The litter skittering across the turf was a metaphor for Manchester City who, before Carlos Tevez's lustrous winner, provided plenty of evidence as to why Manchester United's little slip-up shouldn't send any spirits soaring. But the real story of this night was provided by Wigan Athletic, a club who refuse to be yet another from the old county of Lancashire to retreat from the Premier League and into decline.
It is a strange kind of tension which currently besets them, as they talk on the one hand of the FA Cup final for which this match was the rehearsal, and yet peer anxiously at their 7/4 relegation odds - the general impression among the bookies that they are no more for this world. Yet against a side who had only dropped nine points here all this season, they went 75 minutes before conceding a shot on goal and their manager Roberto Martinez was the one who could speak of players who were “magnificent, from start to finish.” He was talking about James McCarthy, Shaun Maloney and Jordi Gomez and if his strikers had only shown a little more gumption when presented with their chances, the team might be a little closer today to the triumvirate of sides - Aston Villa, Stoke City and Sunderland - whom they trail by three points with one game in hand and six teams (including Spurs and Arsenal) to play. Tevez provided the game's solitary moment of champion class and his best goal of the 17 he has scored in this 2012/13 campaign: a shimmering run between Paul Scharner and Jordo Gomez to curl a shot in at goalkeeper Joel Robles' near post.
The two managers were unanimous that Wigan deserved more from the game and Martinez said they deserved all three points. “They don't deserve to be relegated. For sixty minutes they played better than us and then we played well in the final 25 minutes,” Mancini said. “We have been working for three or four years to be able to produce a performance like we did here,” Martinez declared. “Now we have to learn how to win at places like this. The lesson is that, when you play well, you really need to win the game.”
The City manager was unhappy about Robin van Persie's second equalising goal for Manchester United at West Ham. “If they didn't score an offside goal probably we would be nine (points behind),” he said. But the empty seats told of a side for who this Premier League season is over and the best it got for those who harbour title hopes was the supressed form of excitement - a low rumble rather than anything close to exuberance - when the scoreboard flashed up West Ham's early 1-0 lead.
The tension and the sense of occasion belonged to Wigan. Some clubs in the lower reaches write off all hope for this kind of fixture but it was a year ago this week that they won 2-1 at Arsenal, part of the run of seven wins from nine which save them from relegation in a way that will never be forgotten in their town. Martinez wears lucky brown shoes - always has done as a manager - but he likes to think he can call on more than luck these days. Wigan were seeking to make it four games undefeated for the first time this season. Spring time has a habit of being their time.
What ensued could hardly be described as an assault on the Premier League hierarchy, though Martinez's team certainly could have been 2-0 up inside about 60 seconds, when they fired the first half into life, just before the 40-minute mark. The first miss was agonising enough - their Ivorian top scorer Aroun Kone kicked the ball into his own leg after a typically accurate lofted ball from the right by Maloney sailed over Samir Nasri's head and found Kone with time on his hands to finish. But the second was desperately unfortunate. Franco di Santo, a striker severely low on self-confidence and who had not played since March 2, eased the ball past Joleon Lescott and Javi Garcia in one sweeping movement and when the Argentine paused to finish with side-footed accuracy he handed Joe Hart the chance to dive and save with a strong left hand.
“The disappointment is that we didn't have the belief in front of goal and that is the lesson we need to learn,” lamented Martinez. Di Santo also wriggled into the left hand side of the City box, only to measure a poor cross behind Kone. Di Santo's four years of northern toil, attempting at Blackburn before Wigan to prove that Chelsea were wrong to dispense with him, must surely be reaching their natural end.
Mancini chopped and changed in search of answers. Edin Dzeko started the second half in place of Aguero and it was the Italian's usual Plan B - three at the back - which came out of box. Garcia, Vincent Kompany and Lescott formed the rearguard, though in 15 minutes or so it was a back four again and Garcia was off. Lescott cleared off the line from Maloney but it was inevitable that the City momentum would come. Robles saved well at the feet of Dzeko on 75 minutes and McCarthy dealt with the danger Tevez slalomed in through the defence. Seven minutes remained when the dam was burst by Tevez, one of the few at City for whom this season is better than last. Wigan being Wigan it could all come down to their last game of the season, at home to Villa, but Martinez won't countenance the idea of it all falling to one last roll of the dice.
Man of the match Maloney.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee J Moss (Tyne & Wear).
Attendance 47,106.Reuse content