Match Report: Barry lands late blow for Manchester City to flatten Reading
Manchester City 1 Reading 0: City beat bottom side with midfielder's controversial header in added time
It was the reactions that were so telling. Gareth Barry sprinted across the pitch, punched the corner flag and slid on his knees through the rain and the mud. At the final whistle Reading's players slumped to the sodden turf as if they had lost a cup final, which in a sense they had.
If the Premier League's bottom club had held out for another three minutes, Reading might have built themselves a platform for survival and Manchester City would be contemplating falling eight points behind United by this evening. The Reading manager, Brian McDermott, remarked that it had ruined his Christmas.
Teams that are bottom on 25 December usually have as much chance of survival as a Norfolk black turkey that stumbles across Delia Smith, but this result is a faint ray of hope low on the winter horizon.
It was a big, big goal and it was both late and mightily controversial. To McDermott, it was a "disgrace" that the referee, Mike Dean, had allowed Barry to climb on Nicky Shorey's shoulders to head home David Silva's cross. "I am gutted for the players but, most importantly, I am gutted for our fans because they did not deserve that," he said. "I don't know how anyone could have seen that goal any differently. He hung in the air, but you can hang in the air all day if you are on someone's back." He did accept that Roberto Mancini would see it differently, "because he has won 1-0".
Perhaps it was appropriate that the Etihad's final game of 2012 should finish with a decisive, very late goal in a faint echo of the most famous match it has staged in this or any other year – the one that saw them snatch the championship.
It was also the third anniversary of Mancini's appointment. Three years is, to quote Bill Shankly, the time when you should judge a manager – after he has spent a year assessing his side, a year clearing out the flotsam and a year to mould his own team. On this evidence, Mancini has a side who are performing to about 80 per cent of capacity, but are still winning matches late without playing particularly well. Put another way, they are playing like champions.
Christmas is a time for a good Bond film, and the scene that seemed most suited to McDermott's situation is the one where 007 is strapped to a bench as a laser nears a groin that has been very well employed on Her Majesty's service. "Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?" says Sean Connery with a faint hint of desperation. "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die."
Everybody but everybody who travelled to Eastlands expected Reading to lose. The statistics were horribly intimidating. They had conceded five to Arsenal, four to Manchester United and Chelsea and 36 in all. Manchester City had not failed to score here since a goalless draw with Birmingham in November 2010.
For the 41st successive match at Eastlands City found the net, although that it came so late made everything on both sides sharp and icily poignant. "We will encounter a lot of games like this when teams defend and defend against us and I cannot take it because my heart is not strong," said Mancini with a smile that would have been absent had Reading held out a little longer. "And I expected something like this. I told the lads that if we did not score early it would be difficult for us."
And so it proved. Reading harried, denied their opponents space and, especially in the second half, counter-attacked where they could. One of their breakouts ought, in McDermott's eyes, to have led to a penalty when Jay Tabb appeared to be knocked to the floor as he and Manchester City's young Dutch defender, Karim Rekik, went to meet a low cross. Play continued with the Reading bench gesticulating wildly and the rest of the stadium offering opinions on Tabb's softness and southern-ness.
None of this was watched by Mario Balotelli, who had been ruled unfit to play but had used the time to spend the last Saturday before Christmas with most of Manchester; shopping. "He came to the training ground and he could not play," said his manager. "But what can I do? I cannot enclose him in the house." Balotelli missed a game that screamed out for the kind of instinctive creativity that he once revelled in.
The best move came early on – a cross from Barry that was beautifully played down by Sergio Aguero into the path of Carlos Tevez. The shot struck Adam Federici, and the attempts were to become progressively less accurate and the frustration more acute.
When the final whistle sounded, the screens at the Etihad wished the crowd a merry Christmas and promised "full highlights to follow". Not many seemed prepared to stay.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Zabaleta, K Touré, Nastasic, Rekik; Garcia, Barry; Silva, Y Touré, Tevez; Aguero.
Reading (4-1-4-1): Federici; Gunter, Pearce, Mariappa, Harte; Leigertwood; Kebe, Karacan, Tabb, McAnuff; Pogrebnyak.
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the match: Barry (Manchester City)
Match rating: 6/10
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