The comeback game after my original retirement was a Manchester derby, an FA Cup third-round tie at the Etihad in January 2012, and I can still remember the words that Mike Phelan muttered to me as I walked towards the touchline to come on for Nani after an hour.
“Well, Paul,” Mike said. “This is what you wanted.” Mike had a wicked sense of humour, and he could detect a certain concern on my part. I was 37 years old. I had last played at the top-level eight months previously. This was City against United, in an era when City were actually competitive. What was I doing?
I had been training with Warren Joyce’s Under-21s squad for three weeks before then but my return to the side was kept a secret. The day before the game, Sir Alex Ferguson told me that I was in the squad and would be on the bench – but not to tell anyone. Even to the extent that when I joined the squad at the hotel the night before, I was told by him to sit on the staff table rather than with the players.
When I came on, we were 3-1 up at the time against 10 men, although I gave the ball away for City’s second goal. We won 3-2. The Manchester derby was always a huge occasion for me, as a Manchester boy, even when City were an afterthought for some United fans. One of the very best moments of my career was scoring in the last minute against City at the Etihad to win the game in April 2010, as we chased Chelsea in the title race.
As far as United are concerned, on Sunday a lot will rest on how Luke Shaw handles Zabaleta down that left side. There is no full-back better at bombing on than Zabaleta. If United are to be successful, Shaw needs to stop him – and push back the other way.
I have always rated Zabaleta highly. From a more personal point of view, it was telling that he never made a meal of the challenge that got me sent off in the 2011 FA Cup semi-final at Wembley (a challenge that looked a lot worse on television than it really was). He is one of those tough Argentinian players. In the last derby I played in, which City won 1-0 in April 2012, Zabaleta was excellent. He kept getting in behind us and causing problems. As a team it was a poor United performance that night.
It will be interesting to see who Manuel Pellegrini plays down the right side of midfield. If it is Zabaleta and James Milner, that will put a lot of pressure on Angel Di Maria to support Shaw when United don’t have the ball. If United are not alive to the threat, Milner – or whoever plays on the left side – could push on to Shaw, while Zabaleta makes runs off Di Maria.
Silva is a brilliant creative player. Aguero can score a goal in a yard of space. Above all, Zabaleta epitomises City when they are at their best. He is relentless getting forward and a great defender too. For Shaw it will be one of the major tests of his first season at United, and one that he will wish to come through strongly.
My view of City overall has not changed. After a week which has brought defeats to West Ham and Newcastle there is something about them – you might even call it a touch of arrogance – that they do not have to take their opposition into consideration.
I realise that it is a point I have made before, but I don’t think the central midfield is right, and that they are getting the best out of Yaya Touré. He still looks laboured to me, you might even say he looks a bit bored. He has the ability to step it up when he wants to, and that could be the case on Sunday.
My view is that the better midfield partner for him is Fernandinho rather than Fernando. Fernandinho just seems to have more to his game. Equally, in defence I think that United will see the position next to Vincent Kompany as a weakness.
As for United, my key change would be Wayne Rooney back in for Juan Mata. I cannot see Louis van Gaal doing any different. The Chelsea game just seemed to pass Mata by on Sunday and that is what will count against him. He seemed to be overpowered. Rooney has a great record against City and he just has to play.
Lastly, from United’s point of view, they will be concerned with Radamel Falcao. He has not been able to get that run of games together to get match-fit and start scoring goals consistently. He scored against Everton, was taken off and did not start against West Bromwich Albion. Then he was injured for the Chelsea game. It has been a stop-start beginning to his career at United. He needs that run in the team to build his confidence, his performance levels and his fitness.
These are the kind of games that get remembered for a long time by supporters, on either side of the city’s divide. For players like Shaw, Falcao and Di Maria, it is their first taste of playing against their local rivals. From my experience, it is not a game you want to lose.
Some Liverpool players are getting away with it while Balotelli gets all the stick
Another week of Mario Balotelli stories and I cannot help thinking he is an easy target. There are some players at Liverpool getting away with murder while Balotelli cops a lot of the stick.
His name, his reputation, even his body language on the pitch, they all add up to the kind of player who attracts criticism. It does not detract from the reality that Liverpool lost Luis Suarez, their best player and key goalscorer last season, and their next best striker, Daniel Sturridge, has been injured for so long. It is a basic truth that good forwards make the whole team look better.
Sturridge will give Liverpool that when he returns. He is a top-quality player who can take defenders on and score. I also think he will make Balotelli look a better player. I don’t think Balotelli scores highly when it comes to the basics you look for in a striker – movement, finishing, work rate – but his form, the goal against Swansea aside, is just part of the problem at Liverpool.
Balotelli has taken the spotlight off some of the other summer signings. Dejan Lovren has struggled. Lazar Markovic has not scored and he cost £20m. Alberto Moreno is quick but is yet to convince as a defender. Adam Lallana is the only one who looks like he is comfortable with the shift, and at £25m he was overpriced.
I recognise Brendan Rodgers needed a bigger squad, but they should have gone for fewer players and greater quality. Balotelli cannot take the blame for all of that.
At last! Some credit for Sam Allardyce
Sam Allardyce seems to be getting the credit he deserves at last, with another excellent result for West Ham last weekend. I have played against Allardyce’s teams many times and knocking the ball long has always been one of their options, but by no means the only one. When his Bolton team was at their best, the games against them were some of the hardest of the season.
The sides that included Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff could play football as well. What Allardyce has always done is make the best of what he has at his disposal. As a result he keeps his clubs in the Premier League.
He has always been receptive to changes too. I have no doubt if he was at one of the big clubs, he would be just as comfortable coaching them to play good football.
My player of the week: Luka Modric
My player of the weekend (and the previous week) was Luka Modric. His performances for Real Madrid against Liverpool and Barcelona were the perfect example of how to control the middle of the park. Not easy teams to do it against, but he was brilliant in both games.
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