By Ewan Roberts
The delight on the faces of the Manchester City players was plain to see as they recorded a 2-1 win over rivals United at Old Trafford, exiting the pitch with jubilant fist-pumps and joyous hugs. The title race may still be over, but City are back.
The club risked falling 18 points behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s league leaders on Monday, and while victory is unlikely to have any effect on the destination of the Premier League trophy, it restored morale amongst a camp that had doubted their credentials.
In the build-up to the match, City’s players had been forced to bat away claims that their title win last year was a mere flash in the pan, that their success – rooted in financial clout – was superficial, devoid of the requisite heart and soul and guts – staples of United’s glory under Sir Alex.
But their hard-fought victory belies such accusations: there was a steely determination about City, led by the strong British core of James Milner and Gareth Barry, and no shortage of genuine quality.
David Silva was the most creative and vibrant player on the pitch, pulling the strings for City in the final third, while Sergio Aguero’s magical introduction off the bench conjured memories of his dramatic goal against QPR on the final day of last season.
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Last year he bagged 23 goals, this year just nine (from 24 appearances). Edin Dzeko tops the club’s scoring charts with a humble 12 goals in the league, yet he’s never graduated from his role as super-sub.
With Vincent Kompany also sidelined for prolonged spells and Joe Hart and Yaya Toure faltering, City’s spine has been a shadow of the indomitable, powerful, explosive core that bound the team together last year.
It is Mancini’s star players that have shone least this year, and the gap at the top of the table owes much to their complacency. The squad lacked the experience and knowledge to oversee a title defence, were unable to deal with the loss of key players and faltered too frequently against Premier League minnows.
But City’s abundance of quality is still clear to see and the result against United will have restored faith in the team and, crucially, Mancini.
The tie had been dubbed “must-win” for the Italian manager, who was buried beneath accusations of hierarchy discontent and swallowed in headlines suggesting he needed to win the derby, and the FA Cup, to keep his job. Round one to Mr Mancini.
Though the former Inter manager may not be the first choice of directors of football Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano – who had their eyes set on luring Pep Guardiola to the Etihad Stadium until Bayern Munich nabbed him – the result extols Mancini’s tactical and leadership qualities, dispelling notions that he had lost the dressing room.
The result may even have done enough to earn Mancini backing in the transfer market, with former chief Brian Marwood having starved him of key targets in the summer – another reason behind their failed title defence.
If City were complacent on the pitch after claiming the title, then they were negligent off it too. Admittedly with one eye on Financial Fair Play, the club spent poorly and didn’t recruit a single player that has strengthened them. The likes of Javi Garcia, Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell have proved to be ineffective additions.
City’s season has thus been one comprised of what-ifs: What if they had bought more coherently over the summer? What if Kompany had stayed fit? What if everything Aguero touched had continued to turn to gold?
Monday night's result, however, proved they remain a match for the league leaders – inflicting only a second home league defeat of the season on Sir Alex’s men and ending a run of six consecutive clean sheets – and you suspect the title race will be a much tighter affair next season.
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