There can be few things more frustrating in football than seeing a team stocked with talent yet continue to underperform. Incompetent referees, dubious owners and hackneyed pundits are a few that spring to mind, but City fans may disagree after this latest blow to their Champions League hopes. The 2-1 loss was the second disappointing result against the Yorkshire team this season, after a 1-1 draw at Eastlands in November.
After a weekend that saw Liverpool confirm their intention to fight for fourth place until the bitter end and both Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa dropping points by virtue of their 0-0 draw, a resounding victory at the KC Stadium would have sent a warning to Rafa Benitez, Harry Redknapp and Martin O’Neill that City mean business. Instead, City let both Spurs and Villa off the hook and breathed new life into Liverpool’s season with their latest inadequate performance against a lesser Premier League team.
Fortunately for Mancini, defeats at this stage are not fatal, although we are rapidly approaching that point. Therefore it is vital that City overcome Bolton tonight and get their Champions League campaign back on track before it is totally derailed. With both Liverpool and Villa facing tough trips this week to Arsenal and Manchester United respectively, the fixtures have fallen kindly for City and they could go level on points with Rafa’s Reds if the Merseysiders fail to spring a surprise at the Emirates. They could also put daylight between themselves and Villa, providing their cross-city rivals do them a favour and take three points back to the red half of Manchester.
Bolton are in the midst of a revolution not too dissimilar to City, as Owen Coyle sets about changing the philosophy at the Reebok Stadium. Wanderers have only beaten Burnley and Sheffield United since Coyle was appointed, and as the Scot continues to settle into his surroundings, City must capitalise on the lack of familiarity amid the Bolton squad. Three points from this northwest skirmish are imperative with a significant meeting against Liverpool on the horizon towards the end of the month. The loss of Gary Cahill is a big blow to Bolton, as the former Villa centre-back had fought through the pack and on to the verge of England recognition.
With their opponents in transition, City need to remember their strengths and play to them. This is not a time to be timid – bold action is what is required and Mancini has the players to take the game to Coyle’s men, especially with Shaun Wright-Phillips returning to action. The slight midfielder was on the bench at the weekend and if he is called upon by the Italian, the sight of Adam Johnson or Martin Petrov down the left flank and Wright-Phillips on the other side will strike fear into the Bolton rearguard, as their defence comes to terms with the loss of Cahill. Emmanuel Adebayor would also welcome two genuine wingers to the supply line, with Gareth Barry and Stephen Ireland able to provide an industrious spine to the City line-up.
Conversely, perhaps Patrick Vieira will be given a first start after an impressive cameo against Hull. The Frenchman played the last 30 minutes on Saturday and looked good in possession, although old habits clearly die hard and the former Arsenal captain was promptly booked. Playing from the start would help Vieira continue his Premier League re-education ahead of the crucial tie with Benitez’s team and if there are still lingering questions over Vieira’s fitness, better to answer them against Bolton than in the forthcoming double-header with Stoke City. Bolton may be without Fabrice Muamba, so the time is ripe for the ex-Inter Milan midfielder to dominate the midfield like he did in his glory days.
It will not be an easy game – there never is in the Premier League – but it is one City have to win. Liverpool and Villa will almost certainly drop points while Spurs have a tricky visit to Wolverhampton Wanderers to contend with. Three points and favourable goal difference puts City fourth if results go their way, but they must concentrate on their own performance.