Manchester City depleted by injuries with only 16 fit players for the second leg tie against Aris Salonika.
Depleted Manchester City prepare for obstacles in hunt for Europa trophy
MANCHESTER // At a time when Manchester City are reduced to 16 fit players, it may seem an unnecessary risk to blindfold two of the last men standing and ask them to complete an obstacle course.
Thankfully, however, some of the more improbable footballing injuries were averted as a particularly diligent Golden Retriever ensured no harm came to Aleksandar Kolarov and Edin Dzeko as the Serb and the Bosnian visited Guide Dog Training School in Atherton, a suburb of Manchester. Both reported fit for tonight's Europa League second leg against Aris Salonika.
It was, Kolarov admitted, was a novel experience. "It's the first time I've done that," he said. "I was able to imagine what it was like for people who can't see. It's horrible." A summer signing from Lazio, he said the Serie A club places different demands upon its players. "In Italy, they never do things like that."
It was, however, unconventional preparation for tonight's tie. The significance of the Europa League is apparent even to recent arrivals at Eastlands. "We have gone 40 or 50 years [35 actually] without a trophy," said Kolarov. "Manchester City is one of the favourites for the Europa League."
It is a tournament he believes they can win, especially as Roberto Mancini's side gel. "We have six or seven new players [this season] and only James Milner has played in England before," added the 25-year-old, one of the newcomers.
Like everyone at Eastlands, he hopes his experience of the Europa League will be brief but enjoyable, ideally culminating in victory in May's final in Dublin before progressing to its more glamorous sibling. "Every player wants to be in the Champions League. It is the most important competition," Kolarov added. "But every player wants to win something as well."
The first leg against Aris was a stifling stalemate, putting the onus on City to attack at home. "I'm not expecting a different approach from them," said midfielder Gareth Barry. "I think it will be the same sort of game plan." As he conceded, however: "The draw's been pretty kind to us. It gives us a great chance."
It would be greater if City could call upon more players. "The injury situation is not good," Roberto Mancini added. "I think we have 16 players. Shay Given has a problem in his shoulder and I think he will need three months to recover." Micah Richards, who has a calf problem, has joined a cast list of casualties that already included Adam Johnson, Milner and Nigel de Jong, with the Dutchman's ankle problem perturbing Mancini particularly. City are especially short of players in the centre of the pitch.
"We have three midfielders [available] - Gareth, Yaya Toure and Patrick Vieira," Mancini explained. His one bonus is that Mario Balotelli has reported fit after playing for an hour in Sunday's 5-0 win over Notts County while Shaun Wright-Phillips has recovered from a back problem.
Liverpool take on Sparta Prague at Anfield after another goalless first leg. It represented the dullest game of Kenny Dalglish's second spell at the club but, in the week that marked the 20th anniversary of his resignation in 1991, he said he was relishing his return.
The Scot said: "It is a great honour to be back. The club means an awful lot to an awful lot of people and I am certainly one of them."
It will be his first European night as manager at Anfield, but Liverpool will be without the cup-tied Luis Suarez and, probably, the injured Steven Gerrard.