Carlos Tevez was back at Manchester City's training ground yesterday, reinforcing hopes that he will yet be able to play some part in the remainder of the season, with Roberto Mancini aware that a third place finish in the Premier League is now within his reach.
Tevez is as yet unable to join the main group of players in training, but the fact that he has returned to Carrington after several weeks in Milan in the company of his girlfriend, an actress who is currently working in the city, and the Argentine team doctor, suggests that he accepts Mancini's message that he cannot expect to waltz straight back into the FA Cup final starting XI on 14 May.
Tevez flew to Milan almost immediately after sustaining a hamstring injury against Liverpool 17 days ago and if he can be back for City's last three games as Mancini suggested, their chances of catching third-placed Arsenal – who are five points ahead with a far better goal difference but have played a game more – would be enhanced.
City would take Champions League football by any route, though fourth place will bring a potentially nerve-wracking qualification round play-off at a time when any summer acquisitions would not have been fully integrated. Fourth is certainly the finish estimated by the Castrol Premier League table predictor which, among other criteria, uses goals scored and conceded to generate the attack and defence ratings for each team, with more recent goals given greater weight.
But City may narrow the gap on Arsenal to two points this weekend since this Sunday sees Mancini's side entertain West Ham, while a visibly wilting Arsenal, who have won only once in domestic competition since February 23, receive Manchester United. A loss for Arsenal and a win for City would mean the pursuit of third is in City's own hands. If Arsenal then lose at Stoke – as they have done twice in three matches in the past two seasons – a win for City at Everton would take them ahead.
Though some within Eastlands yesterday described feeling as much delirium at Edin Dzeko's strike in Monday's 1-0 win at Blackburn as Yaya Touré's against United in the FA Cup semi-final – such is the importance of a fourth placed finish or higher – the performance at Ewood was not the most convincing and City are looking at a marginally tougher run-in than Arsenal. Their record against Everton is poor – three successive league defeats and six defeats in seven – and after the prospect of David Moyes' side there is the crunch match with Tottenham on 10 May, though Spurs are not heading towards the repeat of last season's Champions League "play-off" with anything like the same zest as last April. Harry Redknapp's side have won one Premier League game in seven and their defensive weaknesses have contributed to a vastly inferior goal difference on the other top five sides.
As things stand, Stoke are the club who hold the cards for City. Mancini's game in hand on Wenger comes on 17 May, three days after the FA Cup final and within that period when the Italian believes Tevez could be back in competitive action. Spurs have expressed concerns that defeat in the Wembley final for Tony Pulis' side could give them an incentive to give City an easy ride in the league fixture – as a top four finish for City would see Stoke take the FA Cup winner's Europa League berth.
With his Premier League goalscoring duck now broken, Dzeko yesterday said he felt lifted from the gloom he has experienced while acclimatising and can help the push for an automatic Champions League group stage place. "Nobody is happy when they're not playing," the £27m striker said. "I think the worst is now behind me and this game is a new beginning for me. I know how it is when you don't score. [Fernando Torres] was playing for Liverpool for four years and scored a lot of goals, then he changed clubs and can't score. I know that's what can happen in football."
Mancini will not need to impress on his players the value of avoiding the Champions League qualifying round. The draw for that would pitch the continent's "non champions" contingent, including City, against the champions of those countries outside Europe's top 12. At worst, that could mean a two-leg encounter in August with FC Copenhagen, whose extraordinary campaign in the Danish Superliga has seen them drop only seven points and take a 26-point lead at the top.
The challenge posed by Belgium's champions – Anderlecht lead that table – was revealed when Liverpool only narrowly squeezed past Standard Liege into the Champions League group stage in 2008, while Everton crashed straight out to Villareal at the same stage three years before that.
European hopefuls' run-ins
Arsenal (P34 Pts 64 GD +31)
Manchester United (h) Sunday
Stoke (a) 8 May
Aston Villa (h) 15 May
Fulham (a) 22 May
Manchester City (P33 Pts 59 GD +21)
West Ham United (h) Sunday
Everton (a) 7 May
Tottenham (h) 10 May
Stoke (h) 17 May
Bolton (a) 22 May
Tottenham (P33 Pts 55 GD +8)
Chelsea (a) Saturday
Blackpool (h) 7 May
Manchester City (a) 10 May
Liverpool (a) 15 May
Birmingham (h) 22 MayReuse content