Yaya Touré was always going to be a critical absence at the formative stage of a Manchester City season now showing the potential for full-blown catastrophe. But if they could not cover for the big man, who could?
It is a reality that Roberto Mancini – to his credit as a football man of some honesty rather than a skilful self-publicist – maybe acknowledged when he took the blame for the ultimately wretched performance in the 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park on Tuesday. Some eyebrows were raised by Mancini's candour, but some desperate times demand desperate remedies. What Mancini (right) could not indulge in was even a hint of deflected blame as David Moyes celebrated his fifth triumph over the Italian in six collisions.
Mancini scourged himself for sub-par preparation but the problem seemed to run deeper. City looked like a team of dwindling belief and the challenge facing Touré when he returns from Africa might well be daunting even for him.
Telling, perhaps, was the expression of James Milner after making way for Adam Johnson. Milner has produced some magnificent performances in the face of his team's diminishing certainties and most notably in the rally against Manchester United in the FA Cup.
On Tuesday night, his face was a grim mask as he watched his team-mates drift from one point of confusion to another. Indeed, one camera shot offered more than a hint of the expression which overcame Cesc Fabregas, also a spectator, when he considered Arsenal's failure in last year's Carling Cup final at Wembley. A harsh and somewhat premature conclusion, you might say, but it is a comparison which will come more sharply into focus if City falter again any time soon.
Banished from the Champions League, out of the FA Cup and the Carling Cup, City are threatening to match Arsenal's fall. They have become not so much the unstoppable horse as a one-trick pony. Still, as we are constantly told, winning the title for the first time since the team of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison did it 44 years ago might unlock so many other possibilities.
What has to be shown, clearly, is something that disappeared quite disturbingly this week. It was the swagger of natural-born champions-elect. This is the time of the season when champions-elect show their credentials, move up their self-assurance a notch or two, and if this week anyone has even hinted at this it is certainly not City. Sir Alex Ferguson has rarely been so jaunty as when United were brushing aside Stoke 2-0 at the same time as City were floundering on Merseyside.
Harry Redknapp may also have briefly reflected that if Jermain Defoe had appreciated a fraction more quickly the brilliant weight Gareth Bale put on a late cross at the Etihad Stadium, City would now be in third place.
Such conjecture, of course, never got a football man anywhere, but then nor did the kind of navel-gazing produced by Mancini in still another defeat. His assistant Brian Kidd felt, as a rising United star, the force of City's emergence all those years ago. He might point out the key was an astonishing level of confidence, a belief that the team of Bell and Lee had become unstoppable. They proved this when they carried the title in their last two matches with wins at Tottenham and Newcastle.
Any comparison with that mood and the one City took to Goodison Park this week has to be forlorn. Yes, 1968 is a long time ago but some things in football never change. High among them is the need of a manager to make his players feel good. This is hard when his body language so often speaks of despair.Reuse content