AUTOMATIC PROMOTION remains a possibility for Manchester City after last night's comfortable win over Luton extended their run to 20 games with only one defeat, but the playoffs still look their most likely route back to the First Division.
City, who stood 12th going into Christmas, are now up to third, their highest position of the season, but they wasted the chance to improve their prospects by failing to build on two goals in the first 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Micky Weaver's 20th clean sheet gave him a Maine Road record.
Walsall, with more points and more games left, remain favourites to follow Fulham up without enduring the play-offs. City, however, look determined to take it to the wire - the sort of brinkmanship they are steeped in after two last-day relegations in three seasons - and set about Luton with no sign of nerves.
The on-loan Terry Cooke, the first Manchester United man to become a cult hero around Moss Side, has played a major part in City's renaissance. The fans - aware that the right-winger's pounds 1.5m move must be made permanent by 5pm tomorrow if Saturday's six-pointer at Gillingham is not to be his swan-song - chanted for Joe Royle to sign him.
Yet when the breakthrough came, with less than five minutes played, it stemmed from the opposite flank. Kevin Horlock floated the ball down the inside-left channel, where Shaun Goater leapt to help it on. Paul Dickov, a hat-trick scorer in City's 4-0 defeat of Lincoln, sprinted clear to angle a drive beyond Kelvin Davis.
Horlock, curling a corner kick in from Cooke's side, was also the provider as City increased their advantage in the ninth minute. Again the ball skimmed off a head, although this time it belonged to Luton's Tresor Kandol. Tony Vaughan plunged headlong at the far post to head his first goal of the season.
Luton looked ripe for routing, but City were guilty of over- elaboration. Michael Brown was especially culpable on the stroke of half- time, allowing Sean Dyche to dispossess him when blue shirts outnumbered orange ones by four to two.
City's hopes of regaining their early momentum suffered a setback soon after half-time. Richard Edghill, their attacking left-back, had to come off with what appeared to be a groin injury. While his replacement, Gary Mason, offered some clever, twisting runs, Davis was less busy than he can have expected to be.
Ian Bishop appeared particularly aware of the need to re-establish the tempo of the opening period, and did his best to vary the angle of attack. Some of his colleagues did not share his sense of urgency, perhaps conserving their energy in the belief that the game was won, and some casual passing produced a restless reaction from the stands.
Royle responded by taking off his top scorer, Goater, and sending on the high-rise striker Gareth Taylor. Lennie Lawrence also withdrew a forward, substituting Tony Thorpe for Kandol, but the Luton manager must have been satisfied with their resilience after such initial vulnerability.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Crooks, Morrison, Vaughan, Edghill; Cooke, Brown, Bishop, Horlock; Goater (Taylor, 67), Dickov. Substitutes not used: Robins, Mason.
Luton Town (3-4-3): Davis; Willmott, Dyche, Johnson; McGowan, Spring, McIndoe, Thomas; Kandol (Thorpe, 67), Douglas, Zahana-Oni (Fraser, 73). Substitute not used: White.
Referee: P Richards (Preston).
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