Sibierski the man to signal turning point

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The Independent Football

By opting to surround himself with players who are moulded in his own rebellious style, Kevin Keegan knows that he is forever taking risks. Perhaps this explains why the Manchester City manager is so calm when a signing does not pay off. He, more than anyone, accepts that for every Eyal Berkovic there is an Antoine Sibierski.

Sibierski may not be as celebrated or as gifted as Berkovic, but that has not stopped him from having a far greater influence on the team this season. More significantly, he has blossomed since the Israeli left two weeks ago.

I don't know exactly what went on there with Eyal," the Frenchman explains, "but all I can say is that this is a happy club, with a good bunch of players and a brilliant manager. Sacking Kevin Keegan would be madness. Yes, we are all disappointed with our League form; no, that does not mean there is a mutiny on the ship."

The most recent results would appear to back Sibierski's claims. Berkovic's acrimonious parting shots could easily have destroyed the already shaky morale of a group who had not won in 14 games. Instead, Keegan's motley crew have rallied around since their former team-mate's disparaging comments, and returned to winning ways by defeating Leicester City in the FA Cup third-round replay to set up today's vital tie against Tottenham Hotspur.

"This is the most important game of our season," says Sibierski, who scored the first of City's three goals during that crucial replay win at Leicester 10 days ago. "Lose, and it could be extremely difficult to find the necessary motivation to climb back up the League table; win, and I reckon we could go all the way to the final and finish in the top half.

"On our day, we can beat any team, and that makes us very dangerous in the Cup. We all feel we've been playing well without getting the results we deserve, so this might just be the day when our luck turns. It would be great for the players and the manager, and it would put our dreams of European qualification back on track."

The visit of Spurs also means a lot to the player personally. Sibierski can remem-ber watching Cup finals on TV back in France. Famously, one of those involved today's two teams. "The 1981 final was a massive story all over the world," the 29-year-old says, "because of Ricky Villa's goal, but also because two huge clubs were clashing. It is that proud history that encouraged me to come to Manchester City. When the manager called me up last summer and said he wanted me to come here to help him recapture the glory days, even as a foreigner I knew what he was saying. Man City belong at the top."

It is easy to understand Sibierski's feelings for his new manager and club. Like them, he is someone who has constantly promised much but not always delivered.

Nurtured at the highly respected Lille Academy, he was one of the most talked-about players of his generation. He moved to Auxerre in the wake of their Double-winning 1996 season, but did not really establish himself. He then joined high-flyers Nantes, but, despite winning two French Cups, could not inspire the club to League success.

Another expensive move followed, this time to Lens, where he played the best football of his career. Such was his impact during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons that Sibierski was touted for inter-national honours. Again, though, the hype did not match the reality.

"I am really disappointed never to be have been picked in the French squad," he says, "because I have definitely been good enough to be involved in the group. I had two strong years at Nantes and at Lens, but... nothing.

"It's not just me who is saying these things to boost my ego; a lot of other people believed I should be there or thereabouts. I feel especially let down because I know Jacques Santini [the French manager] well. He was at Lille when I was a young kid starting out, so he knows all about me. And yet he has never even called me to explain. I haven't given up hope, but with every year that passes, my chances are diminishing greatly."

France's loss is Manchester City's gain. "I love it here and I want to stay for good," says the man who has netted five times in 24 appearances so far. "After 12 years in France, I needed a change of scenery, and I've got that here. Moving to Man City has been like a breath of fresh air, because no one prejudges you in this country. What you see is what you get.

"It's the same with the football. In France, you pass the ball around for ages in midfield, waiting for an opening to appear. In England, it's always go, go, go. There is no time for pausing and over-elaborating. It's great to be involved in a League like this."

But is the Premiership's frenetic pace not often City's greatest problem? "Sometimes we would perhaps benefit from slowing down a bit," he admits, "but you cannot expect Man City to suddenly stop being Man City. The club have a tradition of playing fast, attractive football, and things are not going to be different now. Kevin Keegan teams play the game properly. That's the way the fans like it. And that's the way I like it."