There are plenty of people at Manchester City who dare not hope for too much, heading into this potentially defining weekend. Not just because City are a “strange” team – as Gary Neville put it in an analysis which every other Liverpool fan has been quoting since Sunday to anyone who will listen. But because they have never quite shaken off what Joe Royle – who always kept a drinks coaster designed as a panic button (“press here”) – called “City-itis”.
It is that capacity to implode, still in evidence two years ago on the day they conspired to turn a regulation 1-0 half-time lead over Queen’s Park Rangers into a near disaster before winning the Premier League title. Samir Nasri has this week been remembering the occasion, citing the experience of it as “crucial” and drawing parallels between Manchester United’s fateful 4-4 draw with Everton that spring and Liverpool’s defeat to Chelsea a week ago that has put the title back in City’s hands. But their dropped points against Sunderland 17 days ago demonstrate how few certainties there are here.
The club is still looking for empirical evidence that Manuel Pellegrini can experience something other than what Steve Coppell felt after half a dozen games in charge 18 years ago. “Manchester City are making me ill,” he complained, before leaving.
Nasri, one of the players reborn under Pellegrini’s management, articulated City’s sense that they have been brought back from the dead by Chelsea’s win at Anfield. “We have to understand that now we are in this position. It’s a miracle,” he said, wondering aloud whether any side had won the Premier League on goal difference twice. (No, they haven’t). It is actually hard to know where City’s motivation is coming from because Pellegrini communicates so little, though the club could certainly draw on the fact that they still seem so unloved.
A prevailing emotion at City is one of mild indignation about how the national football conversation, beyond their own fanbase, has not accounted for the fact that Pellegrini, as much as Jose Mourinho, has been in transition these past nine months. While Mourinho has managed to use his press conferences to project things as a work-in-progress, the assumption has been that Pellegrini, new to the Premier League, should have delivered from the off.
The public appetite for a City title is not enhanced by Uefa’s Financial Fair Play regime now hitting them, unfairly bracketing them with Paris Saint-Germain among those who have not complied, when there is a world of difference between the French club’s seeming gross indifference to Michel Platini’s regime and City falling narrowly short of compliance. With the last of the big wage-earners of City’s accelerated growth period – Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Wayne Bridge and Gareth Barry – now off the books, they could break even in this financial year. The collective transfer fees United paid out for Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata was £120m; City paid £121m for Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Touré, Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart and Nasri. This is a club doing what they always said they would – moving towards sustainability after initial accelerated growth.
It is even harder to get the rest of the world to see things that way when such an idealistic story as Liverpool’s is playing out. At Goodison Park – where City today take a perilously poor record of one win and seven defeats in 10 games – they will just be seen as the club with the most complete squad, who should have put things to bed by now.
They are the one side in the three-way title chase who combine attacking prowess with defensive rigour, but with the exception of a golden December and January, they have not managed to win more than three successive league games this season. Much may rest on David Silva’s return from ankle problems today.
“When you are the favourites it’s really hard but we cannot fail any more,” Nasri said. “We can’t hide.”