James Milner: Invincibility is still a distant dream
Boy wonder is now the finished article after 10 years but the future holds a massive challenge: first win the title, then match the consistency of rivals Manchester United
The Mayfield Sports Centre in Castleton, near Rochdale, home of an amateur rugby league club and venue for a Manchester City Supporters' Club social last Thursday night, might politely be described as unprepossessing. It is the sort of place where an international Premier League footballer would be expected to stand out like a Ferrari, yet until being officially ushered into the room to strains of "Blue Moon", James Milner of City and England has merged comfortably into the background. In T-shirt, casual jacket, jeans and trainers he could easily have been just another fan quaffing lager at the bar – except that with typical good sense, this impressively solid Citizen is not a drinker.
"The way I look at it, you only get one shot at this career," he explains, "and it's short so anything I can do that means I can get the best out of my ability, that's what I'll try and do." Short compared to most careers, of course, yet in Milner's case showing signs of longevity that could threaten all manner of records. He started younger than Ryan Giggs, making a debut for Leeds United at 16 amid predictions of superstardom, and although not 26 until next year, he has now played more than 400 senior games in a variety of positions.
What was lacking until City won the FA Cup last spring was a trophy. Only now, at his fourth Premier League club after Leeds, Newcastle and Aston Villa, is there a serious prospect of being a regular winner. The best start by any team to a Premier League season has seen Roberto Mancini's side installed as favourites for a first title since 1968. But of the three clubs to have bettered that record in the days BS – Before Sky – only Tottenham in 1960-61 went on to finish top. So travelling to Liverpool as leaders today with a game in hand will not tempt Milner, any more than his manager, into wild predictions.
"We know we have the ability to win games against anyone and it's about doing it on a consistent basis" is as strong a declaration as he will risk. "Last season we showed glimpses of what a good team we are but at other times we maybe slipped up. It's a record-breaking start but we're disappointed that we dropped two points at Fulham because we were winning that one. So you can always look at where to improve. It's been a good start but it's not where you are after 12 games, it's where you are after 38. So hopefully we can keep that going."
Little point in asking, then, about the possibility of matching Arsenal's Invincibles and remaining unbeaten: "We'll just keep going, we won't set targets. We know where we want to get to and finish top of the League but it's a long way away. Our next five or six games are very important ones and going into the Christmas period that's always a hectic time as well. The League can sometimes look a lot different going into Christmas as coming out. It seems to be a critical time of year so if we can keep performing and getting results like we have been then hopefully we can come out of Christmas in good shape and kick on from that."
What no one can deny is the psychological boost gained from a 6-1 victory at Old Trafford, in which Milner was outstanding. He enjoyed that day and understands what it meant to put-upon City fans but declined to underestimate the task of bridging the gap in the two clubs' recent history. "We're not naive enough to think it's going to happen overnight. We want to improve as a team and the next progression is obviously winning the Premier League, and that's one [title]. They've won 12, so going to United and winning 6-1 is a pleasing result but it's one result and even if we, say, won the League this season it's [about] doing it year after year like Manchester United have done.
"It's great for the fans, they can get carried away as much as they want, but we have to go out there and make sure we don't get ahead of ourselves. If you look at the squad, the set-up, the training ground is coming on and hopefully the club's expanding and moving forward. That's what we want to build and be part of. As players we're all desperate and we have the ambition to improve and hopefully make Manchester City a big force and be mentioned up there with Manchester United."
The unforeseen common denominator last week was a setback for both in the Champions' League, which looks more easily recoverable in United's case than City's. Mancini, merely irritated at muddying a clean sheet with a late goal conceded against Newcastle last week, was infuriated by the two given up against Napoli on Tuesday. "The first goal we talked about regarding this 10 minutes before kick-off!" he said with rare indignation. "We knew [Edinson] Cavani attacks the first [near] post. But we slept. I don't know how it's possible a team like us concedes the second goal like that."
Without being prompted, Mancini pointed out that City, with the joint best defensive record domestically, have conceded six goals in five European matches. "We can't score always three or four goals," he said. "Sometimes we should pay more attention. We must improve." It will be interesting to see if there is a more defensive approach today at a venue where last season City fell to their joint heaviest defeat of the season, 3-0, continuing a poor run of results against the top sides.
That was a bad day for Milner, who walked off in a huff after being substituted. Characteristically, he has held on to that bad memory, rather than a scoring debut at home to Liverpool, as a motivating factor. "I always seem to remember the poorer performances and it sticks in my mind that we were poor that night. It adds a bit of spice to this weekend and I feel me personally and the lads want to make it right.
"I think we went on a good run after that game at the end of last season so hopefully from the disappointment we had in Naples we can fuel that energy into the performance."
Mancini knows that for high-performance fuel, Milner gives him a tiger in the tank.
Liverpool v Manchester City is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
Jim Beglin's advice for Kenny Dalglish
Hurried as they are, the TV interviews conducted with a coach or manager at the half-time interval of Champions' League games can be among the more enlightening of the genre.
Such was the case for Manchester City's visit to Napoli last Tuesday, when Roberto Mancini's assistant David Platt warned that having equalised at 1-1, his team must not allow themselves to be "sucked in" and become vulnerable to counter-attack.
Which was, of course, precisely what happened and led to a2-1 defeat that could have damaging repercussions.
Hit them on the counterattack
Napoli's performance, like those of Bayern Munich (who inflicted City's only other loss this season) and even Villarreal, showed the way forward for Premier League opposition.
The ITV summariser Jim Beglin believes that his old team-mate and manager Kenny Dalglish will take a leaf out of the European book in this afternoon's game at Anfield.
"Napoli were coy and clever about it," Beglin says. "It's difficult for City at the moment to resist the temptation to have a go and try to win games because they're so fluid and so potent and they have been on such a brilliant run.
"They're going for everything but I thought they were a little naive in the circumstances to allow themselves to lose that game. They got picked off.
Starve Silva and the wide men
"I would expect Kenny to go with five across midfield and condense the play. David Silva's on record as saying he's finding it much more difficult to find space in the Champions' League than the Premier League.
"It was noticeable that in the second half [against Napoli] especially he dropped deeper and deeper just to try to get on the ball.
"Also by playing that way you cater for City's threat out wide, which usually has the two more advanced wide players drifting inside a bit, while their full-backs all love to bomb forward. Liverpool will have to deal with that."
Play Suarez on his own up front
The template could be one of Liverpool's best games of the season so far, against Manchester United, even though a late goal by Javier Hernandez denied them deserved victory. "I saw them at Tottenham when they went with Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll up front and it backfired," Beglin said. "They were ripped apart in midfield.
"Against United, even in a home game, Kenny didn't play two up front and was much more cautious. But with Suarez, if he gets the service, you'll always have a threat yourself."
Expose weakness at set-pieces
As well as over-ambition and possibly being outnumbered in central midfield, City's other potential weakness, Beglin believes, is their defending at setpieces, which often relies on the zonal marking that Napoli exposed with their first goal direct from a corner.
"I've experienced both types of marking and I'm not a fan of zonal," he says. "Too often it looks as if you're stationary and your opponents are on the move. City can be caught out at set-plays, like when Edinson Cavani's run was unchecked. And there was no one on either post.
"I know Charlie Adam's delivery for Liverpool at Chelsea last week wasn't the best, although he had a very good game otherwise. But if he gets it right and you get the centre-backs on the end of them, it could cause City problems."
City's hot streak
Manchester City's start of 11 wins anda draw from 12 Premier League games this season equals the runs of:
Tottenham Hotspur 1960-61 (won League, first defeat 17th game)
Manchester United 1985-86 (finished 4th, first defeat 16th game)
Liverpool 1990-91 (finished 2nd, first defeat 15th game)
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