It is raining goals at the City of Manchester Stadium. 14 of them in fact, in Manchester City’s last three games. Far from being a dour, defensive catenaccio inspired Coach, Roberto Mancini has taken his City team to the brink of the Champions League by simply blowing the opposition out of the water.
After losing their unbeaten home record to Everton in late March, City have recovered to blitz whoever dared stand in front of them with a hail of goals. Three – all from Carlos Tevez – went past Wigan Athletic. Six – five of them inside the first half – past Burnley – at Turf Moor. And now five more past Birmingham City, who have built their season on being hard to beat – but Mancini’s men had no such trouble. The Italian’s formation – somewhere between 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-4 – has finally clicked into gear in devastating style. Tevez, as industrious as ever, provides the vital link between attack and midfield, threat from wide comes in the shape of Craig Bellamy and the super Adam Johnson, while Emmanuel Adebayor’s resurgence is one of the most pleasing aspects of City’s season, given what the Togo captain endured in January.
Perhaps the return of Adebayor is what Mancini’s system needed – the tall, mobile and aerially-dominant striker makes for the perfect target man, someone who can receive the ball in any fashion and use it wisely. Tevez may scrap for all he is worth but when push comes to shove, the Argentine does not have the bulk to lead the line on his own. With Roque Santa Cruz perennially-injured and Benjani – now on loan at Sunderland – not up to scratch, Adebayor had to deliver – and deliver he has. The end of the season is in sight but City will not want it to come just yet – the champagne football on offer at Eastlands is the kind of play that makes supporters wish the season could last just a little longer. Champions League qualification will greatly soften that blow and with a four point lead over Tottenham Hotspur – having played a game more – and a home meeting with Spurs still to come, City’s prospects look greatly promising.
As Liverpool stutter towards the finish line – perhaps now distracted by a potential Europa League success – and beaten FA Cup semi-finalists Spurs and Aston Villa facing the tough task of regrouping from that disappointment, City have to be considered favourites to snatch fourth place. Villa’s thin squad is being pushed to breaking point while Spurs, in their biggest game of the season on Sunday, wilted under the weight of expectation – a troubling sign for their hopes of beating City to the finishing post. Harry Redknapp’s team has to at least draw with an Arsenal side gunning for the title on Wednesday night to stand any chance of pegging City back – and even then, it would likely require a Spurs victory at Eastlands, where only one team has won in the league this season. While City face a tough weekend – hosting Manchester United as they do – Spurs’ Saturday is arguably even more difficult – they host Chelsea, just days after the North London Derby and a week before their trip to Old Trafford.
In a pre-Derby week it is impossible to discuss City without reference to the visit of their Manchester cousins. The two-legged Carling Cup semi-final the sides played out in January was gripping stuff and this last clash of the 2009/10 season should be no different. After the controversial 4-3 defeat at United’s home in September – with Michael Owen’s winner coming deep into injury time – City went on a massive run of unbeaten games – not losing until December – but the vast majority of those results were draws. That City side, under Mark Hughes, clearly had goals in them but lacked the tactical discipline Mancini has instilled and, while a further scoreboard-troubling match is a distinct possibility, City’s improved back line and Wayne Rooney’s possible absence and Dimitar Berbatov’s continued under-achievement point to a lower-scoring affair – at least from the red half of the tie.
Nothing can be taken for granted in a Manchester Derby however – January’s cup disappointment re-enforced that point – but of the two teams, it is City who head into the game in the better shape and rarely has that been the case in recent years. Victory this time would mean much more than bragging rights – it could crown City’s Champions League qualification in style.