Last-gasp City ready to push rivals all the way
Manchester City 1 Reading 0
The same table that has Tottenham Hotspur topping the Premier League if games lasted 80 minutes would have Manchester City way off the title pace in sixth.
Instead, they are second and, were they Manchester United, we would say that they were where they always are at the end of the year, on the shoulders of the leaders ready to accelerate away through the wastes of January and February.
City's propensity to score late is, like playing indifferently and winning, said to be what great teams do. Against Reading on Saturday they did both, although despite what is generally believed, scoring late is not especially indicative of greatness.
If you examine the record of the best and the worst sides in the history of the Premier League – Chelsea in 2004-05 and Derby in 2007-08 – Jose Mourinho's team scored 20 of its 72 goals (or 28 per cent) in the final 10 minutes. Three of Derby's paltry 20 goals (or 15 per cent) arrived in the same period. There is a difference but not as great as you might think.
However, because the goals scored at the death by United, City and Chelsea seem hugely decisive they are remembered more and, critically, anticipated more by their opponents. When asked if there was an "aura" about his side as the fourth official held up his board to signal the number of added-on minutes, Roberto Mancini concurred.
"We won the championship in the last second," said City's manager. "We have recovered a lot of games in the last three or four minutes and we know we can change every game right at the end and that is a very important quality."
Nevertheless, as the board was held up, nerves were stretched all across the Etihad Stadium, which was already starting to empty. Gareth Barry, who was to score the only goal two minutes from the whistle, confessed to feeling concerned: "It looked like we were going to drop points at home again," he said.
"I feel relieved and delighted at the same time. It wasn't a perfect afternoon by any means. It is difficult when you don't get the breakthrough early. Reading started growing in confidence and maybe believed they could keep us out. But we have experienced that a lot at the Etihad."
Barry pointed out that Manchester City have an awkward-looking Christmas programme – away at Sunderland, where they have lost on their last two journeys to the Stadium of Light – and a trip to Norwich that proved too much for United and Arsenal. Sir Alex Ferguson's Christmas is rather easier, facing Newcastle, who have not won at Old Trafford for 40 years, and then home to West Bromwich Albion, who last won at Manchester United during the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79. City's margin for error is considerably narrower.
Mancini is rarely content even after a win and here he was pointing out that his players would not have had to force themselves over the line had they not slackened off after the interval. "We should be stronger," he said. "Our play is not fluent like last year and maybe we don't have the same confidence we did last year when we were top."
City spent Christmas 2011 with 44 points and 53 goals, two points clear of the great enemy and then Mancini was complaining that he needed more insurance against United's anticipated surge. Ultimately, it was the goals as well as the points that decided everything and 2013 may be just as close, especially if City keep scoring late.
Man City: HART 6/10, ZABALETA 7, K TOURE 7, NASTASIC 6, REKIK 6, GARCIA 5, SILVA 7, BARRY 7, AGUERO 7, Y TOURE 6, TEVEZ 6
FEDERICI 7, HARTE 6, MARIAPPA 6, PEARCE 7, GUNTER 7, LEIGERTWOOD 6, McANUFF 7, TABB 6, KARACAN 6, KEBE 7, POGREBNYAK 6
Goal: Manchester City Barry 90. Substitutes: Man City Dzeko 6 (Garcia, 58), Sinclair (Tevez, 74), Milner (Rekik, 84). Reading Guthrie 6 (Karacan, 70), Shorey (Harte, 86). Booked: Man City Aguero, Y Touré. Reading Mariappa, Pearce, Gunter, Leigertwood. Man of the match Barry. Match rating 6/10. Possession: Man City 62% Reading 38%. Attempts on target: Man City 10 Reading 1. Referee M Dean (Wirral). Attendance 47,007.
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