Sven Goran Eriksson spoke more presciently than he probably anticipated when cautioning, amid the delirium of Manchester City's golden start to this season, that the real test would come in the depths of winter, when some of his imports were used to putting their feet up for a few weeks. The roller coaster has been slowing for some time and it had truly grounded here, in a game as grey as the soggy Manchester day which delivered it up.
Never mind giving a good run to Liverpool, who City pushed into sixth place with their point; Everton will be out of reach soon unless some new energy can be found. Elano, City's creativity in their 10 straight wins, is no longer catching sides out and Martin Petrov, as his manager later observed, "cannot be our best player day in and day out". If nothing comes through the transfer window, last autumn's top four talk is beginning to look highly fanciful. "If we put that [fourth place] target to ourselves at the moment we would be stupid," Eriksson admitted. "Our target should be to play in Europe next season and, if not, the season after. We will try to take fourth place and if we do not we should not be too depressed."
City's unbeaten home record might be intact but it took the current vagaries of the offside rule to make it so. Darius Vassell was clearly offside when Petrov played in the cross which found its way, via touches from Richard Dunne, Matthew Upson and George McCartney, into the striker's path to poke home. How he could been adjudged inactive while standing in the six-yard box when the cross was played only Fifa rulemakers understand.
Otherwise, City created next to nothing, demonstrating the lack of drive which has baffled Eriksson in the past weeks and the return of Valerie Bojinov, due back in training this week after five months out injured, represents the new signing City need, since Rolando Bianchi seemingly lacks the strength to find reward for his effort. "We were sitting waiting to see what's going to happen. The attacking wasn't very good," Eriksson said.
Elano, struggling for consistency, was given no space by Anton Ferdinand and there was certainly no striker to match Carlton Cole, replacing the injured Dean Ashton and impressive for it. He was a test throughout for City's central defenders and the overhead kick on eight minutes which ended six barren games for West Ham against City was worth waiting for. Mark Noble capitalised on a poor pass by Dunne to set up Freddie Ljungberg's cross which Cole controlled and dispatched spectacularly in two touches, with Vedran Corluka and Micah Richards in attendance. It took an important touch from Richards to prevent Cole heading West Ham into another lead again from Julian Faubert's cross in the second half
Eriksson said his players "shouldn't complain" and his goalkeeper Joe Hart was certainly the difference between the sides again. Hart saved a shot from Hayden Mullins, who ran on to a squared pass by the excellent Ljungberg and his save from Mark Noble at the end of a flowing move involving Faubert and Cole was even better, justifying Eriksson's belief that Hart will one day play for England.
The West Ham manager, Alan Curbishley, has reason to feel things are on the up. The players he invested in before the season – Scott Parker, Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer – have played a handful of games between them but the performances of those left these past few weeks suggest that they might be yet another obstacle to City in their pursuit of continental travel with Eriksson.Reuse content