Manchester City’s schizophrenic season continued with defeat against Everton, the first of the season at Eastlands. Despite the disappointment of blowing a chance to go fourth, however, the Champions League chase is far from over but after the 2-0 loss, there is no more room for error between now and May 5, when Tottenham Hotspur venture north.
The problem is, between now and then are some mightily tough games – home to Manchester United, away to Arsenal and home to Aston Villa are the three fixtures immediately before Harry Redknapp and co come to Manchester. Picking up points ahead of that treacherous run is vital, then, and with home matches against Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City sandwiching a trip to Burnley, nine points from the next three games is not impossible. Meeting the United, Arsenal and Villa sequence on the back of three consecutive victories could give City the momentum needed to take a further set of points before what is looking more and more like a Champions League play-off between City and Spurs. It is easier said than done but Roberto Mancini needs to instil some of the fighting spirit he showed in his clash with David Moyes into his players.
How City recover from the damaging setback of giving up an unbeaten home record will define whether the season ends in humiliating failure or a satisfying accomplishment, with five of the final eight games of 2009/10 coming at the City of Manchester Stadium. Prior to Wednesday night, that fact would undoubtedly have been a key pillar in City’s Champions League push but if home form crumbles in the aftermath of the Everton earthquake, their chances of sitting at Europe’s top table will follow. Mancini has experience of title run-ins and he was dealing with players already experienced at staying the course – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira won the Serie A crown with Juventus, while Esteban Cambiasso and Luis Figo won many gongs in Spain. City’s own ranks boast many previous title winners – for that is what finishing fourth is now akin to in the Premier League – including Vieira and former Arsenal colleagues Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor, ex-United star Carlos Tevez and Shaun Wright-Phillips and Wayne Bridge, victorious with Chelsea.
The initiative is firmly with Spurs now but that can, and surely will change before the season’s end. Keeping the pressure on the Londoners is all City can do – maintaining the two point gap would mean a victory when the sides meet in just over a month sneaks the Blues into fourth with just one game left. A succession of defeats before then and the game becomes a depressing spectacle with echoes of what could have been. City have to get right back on the horse with a home victory over Wigan on Monday night, all the while hoping beleaguered Portsmouth do them an unlikely favour when they face Spurs in a pre-FA Cup semi-final taster on Saturday. For years, Spurs possessed quality players who melted under the heat of expectation but the Redknapp vintage is made of sterner stuff and will not give up their Champions League place without a fight. Perhaps one of Spurs’ future opponents will do City a favour, and the capital side to have a difficult run-in of their own – home to Arsenal and Chelsea and away at Old Trafford in consecutive games – what irony it would be if their Manchester cousins did City a rare good deed and swatted Spurs aside when the two teams meet in late April.
Relying on other results is not conducive to a happy end to the season but that is the situation City find themselves in now. They need Spurs to slip up to ease the pressure of that May tie, lest that game go ahead under the kind of strain rarely seen on the blue side of the city – the expectation surrounding the date with Everton was nothing to compared to what that Spurs game will be like if City are still in position to leapfrog their rivals. There are two other options, and they differ wildly. First, City may have climbed above Spurs by then and would be fighting to retain their perch – always excellent motivation. The final choice – Spurs have fourth place wrapped up by the time they arrive in Manchester, leading to a funereal atmosphere and further unrest at the club, but really, anything is possible when it comes to Manchester City.