By Oliver Platt
He has been out of Premier League action for little more than a month, but David Silva's absence has been keenly felt at Manchester City. The top-flight season so far has been marked not by defensive resistance or midfield control. It has rested, at least at the summit of the table, on attacking quality, and the defending champions have no one more capable in that regard than their Spanish playmaker.
City face Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday and Silva is in contention for a first start since October 6, when Roberto Mancini's team breezed past Sunderland. They have not enjoyed a straightforward afternoon or evening since. Narrow wins over West Brom and Swansea City were broken up by the 3-1 defeat against Ajax. November started with a draw against West Ham before another testing encounter with the Amsterdam club ended in a 2-2 tie.
Manchester United pulled five points away from their rivals by beating Aston Villa in a style that has marked their campaign. Questions have been asked of a defence that has conceded 16 goals in 11 league matches and United's need for a central midfielder of genuinely world-class quality has been well-documented. Sir Alex Ferguson chose to invest in Robin van Persie instead and contrary to the modern emphasis on building from the back, his hoarding of high quality forwards seems to be working.
Andreas Weimann put two goals past David de Gea either side of half-time but when the success of Van Persie and Wayne Rooney is proving limited, Ferguson can simply call on someone else. Chicharito, enjoying arguably the finest run of form of his United career to date, arrived on the scene at the break and scored two of his own. He effectively forced another with a shot that deflected off Ron Vlaar and picked up the match ball accordingly at the final whistle.
United have won five times from losing positions now in the league this season. When Silva was in the team, City were not in the form of their lives but showed themselves capable of doing the same. Just like United, they saw off a scare against Southampton. Silva came off the bench as they grabbed a late draw against Liverpool. And shortly before he was injured, they overturned Mladen Petric's opening goal to beat Fulham.
So far, 2012-13 has been the season of scoring one more than your opponent. On the evidence of Tottenham's matches against the league's title contenders so far, that promises to be the case again in City's latest test at Eastlands. Spurs have one of the division's top scorers in Jermain Defoe and beat United 3-2 at Old Trafford.
Their match against Chelsea, which they lost 4-2, however, is of particular note. That day, Andre Villas-Boas' team mounted a spirited comeback after half-time to take the lead against the then league-leading Blues. But, again, the talent of Eden Hazard and Juan Mata separated the two sides in the latter stages.
The comparisons between Silva and the inspirational Mata are easily drawn. This time last season, the former was at his majestic best, scoring four goals and creating seven more in his first 11 league appearances. He had contributed further in European competition. For all of Samir Nasri's efforts, City lack fluency without Silva. They had 31 points after 11 games last season; victory against Spurs will put their current total at 25 after the same number of matches.
City scored 93 goals - the third highest total in Premier League history - on their way to the title last season but now they are on course for just 68. United are currently on their way to 100. That has been the difference between two sides that both have defensive kinks to iron out, and that is why Silva's return could prove so vital. He does not just contribute in an individual capacity but as a catalyst for Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli to rediscover the prolific streak they enjoyed last season.
This reliance on Silva does, of course, call into question Mancini's transfer policy. He brought in Scott Sinclair when Adam Johnson joined Sunderland to end one-and-a-half frustrating years in Manchester, but whereas Johnson was capable of injecting creativity into City's play from the right flank, Sinclair is much more of a goalscorer seeking to benefit from the service that the likes of the Spaniard might provide. There is no alternative option, besides Nasri, capable of easing the burden on Silva, who did tire as the previous campaign wore on.
Until January, at least, City must hope their one-man creative hub stays fit and firing. The 2012-13 season has seen goals fly in at a rate unprecedented since the Premier League's inception in 1992; Silva can ensure that Mancini's team plunder their fair share.
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