City season threatening to fall away – again

Hope of winning league has been replaced by fear club will miss out on fourth amid over-reliance on Tevez, writes Ian Herbert

It was a blue-sky morning and a brilliant sun was thawing the overnight frost when the Manchester City chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, sat down at Eastlands with Carlos Tevez and told him, with typical decorum and in his impeccable American English, that the striker's wish to leave the club would not be granted.

The date was 20 December and the Tevez transfer request saga was raging at its greatest intensity but Mubarak was armed with two significant weapons: the vast resources which enabled City to allow Tevez to fester in the stands if they had to, and the belief, which was then beginning to take hold at the higher reaches of the club, that they could achieve their goal with or without the Argentine.

City were second in the table, they would go top if they defeated Everton in the stadium that evening, and a belief was growing that they could accelerate beyond the growth charts, which targeted a top-four finish this season, actually to win the Premier League title. The decision had already been reached to give the club's manager, Roberto Mancini, the funds to help capture the trophy.

That was then – and though the Manchester sun was out again yesterday, there are now storm clouds on the horizon. The £27m Mancini spent in January went on a striker, Edin Dzeko, who looks way off Premier League pace, and on the basis of a ponderous, unambitious and not entirely organised performance in defeat Chelsea, it's now looking touch and go for a top-four place.

As for the notion of Tevez's dispensability, let the statistics tell the story. He has scored 18 of City's 45 goals to this point – at 40 per cent, a greater proportion than any player at any Premier League club. City have not lost a match, in any competition, in which he has scored, and six of his strikes have been the City winner. In other words, Mancini cannot live without him.

It is understood that Tevez was desperate to play at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, despite a groin injury, and it was certainly one of those games in which you might expect a manager to draw comfort from a two-week international break and just throw him in. Mancini's reluctance to do so provides an insight into just how desperate he is to have the Argentine available for the eight-game run-in which starts at home to Sunderland in 12 days' time. Publicly, City are hopeful that he will have fully recovered. Privately, they know the prospect of their most influential individual being less than fit for the run-in is a real one.

If that isn't enough to keep Mancini awake at night, there are also the haunting parallels with last season which are beginning to form. The 2009-10 season was decided by a cup semi-final with Manchester United and a de facto Champions League play-off with Tottenham in east Manchester. The date of the home league tie with Spurs could be the last week of April and Vincent Kompany accepted yesterday that it could be the decider. "We hope that we can make a difference before and if it has to go to that game again then we will be happy to play it. We are ready for big days. We are more solid as a team," the City defender said.

That last part is true – and Tottenham's goalless home draw with West Ham on Saturday, with Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon off the pace, suggests the club should be kept in perspective. But City are not the side Mubarak and their chief executive, Garry Cook, thought they saw emerging three months ago. Vestiges of the Mark Hughes era – Kompany, Nigel de Jong and Micah Richards – have been the season's success stories but from no quarter bar that of Tevez and David Silva are matchwinning performances coming. Aleksandr Kolarov's touch looked almost as heavy as Dzeko's in west London; Gareth Barry and James Milner are not lighting up Manchester City. Fabio Capello's decision not to name Adam Johnson in Sunday's England squad is one source of relief at City, though the man this kind of run-in calls for is the one whose recalcitrance City despaired of – and who will never play for them again. The disinclination to tolerate Craig Bellamy's conduct and yet sign Mario Balotelli is a deep contradiction, though City believe Balotelli's age gives him time to mellow.

The question for Mancini is how much time Balotelli needs. The bigger question among the football fraternity is how much time Mancini will be given. With the stakes so huge, the possibility of Mancini leaving at the end of the season if fourth place is not reached is real, though there does not seem to be any pessimism about his ability to deliver Champions League football. City need the revenues from Champions League qualification far more than Tottenham, given that their hopes of falling within Uefa's Financial Fair Play regime without them are slim. Fifth place and the FA Cup won't do.

The club is digging deep to bring in revenues to offset the spending on wages which is on course to climb to around £165m, making City the biggest spenders in the Premier League, when their financial results for 2010-11 are published. A renegotiated deal with the city council for the lease of the stadium gives City the right to pursue a naming rights deal. Remediation work has just begun on a nearby plot which could become a new training ground, also with naming rights.

Mancini can only hope that the Abu Dhabis learn from the Manchester United model, that Rome wasn't built in a day. A recent letter from City to Sir Alex Ferguson congratulating him on surpassing Sir Matt Busby's number of games in charge, with a friendly reply received, suggests that they know about patience. But Mancini still needs the individual both managers have handled. In the end, it will probably be all about Tevez.

Faltering city

2 Goals scored by City in seven games against the rest of the top five. Arsenal and Chelsea have eight in six.

6 The number of points taken by City from the rest of the top five. United have 11, Chelsea 10 and Arsenal 7.

23 The number of goals scored by City at home in the league, fewer than Stoke, West Brom or Wolves.

40 The percentage of City's goals scored by top-scorer Carlos Tevez, the highest in the league.

45 League goals scored by City this season. Manchester United have 64, Arsenal 59 and Chelsea 53.

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