City bid to end United's treble chance
Manchester City will attempt to halt Manchester United's march towards an unprecedented second treble on Saturday when the bitter local rivals collide at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals.
A mouth-watering encounter between the undisputed aristocrats of the Premier League and their nouveau riche neighbours will see City fighting to keep alive their last realistic chance of winning a trophy this season. But City's preparations could hardly have been worse - a one-sided defeat at Liverpool on Monday, which also saw talismanic striker Carlos Tevez pick up an injury that rules him out of Saturday's game.
Almost of greater concern for City manager Roberto Mancini have been suggestions of dressing room disharmony, with James Milner openly - and uncharacteristically - showing his disgust at being substituted at Anfield. United defender Rio Ferdinand took a thinly veiled dig at the signs of City's discord, saying it would never be tolerated at Old Trafford under Sir Alex Ferguson.
"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 and they want to be here," Ferdinand said. "The moment you show a little bit of dissent like that the manager isn't happy and he pulls rank and rightly so... It's an unwritten rule."
City striking quandary
Mancini, who has repeatedly denied suggestions of faltering morale amongst City's expensively assembled squad, is pondering how to plug the hole filled by Tevez's absence, which he acknowledged was a "big problem". The Argentinian's injury means Mancini is likely to start either, or both, of Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli. Neither player has yet to establish himself at Eastlands despite big-money moves to the club.
Balotelli, a £23 million ($37.6 million) signing from Inter Milan last summer, has made as many headlines for his off-field antics since his arrival. As well as two red cards and nine yellow cards in 23 appearances, Balotelli has found himself in the news for a training ground bust-up, a car crash, and accusations of throwing darts at youth team players.
Mancini nevertheless remains convinced he can help Balotelli realise his undoubted potential, and hinted that he may feature on Saturday. "Mario knows he has to take more responsibility," Mancini said. "On Saturday, if he plays, he has a chance to do well, and if he scores a goal that can bring us the final, he can change his year. He has the big-game mentality to do it."
United, meanwhile, will be without the suspended Wayne Rooney, who has been in scintillating form in recent weeks as the club have advanced to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals and taken a grip on the title race. Scoring goals has hardly been a problem for United this year, with Javier Hernandez regularly finding the net.
The 22-year-old Mexican striker has proved to be an inspired purchase, repaying his modest £7 million transfer fee with 18 goals in 37 games. "The moment I saw him in pre-season, it seemed that he was a born goalscorer," was the verdict of Ryan Giggs. "He stretches teams and like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he has that knack of always being in the right place at the right time."
Stoke, derby hunt final passage
With all eyes on Saturday's Manchester derby semi-final, Sunday's clash between Bolton and Stoke has been relegated to under-card status. Stoke manager Tony Pulis has urged his players not to get caught up in the emotion of playing at Wembley, instructing them to treat the game as an ordinary away fixture in London. "This is the semi-final, not the final," Pulis said. "We are just keeping everybody's feet on the ground and making sure they are working hard leading up to the match."
Bolton boss Owen Coyle has prepared for the trip to London by taking his players on a tour of the stadium. "I thought it would be a good idea to let the lads see Wembley at first hand," Coyle said. "I want them going there at the weekend and ready for everything about the day."