Whisper it quietly on the blue half of Manchester, but Manchester United did their eternal rivals an enormous favour by beating Liverpool on Sunday. The Red Devils’ victory over the Merseysiders all but rules Rafa Benitez’s team out of the race for fourth – at the very least, it makes their task much more difficult. Manchester City, on the other hand, have their Champions League fate very much in their own hands, starting with the visit of Everton tomorrow.
For the last few weeks, City have pointed to their game in hand as a key reason why they will beat off competition from Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa and reach Europe’s top competition next summer. Three points from that outstanding fixture would take Roberto Mancini’s men into fourth, a point ahead of Spurs, with Harry Redknapp’s side still to visit the City of Manchester Stadium. Villa are also in action this mid-week, hosting a recently revived Sunderland, while Spurs and Liverpool have the night off. This season has seen many opportunities for City to take the initiative in the Champions League slugfest and, by and large, they have not been taken. Ji-Sung Park’s second-half header set up another chance for the Blues to grab the driver’s seat and with time ticking down to the end of the season, it may be the last chance they get.
That vital game in hand comes on Wednesday, when Everton head down the East Lancs road on the back of imperious home form but decidedly mixed results away from Liverpool. David Moyes’ side are never an easy prospect but with their own European hopes resting on the nearly half-dozen sides above them suffering an unlikely implosion, the Toffees could be forgiven for having one eye on their summer holidays. Certainly against Bolton Wanderers this weekend, Moyes’ men were unusually sluggish and only took the three points once Owen Coyle’s team had a man sent off. City’s own weekend outing was against a side with a similar motivation problem, as Roy Hodgson’s Fulham are understandably focussed on the Europa League and, to a lesser extent, the FA Cup. City still have to take advantage however – which they did fully at Craven Cottage.
The victory over Hodgson’s European heroes was the third consecutive away game City have had to endure, but from those three trips – to Chelsea, Sunderland and Fulham – an invaluable seven points have been gleaned. Form at Eastlands has been excellent all season – indeed, City are currently unbeaten on their own turf, with a draw against Burnley the only real black mark – but points gained on their travels will be just as important and the three aforementioned fixtures were – on paper – difficult propositions. The performance at Chelsea was impressive, the second-half at Sunderland even more so (although the less said about the first 45 minutes the better), while Sunday’s jaunt down by the Thames gave rise to another solid away display, led by the buccaneering Craig Bellamy and industrious Carlos Tevez. Roque Santa Cruz’s goal will also do wonders for the Paraguayan’s confidence.
Prior to this recent run of superb away results, much comfort will have been taken from the fact that of City’s last nine games, six were at home. That will still be the case, but Mancio’s version of City has proven far more adapt at leaving the comfort of Eastlands than Hughes’, and with trips to relegation strugglers Burnley and West Ham to come, further points on the road could be vital. If City maintain this recent spell of away form and combine it with continued success on their own ground, trips to Europe’s top sides will follow next year. That brings us back to tomorrow’s game, however, as defeat to Everton would send the initiative back to White Hart Lane, practically gift wrapped at that. A draw would be tolerable but only serve to heap more pressure on the meeting between City and Spurs on May 5.
If City needed any more motivation for beating Everton – as if Champions League qualification was not enough – they need do no more than cast their minds back to mid-January, when Everton embarrassed City at Goodison Park. Mancini’s side has improved greatly since then – they now play like a team, not a collection of individuals – and showing it tomorrow would not only bring sweet revenge, but also a firm shove towards the Champions League.