London: It’s been suggested Roberto Mancini was hauled into a meeting with Manchester City’s new director of football Txiki Begiristain shortly before the big game at home to Tottenham on Sunday, and was told in no uncertain terms that the club’s performances must improve.
Begiristain’s principal concerns will be City’s pitiful display in the Champions League – though it seems to be easily forgotten just how absurdly tough their group is in that competition. All the same, Mancini has been looking like a man who’s been put through the mill a few times of late.
The British media find both him and Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas easy targets, and while AVB has been questioned on his curious rotation of goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Hugo Lloris, Mancini’s angry denial of rumours linking him to a move to Monaco perhaps persuaded him to duck out of his pre-match media engagements completely on Friday.
So it must have been pretty satisfactory for Mancini to emerge with a come-from-behind win against a decent Spurs side, especially given that his predominantly bad luck with referees cropped up yet again. Referee Michael Oliver denied City two very good penalty shouts in the first half, both coming after Steven Caulker had headed home a poorly defended free kick to give the visitors the lead at the Etihad Stadium.
Mancini changed tactics early in the second half, pulling off the under-pressure central defender Matija Nastasic and replacing him with the experienced wing-back Maicon. This enabled a switch from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-5-2 which is catching on across the Premier League as a de facto change-up strategy.
What nobody expected was Maicon to be such a valuable force down the right. What we did expect was more of Yaya Toure. And what we actually got were two City goals, the first supplied by Toure and finished adroitly by Sergio Aguero, the second coming very late in the piece from Edin Dzeko (who else?), following a brilliant pass from David Silva. The Spaniard’s return from a month-long injury break was instantly impressive, but not everyone from the light blue camp shone.
Aleksandar Kolarov and Gareth Barry were the most obvious disappointments. Though these two occasionally play very well, their quality tends to be lifted by those around them and it remains curious that they are among this expensively-assembled squad’s most frequent starters.
Impressive though it was, City’s comeback wasn’t as breathtaking as Manchester United’s. This was the eighth time this season they’d won a game after conceding the first goal. And it’s only November! You almost get the feeling they prefer to toss away the initiative.
Andreas Weimann scored Villa’s first goal late in the first half. Then Javier Hernandez, who has now found the net seven times in his last five matches, was subbed on by Alex Ferguson at the start of the second half. But United were soon staring at a two-goal deficit when Gabriel Agbonlahor served up a tasty cross, Weimann again the beneficiary.
Inevitably, United were able to turn it around. While one goal came via a fortunate deflection off an Aston Villa defender, the others were down to the brilliance of Hernandez and his lethal finishing. The first assist came from one of United's oldest players — Paul Scholes; the second from their newest, Robin van Persie. It’s been like this for so long: as the seasons roll into years and eventually decades, Ferguson, United and stirring late winners are one of life’s constants.
So it was only left to Chelsea to complete the set as the top three went in search of victories. Except it wasn’t to be - the Blues made the error of scoring the first goal.
Liverpool actually started very brightly as Brendan Rodgers interestingly went for 3-5-2 (5-3-2 when defending) from the very start. But when a Reds attack was broken down after the ball struck referee Howard Webb, Chelsea’s counter-attack forced a corner and John Terry buried his header. Although Terry soon had to come off with a potentially serious injury, Chelsea were excellent up until half-time but failed to convert a couple of chances, whereas in the second half Liverpool – often through the diligent work of Luis Enrique up and down the left flank – were consistently competitive.
They finally scored from their first attempt on goal, a corner flicked on brilliantly (by Jamie Carragher of all people) and Luis Suarez getting the final touch.
Suarez was mostly well patrolled by Branislav Ivanovic and Chelsea could generally be pleased with their defensive display. All the same, it needed two fine saves from Petr Cech late on for Roberto di Matteo’s side even to gather a point.