Manchester City's defence could be the undoing of title bid

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Legend has it that, upon being appointed Real Madrid’s manager, Carlos Queiroz told his bosses of the negative impact selling Claude Makelele to Chelsea would have on the club.

Queiroz feared that despite having David Beckham, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo to lead his attack, they would struggle without the stability Makelele gave them in midfield.

Regardless, the Frenchman was sold to the Londoners and, rather predictably, Real’s season collapsed, Makelele became a key man for Chelsea, and Queiroz was sacked. It’s a lesson Real had to learn the hard way, even if others continue to ignore the obvious example it set.

Manchester City have started the season with the swagger of a side that believe their time has come to break the Manchester United-Chelsea Premier League duopoly. Deep in the bowels of the Etihad Stadium, there’s an inner conviction that hasn’t existed at the club before, a confidence that suggests City will have the temerity to go to Old Trafford and play without fear, to evolve from pretenders into winners.

If there were any lingering doubts surrounding City’s intentions, Samir Nasri quelled them when he said on his arrival: “I prefer to make history with a club, rather than be just one player among the rest. I spoke with Patrick Vieira at City - they are the club of the future.”

While it’s obvious the prospect of a staggering salary swayed Nasri's mind when it came to joining City, he wouldn’t have said the same thing had he just joined a side battling against relegation. He said it because he, like the rest of the club, believes City are on the cusp of perhaps the most successful era they’ve ever known.

Ambition is to be admired, of course, provided it doesn’t prove to be their downfall in the way that it did with Portsmouth. But - while the belief may be there - for now, at least, City simply don’t have the right balance to mount a sustained title challenge.

Goals win football matches, and City unquestionably have enough of those in their side but, if a last minute equaliser is conceded, or a tight game is lost in its closing stages, all effort up to that point has been futile.

This is a fate that was suffered regularly by the Newcastle United and Liverpool sides of the 1990s. Newcastle, managed by Kevin Keegan, played hugely entertaining football and scored numerous goals with Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, Faustino Asprilla, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola spearheading their attack. Their defence, however, was comprised of Philippe Albert and the deplorable Darren Peacock so, as a team unit, they lacked the solidity and strength to win a trophy.

Liverpool, equally, had Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Stan Collymore and Jamie Redknapp to rely upon for goals, and they rarely came up short. However, with Phil Babb and Neil Ruddock at the back, they simply failed to keep enough clean sheets to seriously challenge.

All of the great Premier League sides have scored lots of goals, but they had an equally effective defence to rely upon when it really mattered.

The Arsenal ‘invincibles’ team had Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and Gilberto Silva - all at their peak - sitting back every time the rest of the side attacked. Years before, they had Tony Adams, Martin Keown and David Seaman.

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were also a delight to watch – there were fewer greater sights in English football at the time than Arjen Robben, Damien Duff and Eidur Gudjohnsen attacking in tandem, but they did so with the tightest of defences behind them; Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry and Makelele ensured only 15 goals were conceded from 38 league games in 2004/05.

For Manchester United, there’s been Edwin van der Sar, Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Gary Neville, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and many more.

Even the current Barcelona side – perhaps the greatest ever – have Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets giving the others a license to attack.

Since becoming the world’s wealthiest team, one of the most painful memories for any City fan will have been the last gasp derby defeat at Old Trafford, when Michael Owen masterfully finished deep into stoppage time to give United a 4-3 win. Now, despite having Edin Dzeko, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli as their four strikers, the quality of their defence is still questionable and it isn’t inconceivable that a similar scenario could develop.

It’s quite possible to envisage any two of those strikers, supported by any three of David Silva, Samir Nasri, Adam Johnson and Yaya Toure, leaving Owen Hargreaves or Nigel De Jong to protect the back four. De Jong never has been, while Hargreaves is no longer, on a par with a Makelele, Javier Mascherano or Busquets.

With that being the case, Roberto Mancini needs to make sure his back five is exceptional.

Joe Hart shows promise in abundance, but is untested at the highest level. Micah Richards appears to have declined somewhat and there remains no guarantee he will fulfill his unquestionable potential, while Gael Clichy once looked world class at Arsenal but needs to prove that he can reach that level again.

Joleon Lescott never has and never will be a £24 million defender – of all the money City have spent on transfers in recent years, this is perhaps the greatest waste. While Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor at least had the talent to be elite players - if not the desire - Lescott has neither.

That leaves Vincent Kompany. He’s been superb for City, but he alone isn’t enough – even the imperious Vidic has struggled in the past without Rio Ferdinand alongside him in Manchester United’s back line.

Last season, Blackpool scored enough goals to survive, but their defence was woefully inadequate and now they’re in the Championship. By way of contrast, City didn’t win enough games despite having one of the best selections of offensive players in Europe. Their football simply wasn’t productive enough because their defence needed to be anchored by De Jong, Toure and Gareth Barry, often together

This season, Mancini appears to have encouraged City to be more attack-minded and they’ll be amongst the highest scorers in the league – but unless they can strike the right balance, there’s little point in expecting any more from them.

If attacking options guaranteed success, then Real Madrid’s Galacticos and Sven Goran Eriksson’s Lazio would have won a handful of domestic and European titles. Argentina - with Gonzalo Higuain, Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria and Diego Milito joining Aguero and Tevez - and not Spain would have won the 2010 World Cup. Each side was infamously talented but equally unbalanced.

There comes a stage in the development of a side when one individual can prove the catalyst for a substantial period of success. Eric Cantona joining United in 1992 was exactly that, as was Mourinho for Chelsea in 2004.

Edgar Davids, upon joining Barcelona on loan in the 2003/2004 season, helped propel the side up the table, give them the necessary balance and then the confidence to become a truly great side thereafter under Frank Riijkard. Ronaldinho was the star man, but few inside the club overlook the impact Davids made during his brief stay in Catalonia.

City are closer than they’ve ever been, but that last step is the hardest to take. There is more than enough creativity in the side, there are enough goals, and there’s also an array of options. But what they lack is something that is becoming an increasingly rare and expensive commodity in the modern game - a genuinely strong core throughout the side.

Few midfields have more flair than City’s, few strikers have more finesse. But they’re missing a player or two to string everything together, to make that transition from a talented collection of individuals into an effective unit and, ultimately, that could make the difference.

Follow Declan Warrington on Twitter @decwarrington