Tuesday, 3 April 2012

How have the tables turned in Manchester?

It’s a cliché that the title race is a marathon, not a sprint. But it’s a line that couldn’t be more apt in context of this season in the Premier League. The two sides from Manchester emerged as early pace-setters in the season, and as many predicted back in October, it is they who will contest for the Premiership title. But even among the two, there was, at the time, a clear favourite to win it among quite a few in the press. It was Manchester City.

Roberto Mancini's finest moment at the time... and probably for a long time.

After a few big scorelines, United seemed to fade away, culminating in that memorable 1-6 win for City at Old Trafford. City had set the standard for the league, and pulled away quite fast. It didn’t matter which one of Dzeko or Balotelli was picked, they would score. Silva was tearing defences apart at will. Getting through Kompany and Lescott, and then Hart, was a task impossible for most teams.

Meanwhile, de Gea couldn’t buy a clean sheet. Vidic’s injury appeared to have left a horrid gap in United’s defence that, post 1-6, it seemed nobody could plug. After hosting Chelsea, Wayne Rooney would huff and puff but never score. They seemed shorn of imagination and creativity without Tom Cleverley. Fletcher was sidelined for the season due to health problems. Doubts abound.

How, then, have the tables turned so dramatically in the title race?

City's defeat at Stamford Bridge was their first defeat of the domestic season. It would turn out to be the first of many
The first signs of Manchester City’s weakness came at Stamford Bridge. City’s holding midfield pair had destroyed all before them, but they struggled to contain Chelsea’s nippy trio of Ramires, Meireles and Romeu once the Blues had settled. They failed to hold a lead for the only time this season, and succumbed to defeat. It was then that the away debacle began for Roberto Mancini’s side. When it seemed a home draw was the best result one could hope for against City, there was suddenly more hope. This was re-inforced after the defeats at Sunderland and Everton, where Yaya Toure was sorely missed and suddenly both ends of the pitch posed problems.

City's reliance on this duo is showing

Their over-reliance on Silva and Aguero is showing, they’re struggling as the former is not in form, and the latter is injured. And their defence is no longer the reliable force it was. The recent shenanigans haven’t helped either. The bust-ups finally overshadowed the team in March. Balotelli’s fighting with team-mates had now gone on to the pitch. Tevez was called back, which would have no doubt enraged Dzeko and Balotelli who had performed well to get City to the top of the table. The squad is looking more and more a set of individuals rather than a unit.

Meanwhile, Manchester United began their usual string of 1-0’s in the winter, scraping wins out of dour games. Silently, they kept pace with City, ensuring the gap never exceeded 5 points. And when their rivals showed signs of weakness, they pounced as they always have. There are a couple of big factors that have seen them take off at the business end of the season: Evans’ and de Gea’s consistency at the back, and the blistering form of Antonio Valencia.

Jonny Evans - Shaky at first, but now Rock Solid at the back

The much-maligned Jonny Evans, who was given a torrid time by Balotelli, found his bearings and plugged the gap left by Vidic superbly. De Gea has also recovered from his early-season shivers to become one of the best keepers in the league. Paul Scholes returned to lend midfield stability, experience and sentiment to the squad. And Wayne Rooney's return to form in 2012 should not be overlooked.

The Ecuadorian winger has been magical for United, his performance at Blackburn typical of his season

But the most important factor is, without a doubt, Antonio Valencia’s form. Without a doubt the best winger in the league at the moment, he has scored 4 and assisted 12 in just 16 starts, giving United a handsome advantage heading into the final 7 games.

The title race is by no means over though. With a win at Arsenal this Sunday, Roberto Mancini could yet inspire his charges to the title. But it will be difficult. City must travel to Arsenal and Newcastle, and host Manchester United. United’s only fixture against a top 7 team is the trip to the Etihad.

City snapped on the easier games and maybe took their lead and form for granted. And that is something you just do not do in a title race with Manchester United.


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