Roberto Mancini defended Gareth Barry yesterday in the wake of fierce criticism of the Manchester City midfielder from Joey Barton. The Newcastle United player branded Barry a "teacher's pet" in an interview published by The Independent this week, and denigrated the ability of the England player. Mancini was quick to Barry's defence, though, and pointedly claimed that his player was superior to Barton, and that "everyone would want a player like Barry".
"I think Joey Barton's a good player," Mancini said yesterday, "but Barry is a fantastic player. He is a fantastic man and is an incredible player. He works very well, always 100 per cent. He works for the team every day. Everyone would want a player like Barry." The City manager then said he was not concerned by Barton's comments. "I can say only this. It is a situation that is not important to me."
Barton gave a broad-ranging critique of English football and was particularly biting about Barry. He explained Barry's successful career as a result of his having "a very good agent", and likened him to "the guy who sits in the front row and listens to the teacher". Barton described Barry famously being outrun by Mesut Ozil in the World Cup as being "like the hare and the tortoise", and said that he "certainly doesn't lose any sleep" when he faces Barry. Barton played 153 games for City between 2002 and 2007 but was sold after assaulting Ousmane Dabo in training.
Mancini was clear yesterday that his players retain their focus on the Premier League this weekend despite the distraction of the FA Cup. City play Manchester United in the Cup semi-final in eight days time, but on Monday they travel to Anfield to face Liverpool in the league.
"For us it will be an important week," he said. "But all the next five or six weeks are. If we want to go in the Champions League we have to win many more games in the Premier League. Next week we have a chance to go into the FA Cup final, but it will be a different game from the league. We have to focus on the next game though." Mancini described Liverpool as a "strong team" and predicted a "very hard game".
City are still active in two competitions, having been knocked out of the Europa League by Dynamo Kiev last month. Mancini suggested yesterday that by no longer having to play in Europe it had improved the team's chances of domestic success. Had City beaten Kiev they would have played their quarter-final first leg last night. "I think the players are looking fresher," Mancini said. "I think we can have a strong finish. We had more of a problem when we played every three days." When asked about City's chances of qualifying for next year's Champions League, Mancini said he was "confident of this".
The options available to Mancini have been further improved by the return to Manchester of Pablo Zabaleta. The Argentine utility player, who has been deployed at right-back, left-back and in midfield this season, had been at home in Buenos Aires to be with his father who was recovering from a serious car accident. City's other two right-backs are both currently unavailable. Micah Richards is using an oxygen tent as he attempts to speed up a return from a hamstring injury, while Jérôme Boateng has recently undergone knee surgery.