Money could not buy The Beatles love, and for football teams, all the riches in the world will not buy one of the most vital characteristics of success – team spirit. By coming from behind against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday however, Manchester City showed the world they posses that particular attribute in spades.
Last week, A Different League wrote that victory over Bolton was vital if City are to be real contenders for a Champions League spot. That, however, was before two of their three main rivals for fourth place – Aston Villa, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – lost. Not for the first time, Blues fans were left cursing their cross-city neighbours, but on this occasion it was because of Manchester United’s failure to take three points from Martin O’Neil’s side. Villa’s victory put them in pole position for the last seat at Europe’s top table, but with a long way to go until reservations are finalised, City have proven they have the stomach for a fight.
The defeats suffered by Liverpool and Spurs mean that instead of dropping two points thanks to the draw at the Reebok Stadium, City have gained a point on the Merseysiders and clawed one back from Harry Redknapp’s side. Having gone behind, the Citizens displayed admirable spirit to draw level three times in the face of some poor officiating – Bolton’s first goal appearing offside, while Craig Bellamy, so often the agitator, was wrongly sent off for a second yellow card after Mark Clattenburg decided the Welshman had dived. The contact from Wanderers’ full-back Paul Robinson may have been minimal at best, but for a player moving at Bellamy’s speed, the adjustment that is forced by the attempted challenge can be enough to send you sprawling. While that does not make it a free-kick, it is not a dive either.
Despite having suffered a streak of draws earlier in the season, the tie with Bolton actually continued City’s run of improved displays. The three Bolton goals did not come from poor defending, so often City’s Achilles heel, but rather a couple of excellent finishes, particularly from Gary Cahill, and Klasnic’s aforementioned offside tap-in. Cahill’s strike, a curling, dipping left-footed effort from more than 20 yards, was a one-in-a-million goal that the burly centre-back will likely never repeat – you know a goal is special when a Shay Given at full stretch cannot do anything about it.
Surprisingly, given their manager’s fiery playing style, City have been too passive at times this season, too willing to let the game pass them by instead of taking it to the opposition, but now Mark Hughes’ players are showing the determination that marked him out as a player and are reaping the benefits. With such an influx of new faces over the summer, a settled team dynamic was always going to need time to develop and it is a credit to Hughes and his backroom staff that it appears to be coming along nicely. The spirit in the camp will be fully tested, however, by the trip to White Hart Lane on Wednesday.
A victory for City would take them two points clear of Redknapp’s side with a game in hand, but after their defeat by Wolves, Spurs are a wounded animal and will be looking to extend their single-point advantage over the Manchester side. Spurs’ recent form has been shaky since their hammering of Wigan Athletic in November. That was four games ago, and Spurs have not won any of them. Hughes’ men are more than capable of going to White Hart Lane and getting a victory in Spurs’ current state, but it will require a similar level of performance to the last time City faced London opposition – the 2-1 victory over Chelsea.
It is not easy to maintain intensity throughout a 38-game season, but City have the squad depth to do it. Few teams will be able to cope with the Blues at their strongest, even if we have yet to see them reach quite that level yet this term. But the signs are good for Hughes, as his team’s form is improving as the season progresses and with the opportunity to further strengthen his squad next month, the second half of the season holds plenty to look forward to for everyone at the City of Manchester Stadium. As John, Paul, George and Ringo might have put it; it’s getting better all the time.