This time Manchester City got their seasonal woe in early on Wearside.
Last season they were beaten on New Year’s Day by a 93rd-minute sucker punch of a goal by Sunderland’s South Korean substitute Ji Dong-won. Yesterday the Premier League champions were floored by a 53rd-minute Boxing Day strike by the £10m winger they sold to Sunderland in August.
Whether City can recover from a blow inflicted by Adam Johnson, and compounded by Manchester United’s Houdini act against Newcastle, only time and the tide of the New Year title race will tell. But Roberto Mancini’s men go into the final weekend of 2012 with a seven-point gap to close on their swanky neighbours.
“At the moment United are better than us,” the City manager conceded in the aftermath. “We need to concentrate on ourselves and solve our problem. We are too soft in attack, too soft on our chances.”
Mancini also pointed to a softness in the officiating – notably for a challenge on Pablo Zabaleta that went unchecked by referee Kevin Friend in the lead up to Johnson’s goal. “The referee ate too much for Christmas,” he said when asked afterwards about the incident.
A helping of humble pie would have been more in order. Sunderland fully merited their victory for a stirring performance which brought back memories of the Black Cats’ famous fifth round replay success en route to the FA Cup back in the mists of 1973. It was a supreme all-round effort by Martin O’Neill’s men, who have turned their season with three wins out of four.
“I’m not bothered about what Roberto Mancini says,” O’Neill reflected. “I’ve heard it before. I thought we were terrific today.”
When the two teams met here in that New Year’s Day game, of course, Johnson was on the other side, tormenting Sunderland with his dazzling wing play in the first half but doing the same to Mancini as he performed a disappearing trick after the interval. Yesterday the England wide boy, formerly of Middlesbrough, took his place on the right for Sunderland and drew the first chance of the afternoon after trapping a wonderful cross-field pass from Danny Rose and being floored on the right edge of the penalty area by Zabaleta.
Johnson took the free-kick himself but smacked it straight into the defensive wall. Then followed a 20-minute period in which City got into a slick passing groove, David Silva and Carlos Tevez pushing the ball around with all the flair of latter day Harlem Globetrotters in support of Sergio Aguero.
Fortunately for Sunderland, Vincent Kompany found the crossbar rather than the back of the net after meeting a left-wing corner from Silva with a thumping header at the near post. Simon Mignolet was also called upon to stop a curling shot from Yaya Toure and a close-range effort.
To Sunderland’s credit, though, they rode the early pressure and finished the first-half on top – their endeavour typified by left winger James McLean, who tracked back deep into defence to execute a superb covering tackle on Tevez.
Eight minutes into the second-half, the Sunderland fans were celebrating. In attempting to launch a counter attack from deep on the left, Zabaleta – head bandaged Basil Fawlty-style following a first-half knock – only succeeded in running into trouble. Carlos Cuellar took possession and found Johnson on the right. With Zabaleta stranded, Silva dropped back to mark his former colleague – only for Johnson to shimmy inside and unleash a left-foot drive that clearly took Joe Hart by surprise.
The City goalkeeper knew he had cocked up, the ball having squeezed between his body and the near post, before Johnson realised he had scored. The stadium erupted and Sunderland might have been swept along to a quick second. McLean found Stephane Sessegnon on the right side of the area but the Benin forward dragged his shot wide.
Thereafter Sunderland had to dig in for their unexpected victory. They did so in admirable fashion, defending from the front in such resolute, all-hands-to-the-pump fashion that a half season of such frustration among their loyal followers gave way to the kind of vocal support that must have had City thinking they had twelve men to beat.
With Danny Rose magnificent at left back, Cuellar commanding at the heart of defence and Jack Colback drawing a ‘thou shalt not pass’ line in front of his defence, City became increasingly desperate. Mancini, David Platt and Brian Kidd convened at pitch side, deciding to send on Edin Dzeko for Tevez.
Mignolet did have to turn wide a low drive from Aguero but the greater threat came from Sunderland on the break. With 10 minutes left Hart had to come to the rescue when substitute Fraizer Campbell released Sessegnon through the middle.
In the end, such was City’s lack of attacking clout, Hart charged forward for an injury time corner. There was to be no Jimmy Glass ending.Reuse content