The Manchester City manager Mark Hughes believes Stephen Ireland is taking the right steps in his bid to emulate some of English football's great names. Ireland has spoken of his wish, ahead of the derby against Manchester United tomorrow, to aspire to the level of the Old Trafford evergreen stars Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. With 13 goals and a string of impressive performances to his credit, the City midfielder has been arguably the club's best player this season. And Hughes is delighted with Ireland's progress over the last nine months.
"He has the opportunity to be a player here for many years," said the City boss. "If he can replicate the guys mentioned he will have had an outstanding career. "The level of Stephen's performance is what has struck everyone. He has consistently hit a point which has seen him make an impact in nearly every game he has played. "He is trying to improve and become one of the best players in the Premier League. That is credit to him. We have to make sure he has the means and the tools to do so in the coming years." It was a summer of change for Ireland, according to Hughes, who added: "Stephen had to make decisions about where he wanted his career to go. "He came back with a real focus to his work and is reaping the benefits. We also like to think the environment we created at the training ground has helped him. He has a real empathy with the club and that is showing in his play." Hughes insists his players will stand up and be counted against a United side that secured their place in the Champions League final in midweek. He has taken comfort from his own team's run of four successive wins that has kept them in sight of a Europa League place.
"You have to work very hard if you want to beat United and your goalkeeper usually has to play very well," he said. "I recall Brad Friedel putting in an outstanding performance when I was at Blackburn. "It is about having belief in your own ability, going there, sticking your chest out and saying 'come on test us, let's see what you have got'. "I sense from the atmosphere in and around the group our belief is growing. We now understand we are a good side." Shaun Wright-Phillips is doubtful for the game after a five-match absence with an ankle problem, but Pablo Zabaleta could be available after resuming training following a hamstring injury. *PA Sport