City had only themselves to blame for an anaemic first half that evoked memories of the opening 45 minutes against Sunderland. The malaise that dogs the Blues’ initial offerings is a real quandary – when they step the tempo up as they did last night, it is acceptable but a better team than Wigan would surely have held firm and dealt another blow to City’s European hopes. Conversely, Roberto Mancini’s decision to play two holding midfielders – Nigel de Jong and Patrick Vieira got the nod against Wigan – does – in theory – offer City’s defence more protection, although Vieira in particular was woefully ineffective either in the defensive third or further forward until his chipped through ball led to the first goal. If the pair of destructive players prevents the opposition getting a foothold in the match early – allowing City to push on after the break – they are doing their job – tedious viewing or not.
This kind of efficient performance may be ultimately effective – although Mancini’s early dart at half time indicates he wants more from his players – but continuing to grind out results with a defensive bent in mind will not win City any friends. Nowhere does it say Mancini has to provide entertaining football – three points are all he has to take from a game – but the sour taste the Citizens’ overnight wealth has left in the mouth of many in football will only be increased if City bore their way to the top. Mancini’s squad is still not balanced – an athletic midfielder capable of attacking and defending must be added in the summer – but the Italian knows this and tried to put it right as best he could in January. City may scrap their way into the Champions League this season and it will rarely be a spectacular effort between now and May, but getting there is the most important thing – not how they do it.
Tevez may have been fortunate to stay on the pitch – he certainly appeared to jump, two-footed, towards Caldwell in the same incident that saw the Scot dismissed – but if he received a reprieve, the No. 32 made the most of it. The 19 league goals Tevez has amassed this season is as many as he managed in two years of Premier League football at Old Trafford – a further 15 came in other competitions – and the industrious forward has been one of few undoubted plus points in this most turbulent of seasons at Eastlands. Tevez appears to have a genuine bond with the City faithful – similar to the relationship he developed with West Ham’s fan base – and of more authenticity than his link with the red half of Manchester. An emotional player, Tevez needs to feel wanted – something that he never truly felt from Sir Alex Ferguson – and City are reaping the rewards.
After the defeat at the hands of Everton last time out at the City of Manchester Stadium, City’s recovery – when judged over the full 90 minutes at least – was admirable. Their play did not seem stunted in the first half – rather lacking in ambition, a problem which blighted performances even prior to losing their unbeaten home record – but there was no fear, no bad reaction to a first loss. With key home fixtures to come against United, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, keeping a solid record on their own turf will be the difference between Europe’s top club competition and its secondary cousin, the Europa League. Away form cannot be discounted either, with a tea time trip to Burnley on the horizon next weekend, bringing with it a chance to avenge the 3-3 draw at Eastlands earlier this year.
The fixture with Wigan could have been a tricky encounter – and so it proved for the first half, until a combination of an improved City performance, incompetent goalkeeping and Caldwell’s rush of blood brought the game to a calm conclusion. Sterner tests await but City passed this one with – if not flying colours – then at least respectable ease. Mancini and co will understand, however, the real fight is just beginning.