Chasing down United's lead is Mancini's priority in a must-win game for City
SOCCER ANGLES:Manchester City’s visit to Norwich today is far from a routine mid-season hurdle, writes MICHAEL WALKER
Manchester City must win at Norwich today. The fixture has been transformed this week from a routine hurdle for the Premier League champions into something much more meaningful. City are seven points behind neighbours United and if that grows to nine or 10 points then Roberto Mancini and the rest at Eastlands can start planning for next season.
Manchester City should win at Norwich. It was only in April that City travelled to Carrow Road and rattled six past the hosts, then managed by Paul Lambert. Given that City won the title on goal difference, those six goals were important.
Carlos Tevez got a hat-trick that day, Sergio Aguero snaffled two. City’s other scorer was Adam Johnson. On Wednesday that last detail felt like one of those gentle nudges the game gives out from time to time. Mancini felt it.
The Italian was as generous as he gets in his praise of Johnson – “clever” – after the former City winger pinged in a 25-yarder that caught Joe Hart unaware and anxious, and which sealed a 1-0 win for Sunderland at the Stadium of Light that most definitely ruined Mancini’s smoky attempt at Christmas cheer.
Mancini’s instant response to only the second league defeat of the season was to reduce its significance. This is what managers do, but deep down, when it is end of season time and if City have not retained their title, Mancini may well mention the afternoon at Sunderland when the bulletins from Old Trafford said that Newcastle were in the lead – three times.
There was an echo of the final afternoon of last season here. Then it was United at Sunderland awaiting news from City. When it came, at first, United thought they were champions. When it came again, Aguero had scored and the title had swung to City.
On Wednesday the swing went United’s way, which is why Norwich suddenly looms for Mancini Co. City must win, and they should do so, because while Norwich and Chris Hughton have earned the compliments they have been given for reaching 25 points so quickly – 37 kept QPR up last season – the Canaries have lost their last two.
Norwich have already beaten United, Arsenal (and Sunderland) at Carrow Road but Hughton knows his season’s success or failure will not be defined by a home game against Manchester City.
Hughton’s squad are 15 points clear of Reading and QPR and 10 ahead of Wigan. Three or four more victories in the 19 games remaining and Norwich will have secured a third consecutive season in the top flight. For them that is a triumph.
It means Norwich should have a certain freedom today, Hughton might even have one eye on the next home game – against Newcastle. For Man City there is no such luxury.
With United again at Old Trafford, against West Brom, City will think that three points at Norwich will only maintain the gap to the leaders rather than cut it. But you never know, as Sunderland showed so impressively on Wednesday.
Mancini was critical of his attackers then, yet Tevez and Aguero had demonstrated real understanding in the first half. City looked a force. In midfield Yaya Toure seemed ready to unleash his full power upon Wearside. As news came through of United’s wobbles, the thought that City have a better first XI than United’s did not seem outlandish.
The thought that United are a team that lack defensive discipline without Nemanja Vidic has not gone away either. United are seven points clear at the top of the Premier League and yet if they lose today to West Brom, plenty will say the result was coming.
United are far from certainties. This should give City, and Chelsea, hope. But a tussle for the title means that City must rediscover their own certainty. Yaya Toure finding the skilful zeal with which he tore through teams last season is a priority. Aguero and Tevez are simply too talented not to convert chances. David Silva is not the creative dynamo he was last season but then he has been injured, and there is time.
What City do require is a companion for Vincent Kompany. Matija Nastasic may one day be the answer but not just yet. Joe Hart must also eradicate the mistakes. In England the memory of Hart’s part in the famous Zlatan Ibrahimovic hat-trick is strong.
And Mancini must also find something. Considering he signed a new five-year contract six months ago, Mancini’s position should not be in doubt. It will be if City do not mount a credible, threatening challenge.
But sport loves a comeback, even if it involves the world’s richest club. Should City do it from here, from seven points adrift, then even the Champions League misery might be excused. Chasing down United is an idea that should inspire. Norwich is where City’s comeback simply must begin.
Battle of the Blues Plenty at stake for both Everton and Chelsea at Goodison
It might sound odd to include Chelsea as potential Premier League title winners given that they are 11 points behind Manchester United, but it would be odder to dismiss a club with a squad as strong as this one and with a January transfer window about to open. Besides, Chelsea have a game in hand on the two above them. Just how strong Chelsea really are will be seen tomorrow when they visit Goodison Park. Chelsea have not won there since the days when Joe Cole was in the line-up and there have been several bad moments at Everton, including the termination of Carlo Ancelotti’s stewardship.
Tomorrow there is also the factor of Rafa Benitez going back to Merseyside, but it is the action on the pitch that will be telling. Everton are one of only two Premier League sides unbeaten at home this season – Stoke are the other.
In fact, Everton have not lost at Goodison since March. David Moyes will be motivated by the presence of Benitez.
Everton won’t be short of commitment and they have players who can hurt any team– ask United.
There is also the knowledge that a home win would lift Everton above Chelsea. It would be a significant statement of intent should Everton win. All of this enticing pressure would make the avoidance of defeat a small victory for the visitors.
An away win would be a calling card all of its own. By the way, Chelsea won at Norwich on Wednesday.