Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, has launched an extraordinary attack on the Carling Cup scheduling which sees his club face Arsenal tonight – 48 hours after their match at Liverpool – declaring that "this is the reason why the national team arrive for European Championships, World Cups and they are dying. The players don't have time to recover."
Mancini's incredulity at the scheduling also led him to say that he may have to play "with 14- or 15-year-olds" at the Emirates tonight. The Italian's criticism comes after Kenny Dalglish advised Liverpool fans to reconsider any plans to travel for his side's tie with Chelsea, such would be his need to field an "under-strength" team at Stamford Bridge.
"I don't know who to blame," Mancini said. "The Premier League should have said something about this. It's important to play but it's also important to recover. You need three days between one game and the other. We'll have the same in January when we play Sunderland [on New Year's Day] and then Liverpool [in the League at the Etihad Stadium] in two days. Liverpool play three days before us. Is this [as it should be]? I don't think so. It's incredible. It's a quarter-final. We should play with 11 young players. Maybe 14 or 15 years old."
Mancini repeatedly insisted that he would change all 11 players from the side that drew 1-1 at Anfield on Sunday and he is arguably the only manager in English football capable of doing that, while still fielding a side which would not look out of place in the Premier League. The £27m striker Edin Dzeko, who got only eight minutes at Anfield, may start, with Adam Johnson, Nigel de Jong, Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta all fresh to renew what has been a fruitful battle with Arsenal in recent years. It is three years since City's 3-0 win over Arsène Wenger's side at the same stage, when there was a clash between then City manager, Mark Hughes, and Wenger, after the Arsenal manager refused to shake the Welshman's hand.
Mancini said Owen Hargreaves – whose calf injury has limited him to 13 minutes of game-time since his wonderful Carling Cup third-round strike on debut for City against Birmingham – is also fit. But he got his excuses in early by pointing out that while "Arsenal played on Saturday, we play Sunday evening, travel to London on Monday and we play Tuesday night. To play again in two days like this so soon after the Champions League is incredible."
City's arrival in north London creates much potential for opprobrium, given the way that Samir Nasri became Arsenal's fourth player to leave for City this summer. Wenger has made no secret of his distaste for the way City's Abu Dhabi wealth has transformed their own prospects, accusing the club of abusing Uefa's Financial Fair Play rules by not adhering to the market price in their £400m Etihad sponsorship deal. Liverpool's owner John W Henry subsequently said that "Mr Wenger says boldly what everyone thinks," though the Arsenal manager's decision to complain raises the question of how good a piece of business the north London club's own deal with Emirates was, in 2004. They now find themselves locked into a 15-year, £90m contract, for shirt and stadium, until 2019.
The failure of City's Elite Development Squad (EDS) to progress in the European NextGen tournament underlines why Mancini cannot make good on his threat to play teenagers in a way that Wenger has. The club acknowledge that one of their biggest challenges is the gulf between themselves and Barcelona at this level, though Abdul Razak, the 19-year-old Ivorian midfielder who may start tonight, is one exception. Another is Denis Suarez, the Spain under-17 midfielder whom City bought from Celta Vigo in the close season for £850,000 (possibly rising to £2.75m).
The former Manchester United striker Andy Cole, who has watched the EDS because his son Devante plays in City's team, believes Suarez was "head and shoulders above the rest of the United and City players" in the recent Manchester derby at their age level.
The Premier League did not respond to calls on the scheduling yesterday but the Football League said it could not move the game to tomorrow because of police demands at London's TUC rally and there were no other dates available.