If you take Wednesday’s game in isolation, City look some way short of the level of their opponents. But Mark Hughes’ side have shown in games against Arsenal and Chelsea that they can reach the heights needed to force their way into the top four, and while the defeat Harry Redknapp’s men inflicted on City this week is damaging, it is not lethal. There is no shame in losing to a better side, but it is how you react that is crucial. After a spell of good results most notably victories over Arsenal and Chelsea and a credible draw against the odds with Bolton – the manner in which City respond could define their season.
The Blues welcome Sunderland to the City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday and follow that up by hosting Stoke City on Boxing Day before another league game and FA Cup tie to Wolves and Middlesbrough respectively. These four games create the build up period to the Carling Cup semi-final first leg with Manchester United, also on City’s home turf. There are four decidedly winnable games for City before they face their eternal enemies, and those four games offer the perfect opportunity to banish Wednesday’s result and prepare for what could be the most important Manchester derby in decades.
Key for City now however, is not to despair over the disappointment in the capital and instead focus on what has been going right. Hughes, no doubt a fiery character, is also a pragmatic soul and will realise City’s approach to their top four assault means they will have to endure some bad results and performances. Whereas Spurs’ attempt at cracking the monotonous Champions League cartel is based on signing players that fit into the manager’s system, City have gone about their business in an alternative manner. Hughes, or perhaps his superiors, have parachuted a number of big-name players into the set-up at Eastlands and now the Welshman is tasked with moulding them into a team.
Every signing at Tottenham is intrinsically picked to fit the formation, contrary to this at City Hughes is given the players and a system is created around them. Neither way can be deemed right, or wrong but Redknapp’s manner produces a greater understanding of what is required of each player in a shorter period of time. A feat that is immeasurably helped by the purchases of players the manager knows, including Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Niko Kranjcar, all ex-Pompey. Hughes does not have such an advantage, having worked previously with only Craig Bellamy, at international level, and Roque Santa Cruz, an injury-hit bit-part figure this season. Just as City’s players are having to adapt to the manager, the manager is having to adapt to City’s players.
Strength in adversity is what City need to show. The last time they suffered a demoralising defeat, at the hands of their cousins from the Stretford End, the recovery was swift and full, with triumphs over Fulham, in the Carling Cup, and West Ham in the league. The victory – over what was a much better Hammers side than that in action today – took City to within two points of both the Red Devils and Chelsea, who were joint league leaders at the time. The three points from Gianfranco Zola’s team also secured City’s best start to a season, but all that good work was undone by the infamous series of draws that threatened to derail their Champions League push before it had started in earnest. City’s season could be characterized by what happens this time.
An impressive victory over a Sunderland side that has lost its way lately would be the perfect riposte to any doubters that have arisen following Spurs’ comprehensive victory over City on Wednesday. Steve Bruce’s Mackems had threatened to climb into the upper reaches of the Premier League after beating both Arsenal and Liverpool, but the three points they took from the Gunners in November was the last time the Black Cats tasted success. Now their season looks in danger of achieving little more than mid-table mediocrity, but Hughes will not mind heaping more misery on his former teammate.