By Chris Harris
Nine points off the relegation zone? No joy in the Cups? It's easy to jump to the conclusion that this has been a season to forget for Manchester City, but it's not as cut and dried as it looks.
OK, the less said about the last six weeks the better. Seven defeats in eight games have seen City tumble down the table, while West Ham ended a promising FA Cup campaign in its tracks. But go back further and you'll see reasons for City to be cheerful.
Chief among them is Stuart Pearce. He started the season as a managerial novice with questions hanging over his suitability for such a high-profile job. Pearce has since emerged as one of his country's most talented - and likeable - young coaches.
"His brief from the board was to keep City in the Premiership and learn what's what in management, and he's done that," says Chris Bailey of the Manchester Evening News. "City were safe months ago, they just haven't advanced on that since. Pearce thought City would qualify for Europe, but the depth of his squad caught up with him when injuries bit during the winter.
"Nonetheless, the fans have really taken to him. Everyone knows what he's like on the touchline, that's the passion he brings to the job. His honesty endears him to the fans, particularly when he came out after the home defeat against Middlesbrough and lambasted the players. Not many managers tell the fans exactly what they tell the players but he did. He is intrinsically an honest man who goes about the job in an honest way and it works well."
Pearce's stock has risen so quickly that he has even been mentioned in dispatches about the England job. As Bailey says, the succession to Sven Goran Eriksson has probably come too soon for him, but he expects Pearce to be in contention when the next national vacancy arises.
"I personally think he will end up doing something for England. In two or three years, given a reasonably successful time at City, I expect him to be a red-hot favourite to get the job if it's available. Pearce loves England, he's the biggest patriot you could meet, but at the moment he has plenty to do at City."
From a youthful manager to a youthful squad. Some expected City to sink without trace after their talisman Shaun Wright-Phillips left for Chelsea last summer. Instead, a new batch of City youngsters have emerged from the Academy ranks to fill the void and give the club genuine optimism for the future.
"Pearce didn't really change tactics after Wright-Phillips left," reflects Bailey. "City missed his goals and at first they missed having a player who could make things happen by going past opponents, but now the kids have come through.
"Stephen Ireland has burst onto the scene and played a number of games, Lee Croft has done very well as a winger, and Micah Richards has been a big bonus. He made his debut as a late substitute against Arsenal, he's only 17 years old and he looks a class act. Elsewhere, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel has been out on loan and looks more and more like he can follow in his father's footsteps.
"The City youngsters also reached the Youth Cup Final, so it looks very promising for next season. If they can get two or three experienced players to supplement the youngsters, they can climb up the table next year."
Arsène Wenger knows a thing or two about developing young players. Tonight, he will catch a glimpse of another side's new generation.
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