Manchester City set a new record of 7 successive top-flight victories at home last night with victory over Sunderland at the City of Manchester Stadium by a solitary goal. It has been a virtue extolled by many that it’s good to get goals from midfield, which the Citizens have done frequently this term, and last night it was Stephen Ireland’s turn to get in on the act, papering over a largely forgettable match with an unstoppable volley.
Sam Allardyce and David Moyes were in attendance for this fixture with Allardyce’s Newcastle outfit due to take on the Mackems this week, then again so was Stuart Pearce, and it looked like something from the back end of Pearce’s Eastlands reign for the first 25 minutes. Sunderland pressed, showed more urgency in the tackle and more desire to get forward. Anthony Stokes ought to have done better with an early header.
City, meanwhile, missing Micah Richards, appeared bereft of invention and ideas, content to spray the ball around the back four but grinding to a halt when the ball reached Dietmar Hamann, who was excellent in breaking up attacks and keeping things simple. The tempo was poor, considering the Blues had the chance to regain third place with a win.
The crowd were being sold badly short on Bonfire Night when City’s attacking heart, Elano, started working his way into the game. Some of the lucidity, fluidity and interplay that Eriksson’s 4-5-1 system so heavily relies on in breaking down the opposition suddenly showed up as the blood began to pump on a chilly night and the juggernaut rolled into action. Elano worked his way past a couple of defenders but could only prod the ball at an untroubled Craig Gordon, before releasing Mpenza with a good angled pass but the Belgian striker could only fire harmlessly wide. Mpenza unwisely then attempted a shot from the corner of the box, and Elano fired a free-kick wastefully over from in the region of 35 to 40 yards but it was still all too easy for an obstinate Sunderland unit, who were well marshalled by Nyron Nosworthy and generally well settled into the game. Leadbitter should have done better after a comical slip by Sun Jihai allowed the visitors to break.
City fizzled out again, and somewhat worryingly for the fans it was an enforced change at the break which finally led to the opener. Darius Vassell came on for an injured Michael Johnson, switching to the left flank, while Ireland came inside and Martin Petrov, who toiled in his gloves but offered little threat all night, switched to the right flank in an attempt to find some joy.
Proceedings were so insipid that the Setanta commentators must have referred to Roy Keane being booed by the home crowd at least 4 times. Understandably, the Irishman introduced Ross Wallace and Michael Chopra, probably in anticipation that the Wearsiders could take all 3 points home with them. Chopra may have offered that extra bit of quality his side had been lacking. Indeed, Nosworthy shared the enthusiasm, attempting a volley that sailed into the side netting.
Without warning, City’s dysfunctional midfield slowly slipped into gear just as the Mackems were growing in confidence. Midway through the second half, Vassell produced an excellent turn and cross, which sailed over the head of substitute Bianchi but wasn’t missed by Ireland’s boot. Suddenly, Ireland’s shorts were down, players were smiling and Sunderland found themselves behind. Even Sven punched the air.
It was harsh on Sunderland, who did their utmost to respond. Richard Dunne didn’t appear confident of where the ball was going when he turned Leadbitter’s cross away, while Kenwyne Jones was a whisker away from reaching a dangerous Wallace cross. Sven replaced Elano with Michael Ball to offer the midfield and defence further steel, and while the last 10 minutes ensured tense viewing, City took the spoils.
The PA system blared out the 1990s track ‘No Limits’ by 2Unlimited. Let’s not get too carried away. The Blues have ridden their luck on occasions this season, the thumping that should have come at Blackburn came at Chelsea. Yet they have responded with 2 wins by a solitary goal, and let’s not forget Everton picked up 13 of them on their way to a top 4 finish in 2004-5. Top 4 is perhaps out of the question, but they will face a test of their UEFA Cup credentials with a trip to Fratton Park next up. Sunderland, meanwhile, may face a backlash from Newcastle’s 4-1 defeat against Portsmouth, of all teams, but can still take heart from their performance.
On the evidence of the 90 minutes at Eastlands, though, both of these clubs not lacking in financial resources will need to dip into the market come January to fulfil their aspirations.