Even if now is not quite the time to shed tears in mourning for Manchester City’s faded hopes, the early afternoon kickoffs of Sunday 11 March may come to be recognised as a pivotal 90 minutes in the Premier League title race.
At this late stage of the season, intangibles hitherto unconsidered become essential. Momentum, the weight of history, the ability to carry the burden of expectation and pressure: each of these carries with it an increasingly great significance as the season reaches its crescendo. Matches which may have been viewed as bankers in the optimistic Autumn gain an altogether tougher hue, and eyes are cast to the results of others. It is in such circumstances that focus slips, points are dropped and ground is ceded.
Manchester United are notoriously experienced in dealing with such issues. Under Sir Alex Ferguson’s tutelage they nosed ahead of Arsenal during the treble-winning season of 1998/99 and, did likewise in 2002/03. In recent seasons they have eschewed their once trademark swashbuckling style, battening the hatches to resist the challenge of Chelsea in 2007/08 and 2008/09. Although they failed to match Newcastle’s exhilarating football throughout much of 1995/96, they nevertheless incrementally, mechanically maintained form as Kevin Keegan’s men faltered. The parallels with this Manchester City team are disconcertingly obvious.
It is a record borne of tenacity and talent; of an aptitude for keeping clean sheets, retaining possession and hitting late goals. Definitive moments – moments that turn seasons and win titles – go in their favour.
At the Liberty Stadium facing Swansea, Manchester City were faced with a definitive moment of their own. Although City’s more incisive approach saw them outnumber Swansea’s shots on goal by 22 to 12, they never truly tested the imperious Michael Vorm. For large periods they were frustrated, chasing Swansea’s Barcelona-lite carousel, ceding 55% of possession to Brendan Rogers’ aesthetes. The rhythm and the relentless attacking momentum that has asphyxiated so many opponents this season could not be built up. It was time for City to stand firm and to try to eke out a late, undeserved winner.
Instead City faltered. Nigel de Jong stood motionless in the penalty area, expecting Micah Richards to follow Luke Moore’s run. Richards was unprepared. Both defenders shirked responsibility, leaving Moore with a free header and City pointless. It was the third winning goal conceded this season with moments to spare; heartbreak to match that suffered at the Stadium of Light and Stamford Bridge earlier in the season.
The manner of the goal, the manner of the defeat, was not befitting of champions. It was a defeat borne of naivety and inexperience, one that, you suspect, would not have been tolerated at Old Trafford. The gap at the top is minimal, and will remain as such until the climax. If City want it to be in their favour, they need to pick up the habits of title-winners, and fast.
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