Forward-thinking Richards taking battle for title in his stride despite Chelsea setback
Flying full-back wary of Arsenal threat as City look to get back on track, writes Paul Wilson
When Micah Richards says his plan is to take it on the chin and move on, he is referring to Manchester City's first defeat of the season at Chelsea on Monday, not his training ground dust-up with Mario Balotelli a few days later.
At least the two warring players, who have since kissed and made up via Twitter, were not at each other's throats when they took part with the rest of the first-team squad in City's annual Christmas visit to the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, when Richards praised the healthy team spirit within the club.
"These things happen in training, but we shook hands afterwards," he says. "It shows passion, and that's what we've got. That's why there will always be arguments, because we've got 20 or 25 good players and they can't always get a game. When people don't play they aren't going to be happy, but the spirit has been unbelievable, probably one of the best I've had since I've been at Manchester City. We've still got a lot to learn, so every day we're looking to improve, but we've come a long way from when Roberto Mancini first took over. There's been a massive difference, even from last season we've come on a lot."
The full-back credits the City manager for bringing out the best in him, not least by encouraging him to get forward as often as possible. Some believe Richards does that too much anyway, and should be more disciplined in his defending, but there can be no doubt where Mancini stands on the matter.
"You can hear him from the side shouting 'Micah go' every five minutes," Richards says. "I think that's good because I'm playing my best when I'm going forward and you just like playing your part. I've got to say this manager's been outstanding for me. He gave me the confidence I needed and I've played a lot better since he arrived. As a member of a team that likes to play football, I love getting forward, but I also think we can still tighten up.
"I'm not blaming the defenders, Vincent Kompany has been outstanding and Joleon Lescott has probably been our best defender this season. Just sometimes when we're going forward we leave ourselves a little bit exposed at the back. It's not really been a problem because up to now we've been winning games, and that's the most important thing."
Now the unbeaten run has come to an end, just days after the disappointment of a Champions League exit, the question is how convincingly City can bounce back. Alex Ferguson, not to mention Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas, will be watching developments carefully. "We showed we could handle pressure last season when we finished joint second with Chelsea and this year we want to improve on that," Richards says. "No one is saying it is going to be easy but we have laid a good foundation. I don't think there's that much pressure on us because we're still new. United, Chelsea and Arsenal have been doing this for years. It's best for us just to go out and play like we have been doing. That's why we've been doing so well, because we feel like there's no pressure on us and we can play our football."
Following the Chelsea defeat, City have another tough game this afternoon against Arsenal, a side Richards still views as title contenders. "As long as they keep everyone fit, especially Robin van Persie, then I believe Arsenal are a threat," he says. "Last year they were second and at one point they could have gone top but they had a period of injuries and their momentum went down. I still think Arsenal are one of the best passing teams around. They might not have Cesc Fabregas or Samir Nasri anymore, but Arsene Wenger has got them playing a certain way, or at least trying to. Van Persie is a candidate for player of the season, but so is David Silva. They are an exciting team to watch, but so are Manchester City. We are probably both trying to tighten up defensively too."
Richards thinks Tottenham are still in with a title shout, despite their defeat at Stoke, but insists the usual suspects are still favourites.
"Manchester United won the league last year, and at the start of this season they were the favourites, so in my opinion they still are," he says.
"Just because we have been five points in front doesn't mean we are going to walk the league, it would be a mistake to get carried away by that or the fact the we won at Old Trafford. They have the experience and the track-record, whereas if we were to win the league it would be a massive achievement for us. United are bound to miss Nemanja Vidic, because in my opinion he is the best central defender in the Premier League, but they have players who can come in. Chris Smalling has been doing really well, and they've got Phil Jones and Jonny Evans as well. We are going to lose players to the Africa Cup of Nations, so everyone will have to make a few changes."
No interview with Richards would be complete without an England question, indeed you can almost see him ticking off the minutes until the subject is raised. The fact is that Fabio Capello appears to have reservations over Richards as a right-back, probably due to his eagerness to get forward.
Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker have overtaken him in the pecking order, and even when Richards does make a rare England appearance it would not be too difficult to imagine Capello putting Mancini's instructions into reverse and bellowing "Micah stay" from the technical area. Richards is familiar with the script, and when the matter is finally broached he puts back his head and roars with laughter.
"I knew this was coming," he says. "I've said before I've been upset with England but it's not about that, it's about working hard and trying to keep this form that I'm showing. Kyle Walker's a fantastic talent, he's getting a chance and Glen Johnson is first-choice right-back and they're at Liverpool and Spurs, who are top teams. So it's about getting a chance and taking it. Mr Capello obviously thinks something of me if he's had me in the squad; it's just getting on the field. I played 45 minutes against France and thought I did all right, but I just want more. Obviously there's a tournament coming up, but it's still early, anything can happen. I won't be ruling myself out and I don't want to say anything either that I might come to regret.
"The England thing is what it is. It's not up to me. All I can do is keep playing well and try to achieve something with Manchester City and let the rest take care of itself."
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