Slipshod City fall off the title pace after Vieira's clumsy challenge
Birmingham City 2 Manchester City 2
Thursday 03 February 2011
There is an uncompromising directness about Roberto Mancini that, even in his halting English, comes through loud and clear and last night there was no mistaking exactly what he thought of his Manchester City players as they slipped further back in the title race.
He accused his team of having "slept" through another crucial away performance and lacking the concentration in defence not to concede goals at such a critical point of the season. He hinted at a lack of application in training that was being felt in matches. He promised to make changes, even if it meant goalkeeper Joe Hart.
By the time he got round to blaming the referee Kevin Friend for giving a soft penalty to Kevin Phillips for Birmingham's equaliser, it felt incidental to the evening's narrative. Mancini had laid the blame squarely at the feet of his own players for the fact that they find themselves eight points adrift of leaders Manchester United having played one game more than their city neighbours.
That derby at Old Trafford a week on Saturday holds the key to Manchester City reviving any hope of winning a title two years into Sheikh Mansour's great investment project. Can Mancini's team beat United? "We try," he said. "But if we play like this I don't think [so]. If we play better and we don't concede a goal maybe it is possible."
Mancini is not a ranter and he betrayed barely a hint of emotion last night in his post-match press conference but this was clearly a manager who lost patience with his players last night. His criticism that at this time of the season, with tired opponents, Manchester City should have the composure to close out teams in 1-0 victories was said with quiet exasperation.
Twice City took the lead, first through Carlos Tevez and then with a brilliant free-kick from Aleksandar Kolarov and twice they found themselves reeled in through defensive frailties. Birmingham never gave up, and in David Bentley they had arguably the game's best player, but there should be too much quality in Mancini's side for last night's opposition.
"Probably we don't work well in training and we sleep in the game and it's better we wake up quickly," Mancini said, and he had a point. The comparison was unfortunate in the case of Micah Richards who was taken to hospital with concussion after a collision with Nigel De Jong in the first half and could well miss Saturday's game against West Bromwich Albion.
The turning point in the game was undoubtedly the penalty Friend awarded to Birmingham in the 77th minute when Patrick Vieira brought down Phillips. There was no doubt Phillips was too quick for Vieira and that the Frenchman got nothing of the ball but Mancini claimed it was the kind of collision that took place all the time.
"This was no penalty," Mancini said. "It is impossible to give penalties for this. He dived. There was a penalty for us 15 minutes before [when the ball struck Stephen Carr's hand]. I don't understand why the referee gave a penalty." Later he added: "If referees gave penalties for this there would be four or five every game."
At 37, Phillips still has much to offer and when he came on for Cameron Jerome his running gave Birmingham an inventiveness they had lacked until that point. He might even have scored a winner with a lob that had Hart back-pedalling to push the ball over the bar. As for the foul by Vieira, it certainly looked like the midfielder was late.
Having struggled for goals from his attackers all season – Craig Gardner, who scored from the spot last night, is the club's top goalscorer – McLeish was grateful for Phillips' contribution. Describing him as a "true English gentleman", McLeish argued Phillips had simply been too quick for Vieira.
"Roberto would say that [about Phillips]," McLeish said. "Kevin has done Vieira and Vieira has clattered into him. How is that not a foul? The referee has to give what he sees and Kevin was too quick for him. He was clattered. I have seen it again. He never dived – Kevin is not a diver."
Four minutes in and it looked very different for City. Tevez's sharp first-time ball picked out David Silva's run on the right and he went past Liam Ridgewell and Lee Bowyer before his pass found Tevez. The Manchester City captain's shot looked too weak to beat Ben Foster but it took a touch off Martin Jiranek and trickled in.
The pitch was terrible and almost cost Birmingham the services of Barry Ferguson who turned an ankle on it early on. However, they struck back with the away side failing to clear a Bentley free-kick that was allowed to bounce twice. Hart, on the ground that he made his reputation last season on loan, was indecisive. There was the slightest of touches from Nikola Zigic and the ball slipped in under the goalkeeper's arm.
There is no doubting Hart's quality but mistakes have crept into his game. There was the mix-up with Kolo Touré against Blackburn Rovers and the error against Leicester City in the FA Cup which mean that his form is under scrutiny.
On the half hour, Richards launched himself into a giant bound to head the ball clear and collided with De Jong on his way down. Having first lifted his head from the turf he appeared to pass out and lengthy treatment ensued. He was carried off with an oxygen mask on his face but the club said he came round before he was taken to hospital.
There was no disputing the quality of Manchester City's second goal. Edin Dzeko was tripped from behind by Gardner on the edge of Birmingham's penalty box. Kolarov, who had struggled to contain Bentley at times, struck a fine free-kick with his left foot that bent back inside Foster's right post four minutes before half-time.
It was Phillips who made the difference in the late stages of the second half and the penalty he won was exceptionally well converted by Gardner. Birmingham are still only out of the relegation zone on goal difference. As for City, taking into consideration Tuesday's results, the single point was just not enough.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Foster; Carr, Jiranek, Johnson, Ridgewell; Bentley, Ferguson, Gardner, Bowyer (Beausejour, 75); Zigic, Jerome (Phillips, 70). Substitutes not used Doyle (gk), Larsson, Fahey, Hleb, Davies.
Manchester City (4-1-3-2): Hart; Richards (K Touré, 37), Kompany, Boateng, Kolarov; De Jong (Vieira, h-t); Milner, Silva, Barry; Tevez, Dzeko. Substitutes not used Given (gk), Zabaleta, Lescott, Jo, Guidetti.
Man of the match Gardner.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee K Friend (Leicestershire).
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