How passion play led to a bust-up with Balotelli

Micah Richards says Manchester City's spirit is all down to Roberto Mancini. It may have attracted the wrong sort of headlines this week but, without it, they won't be able to challenge United

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He seems to have been around forever without tasting the fruits of success that once appeared to be his destiny. Now, at the grand old age of 23, Micah Lincoln Richards may be entering a phase of his career in which both potential and ambition are finally fulfilled; if not with England – of which more later – then at least with Manchester City.

Since his first-team debut away to today's opponents Arsenal as a 17-year-old, City have moved up the table almost every season, from 15th place in 2006 to third (plus an FA Cup) last May and now the very top. Last Monday's first defeat of the Premier League campaign in the icy rain at Chelsea has left them vulnerable to Manchester United, who start four hours earlier at Queens Park Rangers today and will overtake them with a victory.

Yet while City would hope to regain pole position against a resurgent Arsenal, Richards suggests that a brief period out of the limelight for his team would not go amiss, concentrating the pressure once more on their neighbours as he is keen to do.

"Manchester United are still, in my opinion, the favourites, because they've been there and done it," he says, while agreeing that the injured Nemanja Vidic, "the best central defender in the Premier League", will be a huge loss. "But just because we were five points clear, it doesn't mean that we're going to walk the title. For us it's just about going out and doing what we do best.

"I don't think there's any pressure on us whatsoever because the teams like the Man Uniteds, the Chelseas, the Arsenals have been doing it for so long. It's best for us just to go out and play like we have been, and that's why we've been doing so well because we feel like there's no pressure on us and we can go out and play our football."

This notion of the naïve Etihad ingenues may have been a persuasive one in the early stages of the unsuccessful Champions' League campaign, but it cannot be sustained while they are breaking domestic records for goals and points. But Richards insists that for all the expectations, City are probably further on than they expected to be: "To be sitting pretty at the top, having played so well and having scored the most goals since the Premier League started, yes. But we have to build on that now. We've got a tough Christmas and January period when we've got a lot of games against top teams so it's going to be hard."

For one who started in a City squad managed by Stuart Pearce which included players such as Sun Jihai, Claudio Reyna, Georgios Samaras and Ben Thatcher, it has been an eventful ride, during which only he and his former England Under-21 colleague Nedum Onuoha have clung on.

Thursday's training ground spat with Mario Balotelli was, he says, evidence of "passion" rather than disharmony, insisting: "The spirit has been unbelievable, probably one of the best I've had since I've been at Manchester City. We're still gelling and we've still got a lot to learn, a youngish team looking to improve. But from where we've come from when Mancini first took over, there's been a massive difference. Even from last season we've come on and on. That's what we want to keep doing."

His own progress falls into that category. From hugely promising beginnings as England's youngest defender (aged 18) and City's youngest captain (19), tipped by as revered a judge as Sir Bobby Robson to become "our best defender since Bobby Moore", Richards lost his way. The regular right-back under Steve McClaren, capped 11 times as a teenager, he performed badly in the crucial 2007 European Championship qualifying defeat by Croatia.

He was selected for Fabio Capello's first squad the following spring but sat "furious" among the substitutes and has only played for 45 minutes since, against France last November. Forced to drop out of the Under-21 Euros last summer, he saw Kyle Walker make a fine impression. He was recalled for the first three games of this season, but was out again as soon as Glen Johnson regained full fitness.

All he will say when the inevitable question is posed is: "I knew this was coming! I've said before, I'm upset but it's not about that, it's about working hard and trying to keep this form that I'm showing. Kyle Walker's a fantastic talent, he's getting a chance and Glen Johnson is first-choice right-back and they're at Liverpool and Spurs, which are top teams, so it's about getting a chance and when I get a chance I'll have to take it. I played 45 minutes against France and thought I did all right but I just want more."

If that opportunity ever arrives, he will give due thanks to Mancini, who is already credited with boosting his self-belief and encouraging the often dynamic forward surges that are his trademark: "He's been outstanding for me. He gave me the confidence I needed and I've played a lot better since Mancini's come in. He's given me the freedom to get forward more as well. You can hear him from the side, 'Micah, go!' every five minutes."

As a young striker who loved Ian Wright, Arsenal were his childhood favourites. Now they stand in his way. Which, when Micah goes at full pelt, is a daunting place to be.

Manchester City v Arsenal is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4.10pm

What fired up the Gunners? Why Arsenal went from national joke to serious contenders in just a few weeks

A settled, experienced side

Early defeats by Liverpool and Manchester United came amid the upheaval that saw Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri depart, while Jack Wilshere, Alex Song and Thomas Vermaelen were also unavailable. The team humiliated at Old Trafford had Carl Jenkinson and Armand Traoré at full-back, and Francis Coquelin making a debut in midfield, while five of the substitutes that day have still never started a League game. Arsène Wenger signed five new players in two days and in recent games has fielded a settled, more mature side.


Tighter defence

Wenger's long-serving assistant Pat Rice, a former right-back, is understood to have taken a greater role in drilling the defence, in which the experienced German international Per Mertesacker took a while to bed in. Since Vermaelen returned from injury, two goals have been conceded in five games despite injuries to all the senior full-backs.


Stronger midfield

Once Mikel Arteta was signed and Alex Song returned from an early three-match ban to join Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey in midfield, the engine room has been a combination of silk and steel. Song has been a revelation; Arteta – though not at his very best – switches smoothly with Ramsey so that one is further forward than the other; and Walcott, more physically resilient, has turned in outstanding performances. So the less reliable Andrey Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky have scarcely been needed. And Wilshere is still to return.

The Van Persie factor

By common consent, Robin van Persie and Manchester City's David Silva, in opposition this afternoon, have been the Premier League's outstanding players this season. Since the painful defeat by Tottenham at the start of October, the Dutchman has scored 12 goals in eight games, earning 14 points on his own. Able to hold the ball up or drop deeper, he has no need of a second striker alongside him, which suits Arsenal's favoured 4-2-3-1 system.


Success breeds success

Self-belief has slowly grown out of the earlier crisis of confidence, helped by a successful run in becoming the first English team to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions' League. When teams such as Sunderland, Stoke and Everton proved obdurate visitors to the Emirates, there was no panic and they were all beaten by late goals. So were Chelsea, 5-3 on their own ground, a huge psychological result that appears to have restored the manager's equanimity. "The spirit is there, the consistency and the focus," he now says.


But weaker opposition too

Since losing four of their first seven League games, Arsenal are unbeaten, winning seven of the last eight to rise from 17th to fifth. They are playing better, but the fixture list often has a part to play. Since the early defeats by Liverpool, United and Spurs, the only leading side they have played is Chelsea. But that run ends today. "A good test to see where we are," Wenger admits.

Steve Tongue