Stuart Pearce was familiar with the potential of Reading's Leroy Lita long before the striker brought a furrow to his brow with two late goals at Eastlands on Saturday, but could not make up his mind how good he might become. Given the goalscoring crisis threatening their side, Manchester City fans might wish the penny had dropped sooner.
What's more, Lita's availability as a man in form for Pearce's debut as England Under-21 coach tomorrow is an irony unlikely to raise many chuckles around Maine Road, given the misgivings expressed by some over the City manager's decision to take on both jobs, in a restricted capacity.
"I watched him four times when he was at Bristol City," Pearce confessed. "I thought he had something although I wasn't sure he was good enough to step up to this level. I know he is now."
By the time DariusVassell became Pearce's first paid-for signing, Lita had already caught Steve Coppell's eye at Reading, who were persuaded to part with a club-record £1m fee that now looks cut-price.
That is one-sixth of the sum Pearce paid for Georgios Samaras, a 21-year-old Greek who may well have something but is showing little evidence of it currently. While Vassell, himself not a prolific goalscorer, at least made chances for himself on Saturday, Samaras had the body language of a woebegone passenger.
How Pearce must have wished he could have unearthed a Lita-like bargain during the latest transfer window, one that closed after one knock-back followed another, none more frustrating than the Tottenham manager Martin Jol's decision, literally at the 11th hour before trading ceased at midnight last Wednesday, not to sell Mido.
"It was frustrating," Pearce said. "But the window is shut now and it is down to the forwards that are here to fire in enough goals." Assertive words, yet with only the slow-to-acclimatise Bernardo Corradi and the rookie Daniel Sturridge - given his debut from the bench on Saturday - as alternatives to Vassell and Samaras, it is hardly a statement to inspire confidence. Only Watford and West Ham United have scored fewer Premiership goals than City this season. Reading continue to go onwards and upwards, their achievement in reaching the supposedly relegation-proof target of 40 points somewhat incidental given that they are sixth in the table. Coppell insists that they are "still wearing L-plates as a Premiership team".
Pearce has the chance to enjoy a spin-off from their success by picking Lita to face Spain's Under-21s at Derby tomorrow, and having scored there as a substitute on his debut against the Netherlands two years ago, even before he developed his game at Reading, the player has earned another opportunity.
Competition is tough but the way he took his goals on Saturday, both set up by Steven Sidwell on swift breaks from defence, impressed the watching coach, even if inflicting pain on him might not have been the obvious way to win favour.
"I'm doing my bit for my team and he's doing his bit for his team so he can understand and I'm sure he respects that," Lita said. "After the game he was cool. He shook my hand and just said to me, 'See you tomorrow.' He is a great character and a very passionate guy. Hopefully I can impress him in training during the week and try and get into the starting line-up."
Goals: Lita (79), Lita (89)
Manchester City (5-3-2): Weaver (Isaksson 35); Trabelsi, Richards, Dunne, Distin, Beasley; Barton, Dabo (Hamann 48), Ireland; Samaras (Sturridge 74), Vassell. Substitutes not used: Jihai, Corradi.
Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Murty, Bikey, Ingimarsson, Shorey; Little (Oster, 80), Harper, Sidwell, Hunt; Lita, Long (Kitson, 75). Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), De la Cruz, Duberry.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Sidwell.
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