By Greg Stobart at the DW Stadium
It was far from pretty and at times a little nervy, but Manchester City found a way to get the job done to move three points clear at the top of the Premier League on Monday night.
A 1-0 victory away at Wigan on a cold January night will not live as long in the memory as the 6-1 win at Old Trafford in October - but this kind of gritty performance is just as important if City are to triumph in May.
After back-to-back defeats, albeit in the domestic cups, this was the answer Roberto Mancini’s side had to produce to prove their ability to cope with a gruelling title race.
City were able to keep Wigan at bay, to get the job done despite missing influential figures all over the pitch, with Yaya and Kolo Toure at the Africa Cup of Nations, Vincent Kompany suspended and Mario Balotelli and Micah Richards injured.
That they did win was thanks to a well-executed glancing header from Edin Dzeko in the 22nd minute, the Bosnian ending a run of 11 appearances without finding the net. More chances followed, particularly in the second half, but City were denied a second by the excellent Ali Al-Habsi in the Wigan goal.
Scrappy City | Leaders showed their battling qualities in victory over Wigan
More importantly, however, it was City’s first away win in the Premier League since a scrappy victory at QPR on Bonfire Night. Having since stuttered at Chelsea, West Brom and Sunderland, beating Wigan was more of a challenge than some might have given them credit for.
“It was important after two defeats when we didn’t deserve to lose,” Mancini reflected. “Now it’s important to win. In this moment it’s impossible to have an easy game."
City produced the kind of battling performance on which Manchester United, their great rivals, have won so many titles under Sir Alex Ferguson. It was typical of potential champions - no team can play every week with swashbuckling abandon.
The psychological impact should not be underestimated, either, with spirit in the camp bound to be high ahead of a sterner test when Tottenham travel to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday lunchtime.
|ON THE ROAD TO RUIN
Man City's away league form
||Liverpool - drew 1-1
||Chelsea - lost 2-1
||West Brom - drew 0-0
||Sunderland - lost 1-0|
There were encouraging signs at the DW that City can continue to accumulate points in a period their manager has consistently described as the crucial stage of the season.
Stefan Savic recovered from his nightmare against Liverpool with a dependable display, Joleon Lescott took on the responsibility of commanding the defence in Kompany’s absence. On the only occasion when Wigan did find penetration in the City penalty area, Joe Hart was on hand to keep out James McCarthy’s shot with an outstretched leg. It was a moment that may have been the difference between one point and three.
The City players were eager after the game not to look too far ahead, but once they get past the challenge of Tottenham, they face a run of fixtures that could, in theory, see them pull away at the Premier League summit.
After the Spurs clash, Mancini’s side have a six-game run - against Everton, Fulham, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton and Swansea - where they can realistically expect to win every match.
But then again, some might have said the same before their defeat at Sunderland on New Year’s Day, while a scrappy win against bottom-placed Wigan will not have rivals shaking in their boots.
But it produced three points and City supporters can cross another game off their lists. Seventeen to go.
It is still too early to tell whether this City squad has the sprit to win the club’s first title in 44 years. The first title is always the hardest and Mancini’s men will be asked more questions about their ability to handle pressure as the season draws to a close.
On Monday night, however, they showed the battling qualities necessary in any team with legitimate ambitions of winning the Premier League. Winning ugly is a skill in itself - just ask Ferguson.
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