Beauty parade begins at City, Liverpool dare to dream of the Champions League and why it’s time for referees to speak up

Some Manchester City players are considering their futures

The great Manchester City player audition has now started. Into this band fall two categories. Those with a year remaining on their deals this summer, who include Gareth Barry, Joleon Lescott and Carlos Tevez. And those whose days may be numbered anyway, a gang headed by Maicon, Edin Dzeko, Scott Sinclair, Kolo Touré and Samir Nasri.

After Saturday’s 5-0 dispatching of Barnsley in the FA Cup only a guaranteed 10 league games plus a Wembley semi-final remain for a beauty parade judged not only by Roberto Mancini but also by Ferran Sorriano and Txiki Begeristain. The new chief executive and director of football made their name at Barcelona in the Ronaldinho era during which Lionel Messi began his ascent to greatness. City’s stated ambition is to become the English Blaugrana, so expect a ruthless cull when the close season arrives. Jamie Jackson

McDermott feels the heat

It feelsas if Brian McDermott has become a victim of his own success at Reading. The fans’ patience snapped on Saturday, as they vented their anger at the manager and the players during the 2-1 defeat by Aston Villa that has pushed the club closer to the trapdoor. Poor as Reading were at times, McDermott raised a valid point afterwards when he highlighted the fact that the £7m Villa paid for Christian Benteke in the summer is more than he has spent on his entire team. Anton Zingarevich, Reading’s owner, has been frugal when it comes to investing in players, leaving the club looking like a Championship team playing in the Premier League. McDermott got Reading into the Premier League against the odds, but keeping them in the top flight, with nothing like the backing the other promoted clubs received, was always going to be a tall order. Stuart James

Cup v league

Premier League money or Wembley glory? Managers and fans would appear to differ on that one. Wigan’s Roberto Martínez is fairly typical in expressing his choice as follows: “The league has to come first. I would never jeopardise survival there, and the future of the club, just for a visit to Wembley. With the financial changes that are coming into force next season, the difference between clubs in the Premier League and the Championship is going to be bigger than ever. We have a long-term plan at Wigan. Things have changed for us in the last few years. We are making a profit every year now, we’ve got great plans for new facilities and the training ground, and all that is reliant on being in the Premier League. That’s how important it is. If we can do that and enjoy success in the Cup, that will be very welcome but it can never come at the expense of our place in the Premier League.” At the moment, though, Wigan’s Cup prospects are a lot rosier than their league position. Joe Lovejoy

Let referees speak

The appallingly incorrect offside decision which denied Michael Laudrup’s Swansea City a deserved point at West Bromwich Albion was not the only thing the manager said he found hard to understand after the game. Laudrup appeared almost equally nonplussed to learn the officials were not required to make themselves available to the media to offer some sort of explanation. Given Premier League referees have been professional for more than 10 years now, and by most people’s standards reasonably well-paid professionals at that, this is as out-dated an attitude as it is self-defeating. After all, there might have been a good reason why the referee, Lee Mason, who was after all closer to the incident, did not point out to his assistant that the last two touches on the ball before it reached Roland Lamah were by Albion players and that, therefore, he was overruling the linesman’s decision to flag the Swansea winger offside as he put the ball in the net. As it is, it is very hard to think of one. Richard Rae

Millwall should stick Danny Shittu up front

Millwall have struggled for goals since Chris Wood’s departure but they might consider sticking Danny Shittu up front. Few can match the burly Nigerian in the air – one defensive header on Sunday almost reached the opposing penalty area – and he twice tested the Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper, Jake Kean, with fierce efforts in their 0-0 FA Cup draw. His first effort, a 35-yard piledriver, was flying into the top corner before Kean palmed it away whereas Millwall’s striker Rob Hulse failed to hit the target from six yards out. “He doesn’t shoot like that in training,” Kenny Jackett said of Shittu after the game but maybe he is the answer to their scoring dilemma. James Riach

Crossroads for Hoolahan

Saturday’s goalless draw between Norwich City and Southampton was hardly the stage for thrilling football as the playing surface turned to mush and the snowstorm sapped inspiration but Wes Hoolahan offered glimpses of his prodigious talent, controlling one pass which most players would have chased to the touchline. He had started the match as a substitute as Chris Hughton found a way to accommodate Kei Kamara alongside Grant Holt. Kamara struggled but Norwich need more goals and Hughton will surely give the Sierra Leonean another chance. With Anthony Pilkington and Robert Snodgrass among Norwich’s more reliable contributors Hughton may struggle to find a place for Hoolahan, who was beginning to build a compelling case for a regular start in Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland side. For so long Trapattoni has overlooked the Dubliner. At 30 years old, and with only three caps to his name since his debut in 2008, Hoolahan’s international career may not withstand being banished to the fringes at Norwich. James Callow

Is fourth realistic for Liverpool?

On current form Brendan Rodgers’ team appear well-equipped to present a belated challenge for fourth spot. Victory over Tottenham Hotspur was the first time Liverpool have won three league games on the bounce since Rodgers became manager and was more a reward for their character and perseverance than the flowing football that characterised preceding victories over Swansea and Wigan. It was also Rodgers’ first notable scalp in the Premier League as Liverpool manager and forthcoming fixtures – against Southampton, Villa, West Ham and Reading before Rafael Benítez returns to Anfield with Chelsea in late April – offer the opportunity to climb higher than sixth. Talk of the top four for Liverpool has been premature for much of the campaign and they may have left the revival too late to overhaul a seven-point gap on Chelsea but it is no longer the pipe-dream it seemed for so long. Andy Hunter

Taylor’s time for international recognition

Newcastle United’s Steven Taylor deserves an England call-up. Roy Hodgson is said to be an admirer of the former England Under-21 captain and the way Taylor minded Peter Crouch during Newcastle’s 2-1 win against Stoke should convince England’s coach to cap the centre-half. Louise Taylor

Adieu Adel?

There are question marks about the role Adel Taarabt will play in QPR’s battle against the drop. The hugely talented Moroccan has had been one of Rangers’ better performers this season but he was absent against Sunderland on Saturday. According to Harry Redknapp, he “suddenly” suffered “a little bit of a thigh strain or something” in midweek and declared himself unavailable for the match. You wonder if Redknapp is running out of patience with his most mercurial talent. John Ashdown

Can this United vintage be got at as games begin to age?

The answer may turn out to be “no” yet the way first Real Madrid then Chelsea have each come from behind in Manchester United’s last two outings, both at home, makes the question a credible one on the spring run towards the major trophies.

An argument will come that poor refereeing cost them their tilt at the Champions League. But the “fact”, as Rafael Benítez might put it, is that United lost that match – and the tie – from a winning position due to a second-half dip in performance. And they came close to repeating that on Sunday when Benítez’s Chelsea moved from looking insipid at 2-0 down at Old Trafford to appearing favourites to knock United out of the FA Cup, following the break.

As Jimmy Sirrel sagely said: “The best team always wins and the rest is only gossip.” Reading are next up in a home league match United should coast through, so the away trip to Sunderland the following weekend may provide a more telling test. Jamie Jackson

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