Can City roll back the year Unbeaten but below par so far, champions must find the swagger that clinched them title
22:51 GMT, 7 December 2012
April 30 was the last time Manchester City beat a genuinely first-rate opponent in any competition. Sunday at the Etihad Stadium would be a good time to do it again.
Champions win big games, don’t they Not these champions. Not this year.
Since that seismic night in east Manchester towards the end of last season – when they beat Manchester United 1-0 to retake control in the Barclays Premier League title race – Roberto Mancini’s City team have come up a little short in the really important games.
Remember this City captain Vincent Kompany heads home the winner against United that set up the title win
Unbeaten in the league they remain – and that’s some feat in itself these days – but games against Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund have passed this season without City making the sort of statement that turns heads.
‘We didn’t play any games in June, July and didn’t play much in August,’ was Mancini’s quick-witted reply when this was put to him during a noticeably relaxed press conference on Friday morning.
Deep down, though, Mancini will know that the contrasts between this season and last are stark.
A year ago, City had already won 5-1 at Tottenham, 6-1 at United and were about to win 1-0 at Arsenal. If you are to win domestic titles then, at some stage, markers need to be laid down and so far this season they have been absent.
This time, a win at West Brom and a home victory over Tottenham – both secured by late goals – is as good as it has got for Mancini.
Off the pace: City were beaten by Dortmund in midweek
As they prepare to meet their rivals for the first time this season, City could perhaps do with the adrenaline shot another local triumph would bring.
‘I don’t think we have the same quality this season that we showed in the first 15 games of last season,’ admitted Mancini.
‘This season we have had big problems with injuries and the year after you win a title is always more difficult.
‘We had a problem with the defence at the start of the season when we were conceding too many goals. Now we have improved that situation but we need to improve the output from our strikers. If we can start to score I think we can improve again.
‘United have also scored 10 more goals than us. Our season depends on our strikers. If we start to score like last year we will have a big chance.’
Key man: Sergio Aguero hasn't yet hit the heights of last season
Almost halfway through their season as defending champions and City’s efforts – domestically at least – are certainly worthy of a ‘B’ grade. United, playing catch-up after the heartbreak of last season, perhaps deserve about the same.
One can’t escape the feeling, though, that it is City who head into Sunday’s game with something to prove, as much to themselves as everybody else. Only occasionally this season have Mancini’s team played with the authoritative strut of champions.
It has, it must be said, all been rather patchy, and patchy doesn’t win you titles.
‘We’ve beaten Tottenham this season,’ said Mancini. ‘We did well in drawing at Chelsea, when all we were missing was a goal, and against Arsenal we deserved to win. They scored in the last 10 minutes.
‘When you consider all the problems we have had since the start of the season, I think it is a good thing that we are only three points behind United.’
Highlight: City beat Tottenham at the Etihad Stadium last month
Certainly, it is hard to disagree with Mancini’s last point. Despite the fuss surrounding the club this season – some warranted and some not – City remain very much in the thick of things and the improvement that must surely come may yet sweep them past their neighbours and off towards the horizon.
Across town – or literally over the fence when it comes to the clubs’ training grounds – United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was understated on Friday.
It is often the way when he looks at the league table and sees that things are moving his way.
Nevertheless, despite being three points clear at the top of the Premier League after 15 games, Ferguson’s team cannot defend at the moment, and this is something that could trouble them if City do manage to find some kind of rhythm on Sunday.
Defensive woes: United conceded three at the Madejski Stadium last weekend
As Sir Bobby Charlton points out in these pages, City do present United with a problem when it comes to the physical strength of their side. It is clear that players such as Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure will be important at both ends of the field.
Ferguson may yet be tempted to throw fit-again central defender Nemanja Vidic back into the fray after a knee injury as he looks to bring some beef to the heart of United’s back line.
He must also hope for improvement from his goalkeeper, though, whichever one he decides to pick.
Ahead of this game, United appear to have a slight edge and a better mindset. But that can change quickly.
A proper City performance may once again change the landscape.