By Jay Jaffa
Pablo Zabaleta might have bailed Manchester City out of a hole at Stoke in the FA Cup last weekend, but to ask him to repeat his goalscoring feat two weeks running was a stretch, even for their best performer this season.
The Argentine right-back came closest to breaking the deadlock at Loftus Road, hitting the bar with a diving header, but it rather summed up the glum fortunes of the Premier League champions as they handed Manchester United another boost in the title race.
"It's difficult for me because I lost one striker and that could be important in the next 14 games," Mancini warned, as he dissected the failings of his front men. His three remaining forwards are woefully out of form and although Harry Redknapp claimed the trio of Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez had him on the edge of the seat for the duration, in reality, they posed very little threat to Cesar's goal. Dzeko and Aguero have just three goals between them in their last five games, while Tevez has netted just once in his previous 11 outings.
Nevertheless Mancini opted to pair his two Argentine forwards together from the start, before replacing the consistently underwhelming Samir Nasri with Dzeko in the second half as they sought a way on to the scoresheet. Tevez was anonymous throughout, Aguero had a goal rightfully disallowed for offside just before half-time and Dzeko failed to take his chance as he let James Milner's intelligent through ball slip out of his range.
Predictably, the spark came from David Silva, the Spanish magician, playing at the tip of City's midfield but even he seemed flustered in possession with such predictable and well-marshalled movement in front of him. That said, the 27-year-old may well have snatched a late winner were it not for the "world-class" goalkeeping of Cesar, as Redknapp described the Brazilian's sprawling close-range save.
Some will point to the absence of Yaya Toure – currently playing and scoring for the Ivory Coast in the Africa Cup of Nations - as a missing link, but until this point, the Premier League champions had won every game without the giant midfielder. Any club would miss his presence but with the wealth of resources City have, they should have planned for days like last night.
Instead, Mancini could only turn to Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair as 'impact' substitutes – two summer acquisitions that seem increasingly pointless as the season rolls on. Mancini claimed that any transfer business would be "difficult" in the final two days of the window, but did hint at reinforcing a defence that has succumbed to injuries.
But it is not the defence Mancini should be addressing; they have not conceded a goal in their last six matches. His side regularly struggle to cut through teams they were routinely defeating in their title-winning campaign. Whether his players are resting on their laurels, or the nature of the game has changed – City lack the flash of ingenuity and drive that supplemented their hunger for that maiden Premier League crown.
There is also the lingering debate regarding Mancini's gameplan. City smothered QPR at times, hoarding the ball for huge spells in their hosts' half, and yet so little was conjured. His star men, the creative cogs of his team – Silva, Nasri, Aguero and Tevez – were dumbfounded at times, seemingly unsure of where to move and who to pass to.
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Mancini recently pointed a finger at the club's ambition, blaming their failed pursuit of Robin van Persie as the difference in this year's title race, and it is impossible to argue against him looking at the fortunes of the two clubs. City are out of Europe entirely and sit four points behind their cross-town rivals who face Southampton at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.
The acquisition of Txiki Begiristain hinted at a change in strategy this January, but the richest club in England still look unlikely to bolster their squad. Though Balotelli's exit will be deemed sensible and good business by his detractors, it further chops away at a team struggling to cope with the pressure a Premier League crown bestows. They do not even need a marquee signing, just someone to help ease the burden on Silva and inject a touch of panache and vigour to a team in a penalty box coma.
It may just be a blip, after all, City have won the six games prior to Tuesday night but it is an unavoidable truth that they are stumbling through the season. Ask the most regular observer to name a sustained 90 minute performance of quality this year and they would struggle. Perhaps only the home and away victories over Fulham stand out.
City face an uphill battle and with only 14 games left to catch Sir Alex Ferguson's side you wonder if it is at all possible. City could barely afford a slip-up before Phil Dowd kicked off proceedings on a wet and windy night in west London. Another would be terminal.
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