Frustrating City saved by dynamic Johnson

Sunderland 1 Manchester City 1
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The Independent Online

There are two ways to look at this result. It might be the kind of brilliantly snatched point that could count for very much at the end of the season or, to put it bluntly, it might be the kind of result that saw Mark Hughes sacked.

Hughes' last match in charge of Manchester City was against Sunderland on a December afternoon when everybody inside the stadium knew his fate had already been decided. City scrambled a chaotic 4-3 victory but too many games had been drawn against clubs who, in Abu Dhabi, would be considered lesser teams.

By virtue of their history, Sunderland are nobody's lesser team and, but for a brilliantly conceived equaliser from Adam Johnson – who grew up supporting the Wearsiders – Manchester City might have dropped three rather than two points.

Once Johnson had decided to quit Middlesbrough in January, Steve Bruce had made serious efforts to persuade the boy from the pit-village of Easington to return to his spiritual home.

They could not, however, match Manchester City's money or their prospects of Champions League football. The match was already into stoppage-time when Johnson looked up and curled his drive into the one part of Craig Gordon's net not protected by either the goalkeeper or the man on the line, Jordan Henderson.

His manager, Roberto Mancini, pronounced himself "happy and frustrated", adding: "we had four or five chances to easily score. The Sunderland keeper was fantastic. But we still have to play Tottenham and Aston Villa and, if we want to get fourth place and the Champions League, then we have to win those games." Asked if he thought the World Cup might come too soon for Johnson, Mancini replied: "Maybe".

"We had been on Johnson's case for months," Bruce reflected. "He is something different; he is a dribbler. Once he gets the ball, he wants to get at the full-back. He is a completely natural footballer."

For the Sunderland manager, the frustration perhaps ran deeper than Mancini's. This was the 10th point Sunderland had dropped in the final 10 minutes of a game this season and, after ending four bleak winless months against Bolton on Tuesday, he might have hoped for better.

Sunderland so dominated the opening 45 minutes that Mancini was forced to bring on Roque Santa Cruz when the game was barely half-an-hour old.

His three forwards had become separated from the three holding midfielders; there was nobody capable of keeping possession in the Sunderland half and Shaun Wright-Phillips was making a compelling case for not being awarded a new contract.

Kenwyne Jones' muscular header to finish off a superbly-delivered cross from Steed Malbranque had put Sunderland ahead, although, critically, they did not capitalise on their dominance and Bruce admitted that once Jones withdrew with a groin injury during the interval "we lost our focus".

For a side that had put four past Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in their last fixture, this was a reminder that you can change the manager, you can pump in hundreds of millions to revolutionise the squad, but changing the soul of a club is rather more difficult.

For much of the game, this was Manchester City as they have been since 1938, when, as reigning champions, they managed to get themselves relegated while scoring more goals than any other team. Their inconsistency is a constant, summed up by the way Patrick Vieira was caught dawdling on the ball in a way he would never have been at Arsenal.

Nobody imagined it would last and, as the rain began to stream in from the North Sea, so the Manchester City storm began to break. But for Gordon's instincts and reactions, it might have been a rout. In the space of a few minutes, the Scot saved from Santa Cruz, Wright-Phillips and made three separate and very different blocks from Craig Bellamy.

Mancini, proving himself more of a tinkerer than Claudio Ranieri ever was, kept altering Manchester City's formation. Pablo Zabaleta, who began among the holding midfielders, was pushed first to left-back and then to right-back. By the end, as Manchester City pushed and pounded for an equaliser, it didn't matter where he was. The game was past the point when formations mattered.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Hutton, Turner, Mensah, Ferdinand; Campbell (Bardsley, 84), Meyler, Malbranque (Zenden, 77), Richardson; Bent, Jones. (Henderson, ht) Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), McCartney, Da Silva, Kilgallon, Henderson. Booked Meyler, Gordon.

Manchester City (4-3-3): Given; Richards (Vieira, 64), Kompany, Lescott, Bridge (Santa Cruz, 32); Zabaleta, De Jong, Barry; Wright-Phillips (Johnson, 73), Tevez, Bellamy. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Toure, Sylvinho, Ireland.

Booked: Manchester City Tevez, Richards, Wright-Phillips, Barry.

Referee: C Foy (Merseyside)

Booked: Sunderland Meyler, Gordon; Manchester City Tevez, Richards, Wright-Phillips, Barry.

Man of the match: Gordon.

Attendance: 41,398

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