Date: 29th December 2012 at 5:12pm
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It started out as a Christmas of woe for City. Having struggled to beat serial cannon-fodder, Reading, they took their show to the Stadium of Light hoping that some would be shed on where they are going this season.

They also took with them their unbeaten away record in the hope or even expectation that it would prevail against a side known for causing City perennial yuletide upset and with Adam Johnson making his second appearance as an opponent, this match was set to fall into the annals of “typical City”. You know the one…”Owen is back today, he hasn’t scored for fourteen months, Fulham haven’t won away all season et al”.

So even the most un-cynical of City fans would have had pecking at the back of his head “You watch, we lose 0-1 and Johnson scores”. The Pedmachine couldn’t have put it any better. It was niggling behind my eyelids!

As we know strange things come to pass at this time of the year and once again a poor team, struggling at the wrong end of the table found a way past the Champions and yes it was “reject” Johnson who punished some slack defending and non-concentration from City’s defence and Joe Hart.

With City out of Europe it is my belief that they can win the double. But they must achieve this with a settled team. With only one match a week now there is no excuse for tinkering with the starting eleven unless there are injuries. So quite why Mancini benched the league’s best defensive midfielder in order to try to justify Javi Garcia is one of life’s mysteries. Gareth Barry is the master of break and build. He does not seek to be anything that he is not, oh and on occasion pops up to do a striker’s job to help his team claim three points against a shell-shocked but surviving team from the bottom of the league. Garcia to date?…. Nothing.

With the return of Vincent Kompany the defence could have gone with Karim Rekik and Pablo Zabaleta accompanying VK and Matija Nastasic in the centres. But that is not the gospel according to St Roberto. The constant interfering with the line-up is what will undo Mancini. When you look at his best available team sheet we have the best starting eleven in the country. All he has to do is make it play like that. That is what he is failing to do.

The back line with Barry in front looks as sound as any other. Take out Barry and you introduce a player who is clueless in that system. City has the ground attack to annihilate the opposition. If we haven’t got one of the pieces then enter James Milner. He might lack some of the skills, but his pure energy alone makes up for it and in fact strengthens the defence as well as attack.

If Garcia has to play, he has to sit and leave Yaya Toure to accompany playmaker-in-chief David Silva in setting up the play for Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero to bust the netting.

For some reason Yaya is constantly heading backwards this season instead of issuing those defence splitting runs that open the doors for his strikers. Instead he is allowing the opposition to retreat and lie in wait for City’s attack and block all routes to goal.

City are suffering this big-style. A lot of teams have looked at the spirited last day display of QPR at the end of last season and examined the ways and means of closing off Aguero and Tevez, indeed with some success. And City have not the ammunition to cope with this. Last season Johnson himself was cast in the role of supersub, who always looked to profit against tired defenders towards the end of matches. He would cut in from the right and hit the corners of the goal, or send in a cross for Edin Dzeko. Alas he now adorns another club and still knows how to cut in from the right and drill one home from long-distance outfoxing England’s Number One.

When you look at the reasons that Dzeko, Lewandowski, Podolski and even Gomez have been so successful in the Bundesliga, it is principally because the deploy a wide man in their so-called “diamonds”. The wide man becomes the plan-B if the possession stuff comes up empty. That is why Mancini tries to use Aleks Kolarov.

Bayern use Robben and Ribery in turns to change the pivot of the attack and where necessary to supply the ball, long or short for Gomez and Muller both of which look happy in the air or on the floor.

City needs to follow this path if they are to retain their title. It has not looked likely all season. If plan A doesn’t find City an early goal then it becomes a struggle. Scott Sinclair, purchased to replace Johnson has been found out to be not as good as Johnson and in fact has contributed nothing to the team. When your wide man target is the more accomplished Lavezzi then Sinclair is more like the kind of signings they have been making in Stretford for the last two years, Van Persie apart. The type of business you do this time of year in the bargain basements of the world’s stores.

Most writers correctly down-graded their appraisals of City players efforts against Sunderland and rightly so. It is down to Mancini to get this team back on track and that needed to begin today at Carrow Road, where under Chris Hughton, Norwich City have been discovered to be not the mugs they were last year when City tidied them up twice with goalfests at each stadium.

This team has been pulled together by Hughton and have devised a way of playing to whatever strengths they have and causing upsets, none more so than beating the Stretford Steelers, so it remained to be seen what would happen.

And so to Carrow Road…Mancini rang the changes with Barry restored, Clichy restored, Nasri restored and Dzeko preferred to Tevez up top, giving City a big-man-small-man appearance. What a difference a few days makes. With five minutes gone Dzeko was already contemplating taking the ball home as he pounced onto two quick chances and took them both.

City had opened meaning business and were a lot less lethargic than they were at Sunderland. Movement was fluid and Norwich were on their heels as the Blues moved into what you would think to be an unassailable lead before many people had located their seats.

Both goals showed thoughtful running from the big Bosnian, scattering canaries all over their cages. Indeed the second, starting with a haring run of strength out of defence by Kompany really taught Yaya what was needed to surprise the East Anglian defence, Aguero got on to the loose ball, drawing the defence to the right before squeezing the ball into Dzeko’s path. He didn’t need asking twice.

But as we know nothing is smooth for City right now and as fast as he was a hero for his forward thinking, a needless foul at the edge of the box set up Pilkington with a free kick. His drive caught Clichy napping as it went through his legs as he lost concentration and beyond Hart.

Norwich now started pressing and City were trying to keep the ball although nobody had quite told Yaya who too quickly gave it away. But the chances were falling City’s way and with Norwich game for a match, there were gaps to exploit as Aguero and Dzeko again missed out.

Barry was majestic shielding his back four and Silva and Nasri, who started where he left off against Newcastle were keeping the ball moving as Aguero and Dzeko kept the Canaries defence moving too.

Then as half time approached a robust tackle on Nasri with a bit of blind-side follow through resulted in a free kick for City and a yellow card for Bassong, but inexplicably Nasri squared foreheads with Bassong and as the pushing and shoving subsided, the ref produced a red card for Nasri. I thought that it takes two to square foreheads, but it seems that committing a lean foul is a safer bet than retaliation these days…but not if you play for Stretford! Indeed; quite how Zabaleta didn’t get a penalty in stoppage time is unbelievable as the clear shove in the back was right in front of the linesman that enabled City to end the match short-handed.

Norwich tried to finish the half upping the tempo but City got themselves to the break with their lead still intact. Mancini was going greyer by the minute!

So would we see the dreaded “three-at-the-back” for the second half or would City rearrange further upfield and leave poor old Dzeko chasing shadows alone and not getting the match ball his first half deserved? Forward was the word and then Yaya found his range with a pinpoint pass into the path of Aguero who ghosted into the box and restored a two-goal lead for City with a typical finish.

This seemed to make a difference to Yaya as he started to spot Aguero’s intelligent runs and the Mighty Atom started to move the defenders around in a way he hasn’t for some time.

As the hour approached Mancini decided to use the energy of Milner as he sacrificed Silva. The idea was clearly to prevent Norwich getting wide and deep and using their big men, but also to spring City forward as opportunities allowed. City had retreated their high line which served them well in the first half, which is a little disturbing as much more happens when they allow nothing in their own half.

But how do they do it? A great save by Hart from Howson’s daisy cutter resulted in poor marking from the resultant corner. Bassong got open at the far post and headed in for Martin to reduce the arrears and subject us to a nervous half hour. City were up for grabs as Norwich found new energy in their bid to make the extra man count. But before the panic set in Dzeko sprang the offside trap in the inside right position, chested down and hammered the ball home to claim his hat trick, deservedly so. Sunsequently the goal was awarded as an og to Bunn.

Then after 75 mins the corner suicide squad again succumbed and as City failed to clear from three attempts, Martin again squeezing home their third goal from a set play to heap the pressure on the tiring Blues. City needed to keep the ball further up field and the 4-4-1 that they were deploying was not doing the job as Norwich sensed an equaliser, if not more.

Mancini incrementally drew his team back. First off Dzeko was replaced by Lescott, this time to add numbers at the back and finally Aguero who should also have been taking home a ball had he converted two chances late on, was withdrawn for Garcia as the Blues retreated to 5-4-0 to see the match out. And as for Bassong? He was still kicking people six and a half minutes into the five added on, Kompany the latest one left clutching his legs above the ball line. Work that out!

As sterile as the performance was at Sunderland, this was getting towards a throw back to last season, where the team stuck together in adversity and forced the opposition to make decisions whilst still looking potent up front. In the second half Yaya was totally different to the player of late, Aguero and Dzeko foraged bravely up front as the midfield, shored up by Aguero, never looked in danger of being over-run. Barry was exceptional.

City still give away too many free kicks for me and their seeming inability to defend their goal at corners raises concerns as they head for their final festive match against Stoke, eighth in the league and today pulling back to draw from 1-3 down.

Because he scored the goals that mattered I’m going with Dzeko for MOTM but it could have been Barry and in the end Aguero who missed two good chances at the end but his tireless running at times kept Norwich in their own half when they wanted to bombard City’s goal. Great match, great result, but what was Nasri thinking?

Before I go just a quick word about Javier Garrido. I’m pleased to see this lad getting regular work at a Premier League club. He was always a decent guy when he was at City, although probably not quite up to the standards we were looking for. He made two good blocks for his team today and forced a good save out of his own goalkeeper. Keep on rolling, Javier!!

all times East Manchester

Tu 01Jan 15h00 Stoke, The Etihad, PL
Sa 05 Jan 15h00 Watford, The Etihad, FAC
Su 13Jan 16h00 Arsenal, The Emirates, PL
Sa 19Jan 15h00 Fulham, The Etihad, PL
Tu 29Jan 19h45 QPR, Loftus Road