By Greg Stobart
If the Manchester City players need to show some guts this weekend after their derby defeat last Sunday, then a trip to Newcastle should bring some positive inspiration for Roberto Mancini’s men.
On the penultimate game of last season, City travelled to St James’ Park top of the Premier League and needing to win to keep themselves favourites to win the title on the final day.
Against Alan Pardew’s in-form side, they showed the character of champions and no little skill as Yaya Toure scored two second-half goals to put City within touching distance of the title.
Of course, they nearly made a hash of it the next week and were saved as Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp strike against QPR won City their first title in 44 years.
But Mancini will look back to the Newcastle game as one of the most pivotal fixtures of last season.
As will Toure. The midfielder was at his very best that afternoon, inspiring City to victory with driving runs and tremendous finishing.
It was typical of a player who throughout his City career has always been the man for the big occasion, a match-winner who steps up to make the difference in tight games, whether FA Cup finals and semi-finals, or tight league games.
The 29-year-old was an unstoppable force at St James’ Park that afternoon, all over the pitch as his power and touch proved too much for Newcastle. His first goal was a cracking low shot from 25 yards, the second a cool finish at the end of a counterattack a minute from time.
At the time, Mancini was largely using Toure in an advanced role behind the main striker, giving him freedom to inject energy into City’s attacks into the final third - and to pop up with important goals around the edge of the penalty area.
He certainly thrived, and as a consequence was heavily linked with a return to Barcelona during the summer, hardly ruling out the possibility when in May when he said: “I would love to return to Barcelona and finish my sporting career there.”
Now, Toure is talking about instead ending his career at the Etihad Stadium, with City waiting to open talks on a new deal for one of their star players. Toure currently earns around £200,000-a-week including add-ons on a deal that runs until 2014.
Yet on current form, losing Toure would not be the catastrophe that might have been expected a few months ago.
The Ivorian has been emblematic of a City side that has failed to sparkle this season, stuck in second gear as they shake off the hangover from May’s heroics. Mancini’s men sit second in the Premier League but have been unconvincing, while they were dumped out of the Champions League in the group stage following six miserable games.
Toure has been asked by Mancini to play in a deeper role and is struggling to exert his influence on games as City play slow-paced football lacking in ideas and invention. More than ever, they look like a team full of individuals rather than a professional, purposeful team unit.
Toure has looked sluggish, his forward surges not as commonplace as this time last year, his goal record just three strikes in 16 appearances. While he is willing to do his role for the team, there is something missing in his game - and City are feeling it as a team.
Next month, he will leave for at least a month for the Africa Cup of Nations, creating further problems for Mancini as the Italian attempts to retain the title and prove to the club’s Abu Dhabi owners that he is capable of bringing global domination to the Etihad Stadium.
Toure will hope that Saturday's trip to Newcastle will inspire him - and his team-mates - to kickstart City's season.
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