Late rally cannot hide City's title jitters
Manchester City 3 Sunderland 3: Mancini critical of Balotelli after poor display and argument with Kolarov. Now neighbours United poised to take advantage of another stuttering performance
The grand dreams have not left the Etihad Stadium but after what he called a "crazy emotional game", Roberto Mancini conceded it would be hard for Manchester City to win the Premier League title.
That could be an understatement. By the time they kick off at Arsenal next Sunday, Manchester United might be eight points clear and Mancini would have seven matches to pull that back. It is hard to imagine a man of Sir Alex Ferguson's inherent ruthlessness screwing up that equation.
The Manchester United manager had taken his squad to St Andrews for a golfing break. He had been on a golf course, in Cheshire, when the news was relayed to him that Manchester United had won their first Premier League title. Nineteen years on, it must have seemed that his 13th was very close.
Mancini had expressed bewilderment at the way Manchester City had played most of the match. His captain, Vincent Kompany, remarked afterwards: "I can guarantee it has nothing to do with nerves," although it looked strangely like it.
The fact that Mario Balotelli had scored twice and triggered the frantic finish that might improbably have seen City snatch victory did not disguise the anger he felt for a centre-forward he admits he no longer trusts. And if Mancini cannot trust Balotelli, nobody can.
First, he argued on the pitch with Aleksandar Kolarov over who should take a free-kick, which ended with Kompany leading the protagonists away. When he sat slumped on the turf, the minutes dripping away, the stadium screamed at him to get up.
"Mario didn't play well in a game like this," said Mancini. "A striker should be the difference and not just for the last two or three minutes. In that first half a player like Mario or [Edin] Dzeko should have been able to score two or three goals. I thought about taking him off after five minutes but we only had Carlos Tevez on the bench."
Afterwards Mancini admitted that the "stupid" foot injury sustained by Sergio Aguero had been exacerbated by a pain-killing spray, thus apparently confirming reports that the striker's skin had reacted badly to treatment after he received a knock in the recent win over Chelsea.
Tevez did come on, for David Silva, who like so many of Manchester City's players has looked weary for weeks. But it was Balotelli who ignited a game that seemed hopelessly lost with a fabulous shot that curled beyond Simon Mignolet and in by the far post. A minute later, a low drive by Kolarov drew City improbably level.
The fact that it was Sunderland who derailed them only emphasises Ferguson's adage that you can never predict where the shocks will come. Tuesday night's defeat by Everton in the FA Cup effectively ended their season. In 1968, Sunderland gave City their last championship by winning the final game of the season at Old Trafford. They had never so much as picked up a point at Eastlands in any one of their seven previous visits. Given City's home form, this was an irresistible force meeting a very moveable object.
The moveable object ought to have won easily. They were inspired by Stéphane Sessègnon, who Martin O'Neill fears might leave Wearside because he has been unable to adjust to life without his family, who are still in Paris. On the pitch he appears entirely comfortable and was involved in all three of Sunderland's goals.
For the first, he took a ball from Phil Bardsley and picked out Sebastian Larsson, whose shot was placed surgically beyond Joe Hart.
To support those who argue that Manchester City have been on the brink for some time, this was the fifth successive match in which their opponents had scored first.
Sessègnon continued to dazzle. It was his cross that Bendtner rose to head home just before the interval with O'Neill remarking wryly that it justified the striker's "much vaunted opinion about himself", and it was his pass that launched what looked like the killer goal.
City were already badly stretched with Micah Richards, who had taken a battering in the first half, replaced at the interval. Bendtner had time and space to deliver a low cross that Larsson drove home. City looked ruined and bereft of ideas and fight.
In the middle of all this they won a penalty when Dzeko threw himself at Craig Gardner theatrically. O'Neill's thought Dzeko would be booked for diving, only to see Phil Dowd award a penalty that Balotelli converted with five short steps. It was the kind of penalty that City's executive, Patrick Vieira, suggested only big clubs get. Come May it is unlikely to matter.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Hart; Richards (Johnson, h-t), Kompany, K.Toure, Kolarov; Silva (Tevez, 58), Y.Toure, De Jong, Milner (Pizarro, 81); Dzeko, Balotelli.
Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Mignolet; Bardsley, Turner, Kilgallon (Kyrgiakos, 81), Colback; Larsson, Cattermole (Vaughan, 90), Gardner, McClean; Sessegnon; Bendtner.
Referee Phil Dowd.
Man of the match Sessegnon (Sunderland).
Match rating 8/10.
Tussle at the top
23 Oct Beat United 6-1 to go five points clear.
27 Nov Draw 1-1 with Liverpool still five points clear.
3 Dec Beat Norwich 5-1 but United are level having played one more game.
18 Dec Beat Arsenal 1-0 to lead by two points.
26 Dec Draw 0-0 with West Bromwich. Level on points
11 March Lose 1-0 at Swansea. United ahead, by one point, for first time this season.
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