ham (a surprise in the top half of the table) and then home to Ajax in a win-or-else Champions League fixture. After that, it's home to Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa—who City lost to at the Etihad in the third round of the Capital One Cup— then hopefully another must-win Champions League match against Real Madrid at the Etihad. And then it's Chelsea at the Bridge.
With that slate of games, and with the players returning from injury and inevitably succumbing to them too, expect more lineup lotto from Mancini in the weeks to come.
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