Manchester City, a club reeling from arguably their worst performance of the Mark Hughes era in the 3-0 defeat at Tottenham, were yesterday considering how to rebuild an already brittle defence that has been further undermined by the loss of Joleon Lescott for two months.
The City manager, Mark Hughes, admitted that he would need to invest in a defender, with Lescott out until January following emergency knee surgery, and Kolo Touré destined for the African Nations Cup in two weeks' time. A move for Matthew Upson is now a strong possibility, though it would mean City coming far closer to the £15m West Ham indicated in the summer that they would want for their current captain, and City, ready to pay at least £10m for Upson, may also go back to the same club for Scott Parker – one of their initial defensive targets of last January.
But injuries are not Hughes' only problem, and any new arrivals to Eastlands cannot bank on finding a peaceful dressing room, after Gareth Barry revealed yesterday that the City players were "at each other's throats" after their 3-0 defeat by Tottenham on Wednesday.
"A few words were said in the dressing room," Barry admitted. "It was a more disappointed dressing room because of the way we lost. There were a lot of hurt players in there and the lads were really at each other's throats. Nothing malicious. But we are desperate to put things right."
Upson has told West Ham he is prepared to stay to see out what looks like a possible relegation struggle, but West Ham's financial position could make a new City offer difficult to resist and the 30-year-old may feel that a possible half season at City may offer a better way of pressing his World Cup case to the England manager, Fabio Capello. Upson's team-mate Parker was tied to a new contract last January, leaving City to move for Nigel de Jong from Hamburg instead, but a new bid may be tabled.
Hughes is also understood to admire the Barcelona defenders Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal, though a move for either would go against his general strategy of signing players with proven Premier League experience and, since both are in their early thirties, there would be a fear that they would not be able to make the immediate adaptation that City need.
Abidal, 30, is the player Barcelona are most likely to be willing to release and his ability to play either in central defence or at left-back – where Wayne Bridge, out until the new year with ligament damage, has been unconvincing – would appear to be an attraction. But Upson, who after Sylvain Distin was next on Hughes' list after Lescott in the summer, seems the most likely target and Hughes is confident that they could beat the Tottenham manager, Harry Redknapp, who is also seeking defensive reinforcements but has been told by the club's chairman, Daniel Levy, that he must sell to buy.
The other player in the equation for Hughes is Nedum Onuoha, the 23-year-old product of City's academy system who emerged as one of the club's players of last season after injuries to other defenders saw him break into the side from January. Many close observers of City would argue that Onuoha should not have been overlooked in the first place to make way for Lescott, who has struggled to develop a partnership with Touré.
The pressure on Lescott attached to a £24m price tag has been apparent all season and the grim irony for a player who has not taken the goalscoring chances at City which made him a 10 goals a season player for David Moyes is that it was an air shot at Bolton Wanderers which has now put him out for two months.
Lescott hyperextended his knee in the process of taking his shot in the 3-3 draw at the Reebok and a piece of bone came loose, causing the knee to lock. Lescott was in such agony at the start of the week that he could hardly walk and, though he made the trip to White Hart Lane, he was sent for immediate 10-minute surgery to remove the bone. He will not start training again for two weeks.
The timing is desperate for Hughes, whose side have shipped 17 goals in the course of a 10-game run in the Premier League during which they have won only once. Lescott will be missing until at least the first leg of City's Carling Cup tie at home to Manchester United on 6 January, but will also be absent for the critical run of more winnable games facing City between now and late January. The run of challenging fixtures from late February – successive matches against Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham – and the prospect of Manchester United, Arsenal and Aston Villa in a row in late April, mean that if City do not hit the top four by the end of next month they will have their work cut out hitting the top four by the end of the season.
Trouble on the terraces: Fans' views
There is a feeling that [Hughes] is out of his depth. It is unlikely he will be sacked before the end of the season, but a failure to get Champions League football will see him replaced. Mourinho is the most likely candidate, and would be welcomed with open arms.
Ric Turner, Editor of bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk
If I was Hughes I'd have my suitcase half-packed already!
Mancblue1, Manchester City Mad
We need a manager who will command the respect of the players and Hughes isn't that man.
We can't give more time to Hughes, the team's not progressing. It's a big shame for £240m spent. Let's go for Mr Hiddink and top four.
So what if Mourinho, Hiddink or Benitez turns up and doesn't take City forward? Get real – expectations are ludicrous just now and the last thing needed is a new manager.
Blue Tit, bluedays.co.uk
He is a good manager, I'm not denying that, but what trophy has he won? Most people's argument about Hughes is that he has never won anything.