MANCHESTER City's target for the season was to make history, and now
they stand on the brink of a feat last achieved four decades ago.
The problem is that it is not the
landmark achievement they truly covet. While a first title since 1968
has become more improbable with City dropping five points in three
games, their home form has remained impeccable.
A win against Sunderland today would be a 21st
successive league victory on their own turf, equalling the record that
Bill Shankly's Liverpool set in 1972.
Not since Fulham drew 1-1 at the Etihad Stadium in February 2011 have any team departed with as much as a point.
If the facts suggest Sunderland's chances are
minimal, they are nonetheless a reason why City have lost their lead in
the league table. Martin O'Neill's resurgent team beat them on New
Year's Day, one of four defeats suffered in their last eight away games.
The Etihad Stadium has offered respite, but
home can only provide so much comfort. City can overhaul Manchester
United, who do not play until Monday, with three points today, but are
unlikely to overcome them without an improvement on the road.
First, however, they need to see off Sunderland, preferably with encouraging signs for the rest of the campaign.
So, principles and pride may have to be
swallowed. Carlos Tevez, the man who refused to warm up and come on for
the club in September, may be parachuted back into the starting 11.
He has made two cameos as substitute and, with Sergio Aguero out with a foot injury, City will need him.
Because Edin Dzeko, who began the season with a
glut of goals, has only five in his last 25 games. Mario Balotelli has
been exasperating and infuriating, rather than exhilarating and
irrepressible, over the last month.
In addition, David Silva, the putative player
of the year, has of late failed to replicate his autumnal excellence.
Gareth Barry has been a fading force in the midfield. Those who have
maintained their form throughout, like Yaya Toure and Aguero, have
become the exceptions, not the rule.
If Tevez's presence is controversial - United
manager Alex Ferguson branded it 'desperate' - one man whose return
should be welcomed by the City fans is the captain Vincent Kompany, who
has been suffering from a hamstring injury.
Yet, though City have conceded in each of
their last three league games, the problem has not really been at the
back. Resilient opponents are finding it easier to frustrate them,
compressing the play in the centre of the pitch because of City's lack
of natural width.
It gives Mancini a reason to recall not just Tevez but Adam Johnson, a winger who adds the unpredictable.
Because, while their home results have been
relentlessly familiar, they need to do something different to wrest the
crown from United.