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Last Updated: Friday, 26 January 2007, 07:53 GMT
Richards & Bale head-to-head
By John May

Man City's Micah Richards and Southampton's Gareth Bale
Manchester City's battle with Southampton for a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Sunday is merely the undercard.

At the venue where world IBF light-welterweight champion Ricky Hatton watches his football, the main event is the contest for the undisputed title of Best Young Defender in Britain.

In the light blue corner, is Manchester City's defender Micah Richards, while coming out of the red corner is Saints left-back Bale.

It is the hot ringside ticket for club scouts and to make it even easier for the men with upturned collars, notepads and a nose for a player, Richards and Bale will go head-to-head down the same flank in their own turf war.

As the countdown begins to the title showdown, BBC Sport runs its own tale-of-the-tape over the two contenders.

AGE AND EXPERIENCE

RICHARDS:
Age: 18 (born Birmingham, 24/6/88).
Height: 5ft 11in (1.80m).
Weight: 13st (82.55kg).
Debut: 22/10/05, v Arsenal, Premiership.
Full international debut: 15/11/06 v Holland (after 28 first-team appearances)

BALE:
Age: 17 (born Cardiff, 16/7/89).
Height: 6ft (1.83m).
Weight: 11st (69.85kg)
Debut: 17/4/06 v Millwall, Championship.
Full international debut: 27/5/06, v Trinidad and Tobago (after two first-team appearances).

Richards broke Rio Ferdinand's record as the youngest-ever England defender.

Bale became Wales youngest full international in making his debut against Trinidad. His goal in a European Championship qualifying tie against Slovakia on September 2006 makes him Wales' youngest ever goalscorer.

Despite Bale having more international caps than Richards, and Saints boss George Burley's protestations that: "I don't need to see him play against Premiership opposition to know how good he is," this will be Bale's first game against top-flight opposition. Richards has played all his competitive football in the Premiership.

ROUND ONE: Richards 10pts Bale 8.

HEADING ABILITY

RICHARDS: Although not a six-footer, possesses a terrific spring, giving him power in the air. His ability up top makes him vital to City at set- pieces at both ends of the pitch.

BALE: Rarely beaten in the air by the wide players he marks, and also acquits himself well when covering his central defenders when the ball comes in from the other diagonal.

ROUND TWO: Richards 10 Bale 9.

TACKLING

RICHARDS: Quick and powerful. Has the pace to match opponents, get alongside them and get in his tackle. Strong in the tackle too, when Richards tackles opponents, they stay tackled.

BALE: Quick as well, but more of a rapier to Richards' broadsword. Bale will stand on his feet longer, and prefers to shepherd opponents away from danger. But is a sweet timer of a tackle.

ROUND THREE: Richards 10 Bale 9.

POSITIONAL PLAY

RICHARDS: His lack of experience sometimes puts him in the wrong place, but relies on his pace to get him out of trouble. Just as importantly, has built up a good understanding with the central defenders who play inside him, Richard Dunne and Sylvain Distin.

BALE: His importance to Saints as an attacking threat can strand him upfield, and prone to a ball in behind him. Not necessarily his fault as Wayne Bridge had Chris Marsden to cover him and endorse his licence to bomb forward.

ROUND FOUR: Richards 10 Bale 9.

SKILL

RICHARDS: Comfortable enough with the ball at his feet without ever being likely to dazzle and bemuse his way around an opponent. Can get forward and overlap and deliver a decent cross, but strictly no frills.

BALE: As full of skill and trickery as a winger - which some feel he might evolve into, possibly as a long-term replacement for Ryan Giggs (for Wales, if not Man Utd). Loves to swashbuckle forward and is a real threat to opponents with his ability to beat his man and get in a telling cross.

ROUND FIVE: Richards 7 Bale 10.

GOAL THREAT

RICHARDS: Two goals to his name. His first, in the FA Cup against Aston Villa, last season, brought him to national attention. His threat at set- pieces relies on the delivery of others.

BALE: Five Championship goals, and an international strike for Wales. A magical wand of a left peg and sublime skill at free-kicks have invited comparison with David Beckham but his skill and ability make him a threat in open play.

ROUND SIX: Richards 8 Bale 10.

EXTRAS

Richards had the privilege of embarrassing Gary Lineker. After his headed equaliser in the live FA Cup tie at Aston Villa, an over-excited Richards gave his first live national television interview.

A stray swear-word during the interview prompted a sheepish Lineker to excuse it as "the inexperience of the young lad".

Bale was so good at school his PE teacher made him play one-touch football, with his right foot only. As a schoolboy distance runner, he built up a reservoir of stamina that stands him in good stead to this day.

Like Beckham and Matthew Le Tissier before him, Bale will spend hours after training has finished, perfecting his free-kick technique.

VALUATION

Time and transfer will tell how much two these young stars will be worth.

City have denied turning down an 18m bid for Richards from Chelsea, Saints are said to be battling to resist 10m offers for Bale.

POINTS VERDICT

RICHARDS: 55pts

BALE: 55pts

Richards wins in more rounds than Bale, but his margins of victory are not as convincing as Bale's. In the departments Bale tops Richards, he is much better.

Separate them? We certainly couldn't.



SEE ALSO
Man City v Southampton
25 Jan 07 |  FA Cup
Burley laughs off latest Bale bid
18 Jan 07 |  Southampton
Burley denies Spurs link to Bale
24 Dec 06 |  Southampton
Saints say Bale is not for sale
22 Nov 06 |  Southampton
Bale savours record Wales debut
28 May 06 |  Internationals
Man City reject Richards rumours
01 Jan 07 |  Premiership
Pearce set to fight for Richards
29 Nov 06 |  Man City
Richards staying put say Man City
18 Jul 06 |  Man City
Richards intent on Man City stay
17 Jan 07 |  Man City


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