So maybe Manchester City haven’t turned the corner just yet after all.
Manager Roberto Mancini gave the impression of a man satisfied with his lot after last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Fulham at Craven Cottage, with the Italian declaring himself happy with a City display for more or less the first time this season.
But if that was meant to herald a new start for the below-par champions, then Wednesday’s extremely fortunate 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League suggests that City are yet to wake up from their early-season slumber.
Mancini has Joe Hart to thank – ironically after criticising the England keeper in the aftermath of City’s previous Champions League match against Real Madrid – for keeping the Citizens in the match and in the tournament, as defeat would have left City with it all to do to qualify for the last 16.
They still have a job on their hands as they trail Madrid by five points and Dortmund by three, but Hart’s heroics have stopped a poor start to their European campaign from being a calamitous one. But all the performance in midweek does is give credence to the theory that City are just not the side they were last season.
Containment is a risky game against a team with as many good players as City and Sunderland are not strong enough at the back (Titus Bramble, anyone?) to keep City out.
Since an opening-day win over newly-promoted Southampton, City have won just two of eight matches in all competitions, failing to keep a single clean sheet all season and the way in which the German champions created chance after chance shows that Mancini’s men remain vulnerable to those willing to have a go.
With City in trouble in Europe again, Sunderland’s trip to the Etihad for the Premier League’s Saturday lunchtime kick-off now assumes extra significance. The bookies are still taking no chances on a home win, offering up odds of 1/4, with the draw at 17/4 and the Black Cats at 23/2, and we can all forget taking that price on City because they just aren’t playing well enough.
Last season, this fixture was the only one in which City dropped points at home and the thrilling 3-3 draw was seen to have put a huge dent in their title bid. Martin O’Neill’s side were brilliant that day, putting behind them the disappointment of losing to Everton in the FA Cup quarter-final just days earlier to give City a real fright, but since that result the Wearsiders have struggled to pick up wins.
Sunderland may be unbeaten this term, but last weekend’s 1-0 win over Wigan Athletic at the Stadium of Light was the Black Cats’ first league success since March 24th, a run of 12 games without a victory.
Ten of those games were drawn, which gives you some indication of where Sunderland are at: not easy to play against, but lacking craft and guile at the top end of the pitch. The Black Cats have scored just eight goals since their last visit to Etihad – a poor return by anyone’s standards – and looking around the team it is hard to see who will score if Steven Fletcher fails to find the net.
The Scot has been a revelation since joining from Wolves, but the joy O’Neill will feel at Fletcher’s five league goals will be tempered by the fact he is the only player to score for Sunderland this season – a statistic that cannot carry on if Sunderland are to achieve anything this year.
And it is this lack of goals that has me thinking that City can finally get a clean sheet for the first time this season. As mentioned before, Dortmund showed City are still struggling at the back but I’m not sure O’Neill will have the inclination to attack the champions with much gusto, instead hoping to catch City on the break and concentrating on making themselves difficult to beat.
But containment is a risky game against a team with as many good players as City and Sunderland are not strong enough at the back (Titus Bramble, anyone?) to keep City out. I see the champions eventually breaking through against an average Sunderland side and I like the 3/2 on a home win by 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0.
That result happened in ten of City’s 19 home league matches last term and even if they are not at their best, they can nick a win and a clean sheet here.
Recommended bet: Man City to beat Sunderland 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0 @ 3/2
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