For the second year in a row Yaya Toure will depart Manchester City’s Premier League campaign to represent the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations. 12 months ago City weathered the loss of the midfielder to eventually pip Manchester United to the title, but the situation at the top of the table was a great deal different to now.
On January 21, when the Africa Cup of Nations 2012 began with a match between co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Libya, City were three points clear of United. A day later United beat Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium but City maintained their advantage with a 3-2 triumph at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Roberto Mancini’s side began their Toure-free period in the best possible way.
Toure helped inspire Ivory Coast to the final of the competition, a measure of his influence reflected in the fact that he was one of four Ivory Coast players named in the team of the tournament. But the competition ended in disappointment as Zambia shockingly beat the Elephants on penalties. By then, Toure had been substituted, withdrawn in the 87th minute.
While Toure was striving in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, City were fighting off United. The Africa Nations final was played on February 12. By then the gap was down to two points, City losing to Everton while Toure was on international duty. And the title race went back and forth for the rest of the campaign, memorably climaxing on the final day as United beat Sunderland and City beat Queens Park Rangers.
It is interesting, though, that City only gave up their points advantage after Toure returned to the fold. Potentially costly draws with Stoke City and Sunderland and a defeat to Arsenal were all recorded with Toure in the side, although he was subbed off due to injury after only 17 minutes against the Gunners. By the end of the match against Arsenal, United were seven points clear – the same lead they currently hold.
City went from a two-point lead when Toure’s international sojourn ended in late February to trailing by seven points by early April. Prior to Toure’s departure the pervading feeling was that City would miss the dynamic midfielder but, if they did, the team’s results did not really show it.
It is entirely possible Toure’s absence led to a galvanising effect on the rest of the players, with fringe members of the squad stepping up their game to cover for the loss of the former Barcelona player, and then letting their form slip once Toure was back at his day job.
If that was the case then City need the former part of the equation this time around. Toure stands to miss five matches between now and the final of this year’s tournament, if Ivory Coast reach the final again, including the visit of Liverpool. But City’s fixture list also sees matches against three teams in the bottom half of the league, so if results echo those of last year, by the time Toure returns, the title race could be a lot closer.
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