Sam Wallace: Nasri picks up the baton to conduct City's run-in
After taking time to settle in, the French playmaker's form can clinch a first title in 44 years
This time last year Samir Nasri was just emerging from the abrupt and traumatic end to Arsenal's involvement in three cup competitions, although one suspects that he had decided long before then that he would be leaving the club. One year on and it is hard to deny that the move away from Arsenal he so brusquely forced through last summer is promising to pay off.
One year on and Nasri is still involved in a title race. It might be the only trophy which Manchester City have left to chase but it is rather more than Arsenal have to occupy themselves with. On Wednesday night it was Nasri's stand-out performance against Chelsea that culminated in the winning goal, the highlight of his recent run of form.
There can be little doubt that the obstinacy with which Nasri insisted he leave Arsenal last summer, threatening to sit out the final year of his deal, left a bitter taste in the mouth of some at the north London club. It epitomised Nasri's hardline attitude: that of the child prodigy who has always known what he wants in his career and is not afraid to stand his ground to get it.
City paid £25m for a player just 12 months away from being a free agent in the hope that they would be getting a Premier League star who could hit the ground running. In the event it has taken Nasri much of the season to settle in at City but when he received the return pass from Carlos Tevez on Wednesday and slipped the ball past Petr Cech, he certainly looked like he had arrived.
In the post-match press conference, in a rare moment of praise, Roberto Mancini said that Nasri could be for City what Xavi and Andres Iniesta are for Barcelona. The City manager was right in one regard – Nasri is a confidence player who needs reassurance, although even the player himself balked at this comparison. "I don't know. At the moment they are on top, and I am 24," he said. "I know that if I have confidence I can get better.
"I am someone who works with love. I like to have a 'dad' with me, then I can give everything, and that is what I am starting to feel here, that everyone is giving me the confidence – the owners and the manager. I can't say I will be like Iniesta, it would be silly to say that. But I can do my own thing." Could Mancini, the distant authoritarian, be that father figure? "He is the same age as my father, so he can be."
Nasri has not been as peripheral as some might assume this season for City. He has started 18 Premier League games, which is the ninth-highest total for any outfield player, and his goal against Chelsea was his fourth in the league for the season, just one fewer than David Silva. It was Silva's role of playmaker that Nasri assumed on Wednesday.
As the season reaches spring, Silva's high standards are undoubtedly slipping and he struggled again to break into the game on Wednesday while Nasri was more assertive. It was Silva who carried City through the early part of the season, but it may well be Nasri who takes them home. That is the benefit of having so many good players. The return of Tevez also takes some of the pressure off Sergio Aguero, although it does not seem to have affected him.
It was for opportunities such as these that Nasri left Arsenal – although we should not forget the financial consideration either – and now the chance has arrived it will be instructive to see whether he takes it. He has been tipped for greatness since he was part of a documentary as a child star in Marseilles but now at 24 has won nothing other than the Intertoto Cup for his hometown club in 2005.
Nevertheless, this is still the man who stood up to the older generation in the France squad in a row over who sat where in the team coach. There is no shortage of self-belief. "We have believed in ourselves since the first game of the season, but we showed great character against Lisbon [in the Europa League eight days ago] and again," he said. "It's a signal to United that we are here and we will be here until the end.
"You know what, I hope they [Manchester United] win all their games, and that we win all of ours, so we can play a final here [on 30 April]. It will be fantastic for the fans, and for us as well. I am sure we can win the last nine games. It's as simple as that. And if we do it, we will be champions."
It will be instructive to see if Mancini takes Silva out of the team for tomorrow's game against Stoke City in order to rejuvenate the midfielder. Silva has featured in every league game this season apart from the home win over Bolton Wanderers at the start of the month and, for him, the pace is starting to tell. Nasri has started the last three league games and is going in the opposite direction.
"I am not nervous," Nasri said. "I have played football to play in this type of game, since I was a kid. I love football, and on Wednesday, when you see the atmosphere, the crowd, and the football both teams played, everyone wants to play in this kind of game.
"You have to do something special in this kind of game. Sometimes a player can [feel] pressure, and when a team is winning they try to defend. Then it needs something to open the game. Carlos did so with his assist when I scored, and Sergio did it with the penalty. You need that in this type of game, otherwise you will not win it – the goals will not fall from the sky."
United's run-in is less taxing than that of City who, among others, have to face Arsenal at the Emirates two weeks on Sunday. Nasri has been back there once already, for the win in the Carling Cup fifth round in November, so he has some idea of what he will face. That second trip back to his former club will also require some of that famous self-belief of his, but he can be reassured that he is playing his best football of the season.
Silva down: Lost value
David Silva began the season in fine form for Manchester City but his performances have worsened dramatically since the turn of the year.
The Spaniard has also been used more sparingly by the City manager, Roberto Mancini, being substituted in eight of 17 games since Christmas, compared to eight of 27 before.
Race for the title: The next six games
Monday Fulham (h)
Mon 2 April Blackburn (a)
Sun 8 April QPR (h)
Wed 11 April Wigan (a)
Sun 15 April Aston Villa (h)
Sun 22 April Everton (h)
Tomorrow Stoke City (a)
Sat 31 March Sunderland (h)
Sun 8 April Arsenal (a)
Wed 11 April West Brom (h)
Sat 14 April Norwich (a)
Sun 22 April Wolves (a)
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