Roberto Mancini's team still have hope of reaching the finish line first but must overcome their recent malaise if they are to properly challenge Manchester United
By Wayne Veysey at Etihad Stadium
By failing to spark for the second time in five days, Manchester City are left way off the pace in the domestic marathon.
Any more points-shredding and the two-horse Premier League title race could be about to lose a thoroughbred.
Manchester United’s lead with a third of the season left is nine points and they have galloped so far off into the distance that City will soon require binoculars to see their neighbours.
Before the inquest of another stuttering City performance is opened, some caveats should be noted.
Liverpool produced a quite outstanding away performance, bursting with purpose, savvy and commitment, and decorated with strikes of the highest quality from Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard.
To come away from two of English football’s most imposing fortresses – Arsenal on Wednesday night and now Etihad Stadium - with a pair of 2-2 draws and only two points must feel like scant reward for Brendan Rodgers.
City's home record v top seven
||City 1-1 Arsenal
||City 2-1 Tottenham
||City 1-1 Everton|
||City 2-3 Manchester United
||City 2-2 Liverpool
City’s home patch was once a parade ground for their nimble ball players and accomplished athletes. Those opponents who were not swatted aside would eventually get ground down.
Now, the juggernaut is spluttering. The malaise evident in their disastrous Champions League campaign has spread to domestic engagements.
Manchester United took all three points at Etihad Stadium two months ago in what is undeniably the most significant result of the Premier League campaign to date. Arsenal and Liverpool both dominated at the sky blue side of Manchester, much in the manner of Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, but were unable to finish off Mancini’s team.
City retain the tenacity of champions, evident in the spirit of the likes of man-of-the-moment Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Aguero, Joe Hart and absent totems Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany.
But the ruthlessness has been mis-placed. So has the authority. “We were too nervous,” Mancini admitted after Aguero’s audacious late equaliser won a point that his team barely deserved. “The strikers didn’t play well. We didn’t play well as a team.”
Only perhaps James Milner and Zabaleta operated anywhere near their maximum against Liverpool. The others all disappointed in some shape or form.
Even the hallowed David Silva, who has been one of the few City players to come close to matching his high attainment of last season, flunked the Merseyside examination and was substituted with 16 minutes remaining.
Mancini, as he tends to, blames the board for failing to provide him with the necessary firepower to annihilate the opposition.
A poor transfer window last summer, which City ended with a frailer squad than with which they started it, has been followed by a deathly quiet January.
With the £24 million purchase of Robin van Persie, United demonstrated the dual benefits of beefing up their own squad while simultaneously weakening their rivals.
Yet there is more to City’s deterioration than a financial fair play squeeze.
A complacency or listlessness seems to have spread through the squad since the high water-mark of last May.
Unwittingly or not, some of the hunger levels could have dropped. Perhaps the manager’s message is not quite getting through any more. Perhaps the players need to hear different voices on the training ground and in the dressing room. Perhaps Mario Balotelli was not the only big name treading water and requiring a change of scenery.
Nevertheless, it would be premature to write off City’s title chances with a third of the campaign to go.
By hook or by crook, United have taken a remarkable 62 points out of a possible 75 this season. Their blips have only been isolated. They are due an extended one, the type that City themselves had last spring and which very nearly detonated their own title chances.
|NOT OVER YET|
|15/2||Manchester City are 15/2 with Bet365 to retain their Premier League title|
The fixture list does not offer any great comfort, although there is still the matter of the Manchester derby at Old Trafford in April.
City’s main hope of clawing their way back into the title race could be Sir Alex Ferguson’s team being victorious in their glamour tie with Real Madrid and having sustained runs in the Champions League and FA Cup.
United have a habit of stock-piling bodies in the physio’s room in the closing months of the season, and making things harder for themselves than they should be.
It may all sound a bit desperate for City. But there is still air in their lungs and the finish line remains in sight.
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