Even before a home Europa League tie with unfashionable Lech Poznan, the Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini, is not sure he can bear to discover the answer to the question that nags at his team: can they win without Carlos Tevez?
Earlier this week Mancini said that his captain would probably be rested ahead of Arsenal's visit to Eastlands on Sunday, but he seemed to be dithering in his pre-match press conference yesterday. "I will only decide on whether I rest Carlos after training tomorrow," he said. He may be hoping the training-ground sharpness of Jo and Emmanuel Adebayor will make up his mind for him.
City's dependence on Tevez is no secret. He has helped push them into second place in the Premier League even though his colleagues have not shown the fluent play of some of their rivals. Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas publicly doubted the coherence of the new City team yesterday. "You cannot buy the spirit in one year. You need a few years to get everyone together and to get to know each other well, and it's not easy."
But for as long as Tevez can carry the side, Mancini will maintain his approach. "Without flying full-backs like [Jérôme] Boateng and [Aleksandar] Kolarov, who can push forward, I've had to adjust the team in order to get results and stay in touch with the leaders until everyone is back and fit," he said. When Mario Balotelli, the only forward at City who can match Tevez for dynamism, returns from a knee injury, fans expect the burden to be better shared.
Until City's new signings settle, Mancini is loath to go into battle without his captain. He has done so twice this season: for the home leg of a Europa League tie against Timisoara that had effectively been already won, and a Carling Cup game against West Bromwich Albion that was virtually sacrificed for the sake of victory against Chelsea match the following weekend. City won the first game but lost 2-1 at The Hawthorns. There is no doubt a City side lacking Tevez is diminished – what Mancini must decide is whether it would be sufficiently strong to take three points tonight.
His team are probably two wins away from ensuring qualification for the knockout rounds, and the ambition is to confirm progress before December's trip to Juventus. Lech Poznan may be no pushover tonight: the Poles managed to come away from Turin last month with a point after a 3-3 draw, thanks to a hat-trick from Artjoms Rudnevs, a 22-year-old Latvian striker who joined them only last summer.
Last season gave Poznan their first title since 1983, but they have under-performed this year as they lie third from bottom after eight matches. City and their fans will hope for a better night than the last time they entertained a Polish side at Eastlands. In 2003 Kevin Keegan's team drew 1-1 with Groclin Dyskobolia and went out of the Uefa Cup at the second round stage on away goals.