Manchester City deserve respect - Norwich City boss Chris Hughton
Fresh reports of Manchester City's demise have yet to reach Chris Hughton's ears. The Norwich City chief retains a healthy degree of respect for both Roberto Mancini's past achievements at the Etihad and the dazzling array of world class talent at his disposal.
The blue half of Manchester's surprise Boxing Day defeat at Sunderland added further weight to the thesis Mancini's Premier League champions are not quite the force of old. The Canaries were despatched in ruthless fashion home and away last season, but Hughton has a warning for the detractors who sense a changing of the guard at the top.
'He's done great there. People talk about the money they spend and they have spent a vast amount of money but it's a different type of management,' said Hughton. 'It's all right getting these players in but you've got to be able to manage those type of players. He's given Manchester City their first league title for however many years so he'd done a super job.
'It's a tight division this time around where everybody is capable of being in every game. You look at the Manchester United score the other day, conceding three goals at home. United are not playing as well as they have in the past and are conceding more goals, but they're good enough to beat most teams. I think City are the same.
'Their form perhaps hasn't been as good as last season but on any given day they're a very, very good team. They're the league champions so we have to hope they don't have one of their really good days.'
Hughton forecasts another contest along the lines of Norwich's own Boxing Day reverse to Chelsea.
The Canaries' collective work ethic and discipline will again attempt to prevail in the face of sublime individual talent. Much of what Hughton witnessed against the European champions was pleasing, but getting the balance right is key.
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'If you open up against these teams they can really hurt you,' he said. 'In the likes of (Carlos) Tevez and (Sergio) Aguero, if you let them have the ball in dangerous areas, they can really hurt you. We've got to find a way where we make sure we are a big enough threat. You don't expect to play against Chelsea and have chance after chance after chance, but we have to work out a formula where we can be as solid as we've been, but just give us a little bit more opportunity to score.
'You have to put things in perspective to a degree. You are playing a quality side like Chelsea, who are on the back of a really good performance where they scored goals for fun. If you make the game too open, then as they showed in glimpses against us they have the quality to really hurt you. If we had shown a little bit more guile, a little bit more quality in that final third then we get something. It is a very difficult balance to get right, but we are up against quality teams.'
Perspective is a commodity Hughton also favours to place Norwich's recent festive downturn in context. Defeats to West Brom and Chelsea do not dent the confidence of a group of players responsible for that Premier League club record unbeaten run.
'At the moment it doesn't feel like there is a lack of confidence, probably because one of those games was away from home at West Brom, which we always knew was going to be tough, and of course we've lost to the Champions League winners,' said Hughton. 'Chelsea appreciated they were in a really good game. I gather (Rafa) Benitez said some good things about our team as well, so all of that is nice, but what would be nicer is if we can turn that into a result on Saturday.
'We still never lose sight of where we are. At this moment we're in a decent position in the league with decent points. Every game is a challenge. Whatever the result or performance, you have to bounce back for the next one. The lads have put in so much hard work.'
Benitez's post-match respect for the the challenge posed by well-drilled hosts at Carrow Road hinted at an unwanted side effect to City's rise. If there is a downside to claiming high-profile scalps such as Arsenal and Manchester United it is in the heightened awareness of how tough an opponent Norwich have become for Premier League rivals.
'This is a group that has been there for a season and a half,' said Hughton. 'It's not a first season in this division, so maybe there is a little bit more respect from the opposition. But these are all the things you have to be able to deal with.
'There will be good periods and bad periods. We went through a bad period earlier in the season, and now we've gone through a good period. It's very difficult to get a level of consistency unless you're one of the top teams. You're going to have your up and down periods. It's so important that whatever game you play, you're in every game and you have the ability to bounce back.'
Hughton accepts freshening up his settled starting line-up is a viable option today against the champions. The likes of Jonny Howson, Elliott Bennett and Steve Morison have all played minor roles during the past two months of consistent football which helped foster a degree of circumspection in the manager's approach to team selection.
The City chief is also mindful of factoring in the gruelling nature of a hectic festive workload on the same select pool of troops.
'They're the things I have to think about,' he said. 'If you look at the way we finished the Chelsea game there was still a fair amount of energy and legs there. But, yes, I do have to think about it and we'll see how they settle down over these next couple of days.
'What we do have is players who are pushing hard to play, to get in the team, to contribute and these are things I will have to think about.'
Sebastien Bassong, however, is not one of those who should bank on a rest any time soon. Hughton admitted the centre back has been immense since his summer signing.
'I think he's been excellent for us,' said Hughton. 'He's played games and he's enjoying his football because if I look over the last few years, he's been very much in and out of the Tottenham team and I think he's just enjoying playing game after game. We're seeing the benefits of that. I think he's a strong character and a big, big personality. The relationship between him and Michael (Turner) has worked quite well and also when Ryan Bennett had a period of time in there. Seb's been very good and he's good in the group, but he has that bit of experience as well.'