Hughes looks to put aside those away-day blues
Former United warrior faces a tough task in trying to stem rampant red tide
The immaculately booted and suited Manchester United players on an outing to Chester racecourse on Thursday will have been aware of the symbolism of a horse called Viva Ronaldo, named after Cristiano, leading the 3.15 until the closing stages, only to be dramatically passed by three others and finish fourth. To be overhauled by even one rival in the finishing straight of the Premier League chase – aka the 50 million guineas – would be catastrophic. Manchester City, while their own ambitions are confined to securing a place in the first seven, would be thrilled to slow their neighbours' progress to the finishing post when they visit Old Trafford this afternoon.
For their manager Mark Hughes, as a former red warrior, it would of course particularly appeal, just as an occasional result against them did when he was in charge of Blackburn Rovers. The move from Ewood Park last summer to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson was nothing geographically and did not exactly look like a giant step when the two teams sat uncomfortably together in the bottom three just before Christmas; but with twice the crowds, and many more times the expectation and therefore pressure, even before a stunning takeover almost as soon as he arrived, it has been a testing time.
Only since being allowed – begged, probably – to spend £50m in January has Hughes been able to bring about the improvement he promised.
"I've enjoyed it," he nevertheless insisted at Eastlands on Friday afternoon. "At times it's been frustrating, other times it's been infuriating and other times it's been really stimulating. It's been a whole range of emotions and things that we've had to face that we couldn't have pre-empted. That's been the big thing, that we've seen things come from left field. You try to anticipate things but this year it's been difficult to do that and that's been a challenge to everybody."
A £200 million takeover and with it the arrival of Robinho, one of the world's most highly regarded young players, was hardly on the agenda; nor was a bid for Kaka or the regular question about whether or not Hughes would survive any longer than Eriksson's one season.
In terms of results, City have been, well, City: sustaining an eventful Uefa Cup run to the quarter-final after starting back in August with a home defeat against unknown Danish opposition; setting a record 6-0 win against Portsmouth, then leading Liverpool 2-0 and losing; having the same player (Richard Dunne) sent off three times and so on.
Now the disciplinarian that Hughes has always been – unlike Eriksson – appears to have steadied a ship used to lurching from one extreme to the other. "When I walked through the door, the situation I found wasn't quite what I was expecting," he admitted. "It's taken time to change things around but we're through that now and we're in a better place. There have been a lot of changes on and off the field and we're in better shape now to be successful."
How successful? Champions' League successful? "I've never changed my message to the owners. It was always the same, that it would be difficult to get into the top six this season. It was always about making sure we acquired good players in the January window, which we certainly did. I told them we'd improve in the second half of the season because we'd have more quality to call on, so we're on track in that respect.
"But obviously next year we're looking to be stronger, get more quality players into the building, and if we can do that I fully expect us to be stronger and more consistent certainly. What we have to do is replicate our home form away from home, which isn't easy but there's a desire from everybody here to be better and we'll be starting from a base that's stronger than when I first walked through the door.
"And we've had the benefit of 12 months where people have been getting to know each other, understand where people are coming from, and as a consequence we'll hit the ground running."
There have certainly been some feeble away performances, something which tends to reflect a lack of character. Winning the last game on the road at Everton, with Robinho back among the goals (he has three in the last three games) was an encouraging sign in relation to today's task, Hughes believes. "We have to have that defensive platform, but what we have had of late is the ability to exploit situations when they develop because we're an attack-minded side.
"On occasions away from home maybe that's left us a little bit open but I just feel that after our performance at Everton, where we were nice and assured and we understood when we could attack and when we had to defend, that's something that we'll look at and make sure that we're better at.
"We've got a group of players that the vast majority has only come together since January so it's going to take some time but our Everton performance was a good one and we'll probably have to match that or better it against United."
City have had their moments against the old enemy since returning to the Premier League eight years ago. Last season they even pulled off a double, shocking Old Trafford with a 2-1 win in February. Earlier there had been three home wins in four seasons by either 3-1 or 4-1.
But United won at Eastlands in November when Wayne Rooney finally scored his 100th goal and Ronaldo was sent off for the second time against City in four seasons. Sir Alex Ferguson – he of the elephantine memory – said of the red cards on Friday: "In the first game [referee] Steve Bennett was wrong. The City player should have been sent off. In the second game the crowd got him sent off and the City players got him sent off. I have no problems with his temperament. You don't need to talk about the temperament of a man who scored 43 goals and was World Player of the Year."
This season it is only 25, the latest thunderous one against Arsenal ending any lingering tension surrounding the outcome of the Champions' League semi-final last Tuesday.
"How do we stop Ronaldo?" his former United team-mate Gerard Pique mused after Barcelona had joined United in the final the following night. "We will see!" City's best hope, barring another red card, is that Ferguson decides he needs a rest today.
Premier League encounters
2008-09 Manchester City 0 Manchester United 1
2007-08 United 1 City 2; City 1 United 0
2006-07 City 0 United 1; United 3 City 1
2005-06 City 3 United 1; United 1 City 1
2004-05 City 0 United 2; United 0 City 0
2003-04 City 4 United 1; United 3 City 1
2002-03 United 1 City 1; City 3 United 1
2000-01 United 1 City 1; City 0 United 1
1995-96 City 2 United 3; United 1 City 0
1994-95 City 0 United 3; United 5 City 0
1993-94 United 2 City 0; City 2 United 3
1992-93 City 1 United 1; United 2 City 1
All-time results: City won 41, drawn 49, United won 60.
Manchester United v Manchester City (1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
City take a run of four successive wins into the derby, Robinho having scored in the last three to give him a respectable 14 League goals. Nedum Onuoha and the unpredictable Richard Dunne have even tightened up the defence, though probably not enough to withstand today's barrage by United.
Arsenal v Chelsea (4pm, Sky Sports 1)
Both teams are facing a hangover from midweek, although Arsène Wenger insists Nicklas Bendtner was not drunk at Boujis (in which case his demeanour was all the more alarming). Chelsea are the angrier, and need to channel their aggression the right way to preserve their six-point lead.
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