Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The central problem

So, who is to play alongside Steven Mouyokolo at centre back on Saturday?

We're not exactly blessed with a list of mobile candidates. Anthony Gardner and Kamil Zayatte are a little way off recovering from their injuries yet. Ibrahima Sonko, back impressively from the cold against Fulham, is ineligible as we are playing his parent club.

So it's either a specialist rookie or one of two players who can fill in an emergency but prefer to play wider.

The rookie is Liam Cooper, whose two Premier League games so far have been against Liverpool (which he started) and Arsenal and he has not let himself down on either occasion, with his 40 minutes or so as Zayatte's replacement against the Gunners nearly three weeks ago showing enormous promise. But he has been injured and though likely to be fit, it's a big ask to throw him straight into the team without much in the way of sharpness or match practice.

But at least he is a specialist centre back. The alternatives are Paul McShane, currently testing many a patience at right back, and Kevin Kilbane, who has tested many a patience since the day he walked through the door more than a year ago, irrespective of where he plays.

McShane has a history of playing in the centre of defence and is movable due to Bernard Mendy's recovery from illness, but the Irishman didn't cover himself in glory when thrown into the central role at Portsmouth nearly a fortnight ago.

Kilbane, meanwhile, has played his best games for City when plunged into the role of emergency cover in the middle, but with Andy Dawson only 50-50 to return, there will be literally nobody suitable to play on the left of defence if he is shuffled inside and so his worth to the team may be required elsewhere.

In order then, the preference would be: a fit Cooper, and then a dispensable Kilbane, with McShane wandering in last resort territory. One wonders if Seyi Olofinjana can play in defence but that is an assumption based purely on his build, and not on any evidence of well-timed tackles, incisive reading of the game and instinctive mastering of an offside trap.

If Cooper is fit, then his time has properly come. Stoke City are a mean bunch with real strength and force up front and if Cooper is going to come of age as a Premier League defender, he needs to face such brutish strikers as much as he does those who rely on twinkly skills and sheer pace, as he did against Liverpool and Arsenal.

While there is an immediate defensive worry, Sonko's eligibility will cure the headache the moment the game at the Britannia Stadium is over, assuming no new crises emerge from it. However, the main conclusion we reach, irrespective of who does get the nod, is that Mouyokolo will be as vital as ever. At least our one properly fit and available central defender is on real form.