Dream comeback has Mancini touting Hargreaves for England

Injury-plagued midfielder scores within 17 minutes of his City debut as fans mock United's decision to release him

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Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, declared last night that Owen Hargreaves can become an important player for England after he marked his return to the game in remarkable fashion, with a superb 25-yard strike in Manchester City's 2-0 defeat of the Carling Cup holders Birmingham.

Three years to the day since he last completed 90 minutes of football, Hargreaves managed nearly an hour with apparent ease, striking only 17 minutes into his debut for City – to the delight of his new club's fans, whose chants immediately reminded the 30-year-old that Sir Alex Ferguson declined his offer, this summer, to play for nothing. "Fergie, Fergie sign him up," the City fans shouted.

After City's third-round victory Mancini said: "I'm happy for him. He is a fantastic player and I think he can become an important player for us. He can play often without injury. The last three weeks there weren't any problems [for him] and tonight, nothing. If he recovers and becomes a fantastic player like he was, it will be important also for the England team."

The City manager, who insisted that it was acceptable that Kolo Touré should be given the captain's armband ahead of Carlos Tevez, despite failing a drugs test in February – said that the match had presented a psychological challenge for Hargreaves, who had made only 39 appearances in four years for United. "For him it was not easy before the game," the manager said. "After two years not to play. It was important for me before the game that he can play without injury. In this game he moved very well. I'm happy because he scored a fantastic goal. Yes, yes [he is] elated." Hargreaves had not scored since his strike for United against Arsenal at Old Trafford in April 2008

Mancini handed starts both to Wayne Bridge, who is effectively transfer-listed and training with the reserves, and Nedum Onuoha,, though the Italian did not hold out any prospect of them staying at the club.

Elsewhere, Liverpool survived an anxious conclusion to their own third- round tie at Brighton to emerge 2-1 winners, with Steven Gerrard making a 15-minute comeback cameo from the bench. Chelsea overcame being forced to play with 10 men for 73 minutes to beat Fulham on penalties after their tie had finished 0-0 after extra-time. Alex was sent off for a professional foul on Kerim Frei but Fulham's Pajtim Kasami hit the bar with the resultant penalty.

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