Man City – down but not out
In the early hours of Sunday morning, those that tuned into the Manny Pacquiao versus Juan Manuel Marquez bout in Las Vegas watched as Pacquiao, having let down his guard for a split second, was halted and knocked to the canvas in the sixth round.
December 13th, 2012
Not twelve hours later, with the venue The Etihad Stadium and not the MGM Grand hotel, similar parallels were drawn as a Manchester derby filled with much of the same passion, brawn, skill and technique ended when City, having pulled themselves back into the contest, were knocked to the floor at the very last when Robin Van Persie’s free kick, assisted with an errant Samir Nasri foot, evaded the grasp of Joe Hart to arc into the bottom corner and seal a dramatic 3-2 victory for Manchester United.
Unlike Pacquiao, City may not have been out cold, but the haunted expression on stand-in captain Pablo Zabaleta’s face spoke volumes. United, as they have been so often wont to do in these occasions, landed the killer punch so late that City had no time to recover.
As a contest it was an absorbing encounter, and it would be dangerous to read too much into the long-term ramifications in terms of the title race. City, lest we forget, could well have found themselves 3-0 down had Ashley Young’s goal not been disallowed, but instead, moments later, had pulled a goal back and – having levelled through Zabaleta – were the team with the greater intent. The fact that United hit back says much for their strength of resolve; and perhaps also about City’s ability to still self-inflict at the worst possible moments.
A six-point gap is certainly not insurmountable and memories are still fresh of both sides loosing positions of strength in 2011/12. United’s numbers too for 2012/13 so far suggest that a cooling off of their hot start in attack is inevitable; yet this will be counteracted if their defensive problems can be resolved.
For City though, whilst unbeaten in the Premier League before Sunday, they have yet to reach anything like top gear. In the NFL, Superbowl winners are notorious for posting disappointing seasons following their success; a more motivated opposition of course, but the suspicion that a ‘hangover’ permeates the champions’ play – both in terms of a continuing thirst but also of the required singular focus to come back again for more. The exertions of the previous season means a lack of freshness and zip permeate their play; their form labouring and the squad suffering from injury. It is to be hoped that City’s exit from the Champions League may at least provide some comfort in this regard.
This time around, there are plenty of questions – not least those surrounding Roberto Mancini. Perhaps it is a sign of the times at clubs like City nowadays that means speculation around the manager’s position persists, but the spectre of both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho continue to linger – and whilst Guardiola remains sans club and Mourinho in a state of flux in Madrid, both will continue to be linked; so much so that even a title win may not be enough.
The abrasive Mancini is also believed to have upset, if not alienated, certain members of his squad with post-match comments in the wake of key defeats. Joe Hart, Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli were all in some way shape or form singled out by the Italian. There is also the disruption caused by Mancini looking to evolve last year’s system into a more fluid and, at times, attacking one; causing consternation and confusion in equal measure at various times.
Recent press conference references to Brian Marwood and his ability to land the primary targets in the summer transfer window highlighted the fact that Mancini is not quite over missing out on Eden Hazard, Daniele de Rossi and Robin Van Persie – and that the fact that the ‘B-list’ acquisitions have disappointed and/or rarely featured have done nothing to dampen this suspicion. The line-up including the bench spoke much on this subject, with the inclusion of Carlos Tevez instead of Mario Balotelli the only change needed to what would clearly be City’s strongest available side. Suddenly, the imperious strength of City’s bench looks a little devoid of options and hints at a required outlay in January.
We know that there are still 22 games of the season to play: 66 points to be contested but undeniably United have attained the upper hand at present. Not all wins are equal and Sunday’s winner has allowed United to steal a march. City possess both the required quality and aptitude to comfortably claw back the six point gap, even allowing for their patchy play over the opening third of the 2012/13 season.
However, much like the boxer who finds themselves knocked out their biggest test is in being able to get back in the ring and go toe to toe once again, removing any doubts from the mind. A busy Christmas and New Year period of games ahead should provide the answer as to whether City has the fight in them for the long haul.