De Jong attempts to put positive spin on snarling image
Published 16/04/2011 | 05:00
Nigel de Jong's eyes narrowed into a fearsome stare as he once again had to confront his infamous kung-fu tackle during the World Cup and the broken leg suffered by Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa.
"I didn't come here to speak about challenges or the past," the Dutch midfielder said. "We came here to speak about the semi-final. What happened in the past is in the past and we'll keep it to that."
De Jong faces his biggest game in a Manchester City shirt at Wembley today, but memories of his chest-high World Cup final challenge on Spain's Xabi Alonso (pictured below) and last October's tackle which almost ended Ben Arfa's season remain sensitive.
The 26-year-old has been castigated on an international scale twice in the past 10 months. After the Ben Arfa tackle, De Jong was dropped from the Holland squad by manager Bert van Marwijk in perhaps the first instance of a player being punished by his country for an incident which happened on club duty.
If De Jong wants to focus on the here and now, it is hardly surprising. "The only thing you can do is let your feet speak," he said. "You can only change things by showing your qualities on the pitch. It's in the past. But if you see how people are talking now, this last couple of months have been a lot more positive. I'm pleased, obviously, because it's better to be a positive than a negative.
"The only thing that was annoying was that in Holland it was much worse than in England. There was a witch-hunt and my family were suffering."
Helping City overcome United to book the club's first major final since 1981 would go some way to helping De Jong change the script.
The image of the former Hamburg and Ajax midfielder as a snarling, belligerent ball-winner, amplified by his 'Lawnmower' nickname, is an easy cliche to perpetuate, but the reality is that De Jong is an integral figure in Roberto Mancini's City team.
Without De Jong's aggression and defensive ability at the heart of City's midfield, Liverpool cruised to a 3-0 victory over the Champions League aspirants on Monday.
The defeat, marred by James Milner's petulant reaction to being substituted, raised more questions about the camaraderie, or lack of, at Eastlands, but De Jong insists that talk of dressing-room disharmony is another misconception.
"We're not disunited at all," he said. "You can be disappointed as a player if you're substituted or you don't like the coach's decision. That's OK. Everybody is always trying to make something big out of something small. It's not rebellion.
"Everybody knows James Milner, he's not a rebellious person. It's just a personal thing that he was disappointed and that's it.
"For us to be in the semi-final and third place in the league with six games to go is not because we're not united, it's because we are united and work for each other.
"There's still room for improvement. If there wasn't, we'd have won the Carling Cup, be first in the league and still be in the Europa League. We have to continue to work harder."
There is a perception at Eastlands that City are subjected to greater scrutiny because of the money lavished on the club by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan.
De Jong puts that down to jealousy and a determination to see the City project fail. "Of course people are jealous. That's normal. How many clubs in the Premier League would like to spend like City do?
"You can't say that smaller clubs would say, 'No, no, thank you for offering us that money, but leave it as it is!'. We just do what we do and work together. City have got the label now that we're the biggest spending club in the world and all the negativity that surrounds it.
"Everybody's trying to put us on the ground and that's normal. People are afraid of something new and something new is coming in the league and coming in the football world. We just have to fight and keep our focus and do our jobs on the pitch."
Today offers City a platform on which to build their first monument to Sheikh Mansour's investment. Victory against United would leave them 90 minutes from a first trophy in 35 years and De Jong admits it's time for City to draw a line under United's dominance.
He said: "Obviously, United still have that little edge in front of us. In the last couple of games they have scored late winners and that has to be down to experience as well. The total package.
"We respect them as well as they respect us, but we have to go with the same mindset and that everything is 50/50." (© Daily Telegraph, London)