Date: 1st January 2012 at 5:53pm
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With Ferguson`s birthday party ruined the stage was set at the Stadium of Light for City to once again press ahead in their chase for the title against a Sunderland team so depleted, it was forced to play midfielders at full back.

Mancini fielded a team subject to major surgery after coming up empty at West Brom earlier this week. Restored was Johnson to stretch the wide midfielders and Dzeko was deployed to deliver the goal threat. Silva and Aguero found themselves on the bench and Super Mario found himself at home. Micah Richards coming back from injury made the bench and Gareth Barry earned a start in midfield. Nigel de Jong got his first away league start of the season.

As expected City were the dominant team throughout the match without ever really threatening Sunderland until close to the end of the match. Nothing seemed to go right for City as they fired blanks for the second match in succession, a worrying statistic with major matches coming up against Liverpool and Stretford.

Possession stats were 2:1 in favour of the Blues who had an astonishing 25 goal attempts but it was not until Richards bounced a header off the bar with only a couple of minutes to go that City looked likely to score. Dzeko was hopelessly out of touch and there was no prompting from Toure, also in my view off the pace today.

Too narrow from the early stages, yes City kept the ball, but effectively did little with it. The patience was there, the blue tide was there but the threat was not. So much so that in the first half the best chance fell early on to Bendtnar, who should have done better, although it was well covered by Hart.

Sessegnon looked a lot livelier than Dzeko and could also have got on the scoresheet on the hour with City seemingly in a post-Christmas slumber. Gone was the urgency, the fluency and with it the desire. At any sight of goal Dzeko selfishly tried to score with colleagues better placed and Johnson, given his chance to shine made too many wrong decisions.

In essence it was left to Barry to take the game to Sunderland and to try virtually everything to prize the defence open. But this was a defence well led with Cattermole sitting in front of it that was not having any of it. They blocked the channels well and kept City at a safe distance for most of the match.

The first half was a bit of a non-event for City as they simply did not get going. With Dzeko leaden footed again Aguero was brought on at half time to add a lively dimension to City`s front line, but he didn`t really get into the game at all. On came Silva armed with the gaoler keys and he looked as though he might well do that. He had a couple of chances himself and also set up the Richards header which looked easier to put in the net rather than rattle the woodwork.

Mancini was telling the team to pour forward to grab the winner and from a shot at goal at the Sunderland end, a team that had its back to the wall all afternoon suddenly sprang forward on a counter-attack. City looked short-handed with only three back when an effort by Sessegnon squirted to the offside Ji who rounded Hart and placed the ball into the net. The flag stayed down and the goal was granted. Ninety three plus minutes on the clock and once again City took exit from the Stadium of Light with barely enough time to restart the match and devoid of points.
Hart still hasn`t achieved four-in-a-row clean sheets.

This was a terrible result for City who seem to have hit the buffers over the holiday period. No goals in two, two defeats in four does not make great reading and Mancini needs to re-prime the grenades ahead of the huge matches that this week throws up.

It was difficult to select a man of the match for City. Hart, Kompany and Lescott looked safe until the fateful last minute. Zabaleta was his tidy self, Kolarov didn`t look under any pressure until he was sacrificed for Richards in the second half. Nasri was absent, Dzeko off colour and Johnson sticking and twisting in the wrong order. Yaya looked lethargic and some of his passing was off-radar. De Jong was booked for more or less his first tackle, unjustly in my view as he could not be expected to see the Sunderland player coming round the corner. He was taken off at half-time in favour of Aguero.

So, he missed the match against West Brom and was missed himself, but for me Barry was probably the best player on the pitch for City today. He was tidy an robust in equal measures and kept the ball moving when others seemed eager to give it away.

Have the lesser lights of the Premier League finally sussed City out? Does Mancini`s rotation system not work? Leaving Balotelli out of the picture altogether shows that Mancini thought he had picked a team to do the job, but it became evident quickly that there were some doubts out there on the field. This team should not be going to places like West Brom and Sunderland and coming home without a goal to their credit. Players at this Club are paid ridiculous sums of money to deliver and whereas we have had plenty to smile about over the first half of the season, we may have smirked at yesterday`s results all of which went in City`s favour, but there was no seasonal cheer to be had in the North East today.

Martin O`Neill`s men put a shift in for the Club and got themselves an unlikely result. It is a result that City might live to regret when May comes around. The Blue Mooners faced a long dark and sad trip home along the A1 and maybe doubts are starting to show in their minds now.

Earlier in the season City looked capable of getting something in adversity. The last two matches bear a different testimony and whereas we would expect a rough patch to come at some point I am surprised it has come now. Stretford have often become troubled at times of party or remembrance, as they did yesterday, but City has equally failed to take advantage of advantages given to them, as they did today and against Everton last season and Spurs the season before that and Middlesbrough however many years ago when a last minute penalty miss by Fowler denied them a place in Europe.

This team will need to bounce back quickly before the African Cup of Nations forces Mancini`s hand by ringing in the changes. There are some awkward matches in January in and around the box office specials and the Blues need to emerge ready to go to Wembley and remain top of the league. They have the resources and can supplement them if necessary in January.

City get the first chance to re-establish themselves by playing Liverpool on Tuesday as the fixtures favour Stretford again by giving them a longer break. They need to put the lads from the opposite end of the East Lancs Road to the sword.

all times East Manchester

Tu 3 Jan 20:00 Liverpool, The Etihad, PL
Su 8 Jan 13:00 City v Rags, The Etihad, FAC3
We 11 Jan 19:45 Liverpool, The Etihad, LCSF1
Mo 16 Jan 20:00 Wigan, DW Stadium, PL
Su 22 Jan 13:30 Spurs, The Etihad, PL
We 25 Jan 19:45 Liverpool, Anfield, LCSF2


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