Before Tuesday, when Sunderland took on Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City would have been relishing a trip to the North East but the Mackems’ convincing defeat of Owen Coyle’s side has thrown a spanner into the works. What looked like being a straight-forward away trip has instead been given a worryingly sharp edge, while a lack of action begs the question if City have kept their own jagged blade that put Chelsea to the sword a few weeks ago.
City’s last outing was that superb victory at Stamford Bridge, way back on February 27. Of the other Champions League contenders, only Liverpool have played in the league since that weekend, losing away to Wigan Athletic on Monday, while both Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur were in the FA Cup competition. The Blues have instead had to sit on the sidelines, unable to build on the success in London. Far from bemoaning playing too many games, in this instance City would have welcomed fixtures coming thick and fast.
Now the Blues’ players are pressed back into service, securing European football remains the aim. Sitting fifth, City currently have one hand on a ticket into the continent’s secondary competition, the Europa League, but as the game of musical chairs that is the Champions League qualification fight continues, it could be snatched from their grasp sooner rather than later. Qualification for the Europa League would be a disappointment after sitting fourth for large portions of the season but at the same time, leaping from last year’s placing of tenth would be impressive progression, and a place in the Europa League is much better than missing out on Europe all together.
The Champions League remains City’s ultimate goal this season, and watching with a more than pang of envy as their eternal rivals Manchester United strolled past Milan on Wednesday night will have crystallised that desire more than ever. The roar from Old Trafford as a Wayne Rooney-inspired United made easy work of the Italian giants will have been heard loud and clear at Eastlands and that will surely spur the supporters onwards in the quest to sit at Europe’s top table. Whether it has the same effect on the Blues’ players and management remains to be seen.
By the time City kick-off on Sunday lunchtime, of the Citizens’ European rivals only Tottenham will have been in action, a day earlier at home to Blackburn Rovers. Liverpool have another Monday evening date, this time with Portsmouth, while Villa travel to Stoke on Saturday and Wigan on Tuesday night. While there may be no guarantees in Premier League football, the Reds appear to have the easiest game of the four, followed by Spurs who host a Rovers side safe from relegation but too far adrift to reach Europe themselves. Knowing Spurs’ result when they meet Sunderland could be beneficial to City, as they are level on points with Harry Redknapp’s side and so matching or bettering their score line keeps the pressure on the Londoners.
With their three rivals for fourth place all having other competitions to occupy their minds – Liverpool with the Europa League, Spurs and Villa the FA Cup – City can afford to go full pelt in each of their 11 remaining games. With probably the strongest squad of the four hopefuls, at least on paper, the Blues can call on more options than any of the other Champions League dreamers but their stars have at times failed to shine. With the Champions League in touching distance and less than a dozen more top-draw performances needed to get there, Roberto Mancini must coax the requisite displays out of his key players – Shay Given in goal, Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany in defence, Gareth Barry in midfield and Carlos Tevez, Craig Bellamy and Emmanuel Adebayor in attack.
Despite being a place off their ideal position, the ball is in City’s court. Holding a game in hand over Spurs, Mancini’s side have the advantage although some would argue having the points is what is important. The extra game is at home – against Everton – and City’s Eastlands form is such that it can be expected at least one point will come from the meeting with the Toffees. The Blues are unbeaten at the City of Manchester Stadium, the only team in the league to boast such a record, and even a draw would take them above Spurs. That game in hand will be wasted, however, if City fall under the Black Cats’ spell this weekend.
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