In-form Tottenham a massive test for faltering Man City

Lose to Spurs and City may feel pressure from United for Champions League spot

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini: “It’s not a decisive game but a very important game – after we play for another 36 points.” Photograph: Andrew Yates/Livepic

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini: “It’s not a decisive game but a very important game – after we play for another 36 points.” Photograph: Andrew Yates/Livepic

 

Manchester City’s dismal record against the top half of the Premier League is the Achilles heel in their title challenge.

City have failed to beat the top three of Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, and have lost to them all. They have no victories over any top-six side, and only three wins against the rest of the top 10.

This casts Manuel Pellegrini’s men as flat-track bullies who cower when a serious opponent is put before them.

It means the arrival of second-placed Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium today will hardly fill City or their fans with confidence, especially as Mauricio Pochettino’s team handed them a 4-1 hiding in September’s reverse fixture.

Upper half

The flakiness that is City’s fault-line was on show again before their own crowd last Saturday when Leicester swarmed over a more gilded XI that contained David Silva, Yaya Toure, Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero to give them a 3-1 hammering.

The 3-1 victories over Southampton, who are seventh, and Everton (eighth), plus the 2-0 and 2-1 wins over 10th-placed Watford are City’s only triumphs over clubs in the upper half of the table. The 2-1 defeat at Arsenal in December means City’s best result against their three title rivals is the goalless draw at Leicester.

Put simply, Pellegrini and his players scramble for answers when serious pace and skill come hurtling at them.

At their best City, are a fluid proposition of neat passes and bursts of forward movement that put a contest out of reach. But their rhythm is easily upset when they are hounded and space squashed, as the league leaders illustrated last week.

Then, in Vincent Kompany’s absence, Toure began his day as captain and ended it by being hooked after 52 minutes. It is a telling sign of how City were rattled by the zest of Claudio Ranieri’s side and offers a pointer to Pochettino regarding the best strategy for Spurs tomorrow.

Despite the summer injection of youth in Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Fabian Delph (the latter two have long-term injuries), City continue to rely on a creaky spine of Kompany, Silva, Toure and Aguero.

Each of these A-listers is again enduring an injury-disrupted campaign, their star talent undone by physiologies increasingly susceptible to the collateral damage caused by English football’s relentless campaign.

As Pellegrini says, his list of maladies is long, totalling seven. Alongside De Bruyne and Delph those unavailable are Jesus Navas, Wilfried Bony, Samir Nasri, Eliaquim Mangala and Bacary Sagna.

The shaft of light here is the expected return of Kompany after a serious calf injury.

“He has been working three weeks without problem,” said the manager, who reports that Silva has recovered from an ankle problem.

If Kompany starts for the first time since November 8th he might well stiffen a shaky rearguard. Against Leicester the centre-backs Martin Demichelis and Nicolas Otamendi were easily bypassed.

Best defenders

“You’ve seen Kompany play for so many years,” Pellegrini said. “I don’t have to say what qualities he brings – he’s one of the best defenders in the league.”

The Chilean may be being careful with the truth when he says: “It’s not a decisive game but a very important game – after we play for another 36 points. . . Maybe it was an unexpected defeat against Leicester. Now we must play well against Spurs. Spurs is a good team, they are involved in the title with 13 games to go.”

The worsening medical bulletins and the wobble against Leicester come as City embark on their season’s defining phase. The club are fighting on four fronts. After the meeting with Tottenham they travel to Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round next Sunday, play at Dynamo Kyiv the following Wednesday in the Champions League last-16 first leg, and are back in London four days later for the League Cup final against Liverpool at Wembley.

Pellegrini has to plot his way through this while juggling depleted resources. Lose against Tottenham and there is also the spectre of Manchester United catching City for the final Champions League berth. If Louis van Gaal’s fifth-placed side defeat Sunderland today they will close to within three points. Guardian Service

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