City visited the fortress that is Swansea City today and a ground that few teams this season have come away from with any points. This would be a very different game from the 4-0 easy victory that was achieved by City in the reverse fixture as only City and United have kept more clean sheets than Swansea this season. These banana skin games were the ones that City would have to win if they wanted to become Premier League Champions for the first time.
Injuries to key players meant that Mancini was force into a number of changes to the side that lost out to Sporting Lisbon mid-week. The team sheet read as follows: Hart, Richards, Kolo Toure, Savic, Yaya Toure, De Jong, Barry, Silva, Nasri and Balotelli. The subs bench consisted of: Pantilimon, Kolarov, Milner, Pizarro, Johnson, Aguero and Dzeko.
It was Swansea that opened the game the better of the two teams, as the City midfield failed to stay tight to their players and afforded the Welsh side the space to play their free flowing football. Indeed in the opening minutes, Swansea had earnt a penalty after Hart was adjudged to have brought down Routledge when it appeared on replays that the striker had simulated a dive over Hart`s legs.
Sinclair stepped up to take the penalty as probably the best keeper in the world played mind games with the Swansea forward. Sinclair struck the ball low to Hart`s right, but with cat like agility Hart was down quickly, palming the ball to his defenders who cleared quickly. It felt like a goal to City and showed just how much value Hart has to the team.
The first half followed a similar pattern for the next twenty five minutes as Swansea played open and free flowing football and closed City down as soon as the Blues had possession. City became increasingly frustrated and Balotelli cut a forlorn figure as the lone striker lacked any support from Nasri or Silva.
To his credit Mancini changed things early and in the 37th minute, Barry was sacrificed for Aguero to enable City to defend from the front, with the two forwards pressing the Swansea defence whenever they were in possession. Barry showed significant and unusual dissent as he approached the bench, letting coach David Platt know what he thought about his substitution.
Mancini`s tactical change worked and the final minutes of the half saw City pressing Swansea back deeper and deeper. Indeed Yaya nearly scored before his shot was deflected over by Sigurdsson`s block. Next it was his brother Kolo`s turn, although he fluffed his lines and saw his header fly off target.
The final chance of the half fell Silva`s way, although the diminutive Spaniard was not having his best game. The ball fell kindly to Silva inside the box but he drilled his shot wide of the post when maybe earlier in the season, he would have scored.
A special mention must be given to Lee Mason as once again he did his best to call back play for the merest hint of a tackle by City players, and allow all sorts of shenanigans on Balotelli, Silva and Aguero without seeming to notice.
As the players went into the tunnel at half time, Yaya and Baloteli appeared to have a confrontation as the commanding midfielder let Mancini`s young protégée know exactly what he thought of his first half performance.
Whatever was said in the dressing room at half time worked, as City came out playing at 100 miles an hour. Passing and moving and covering twice the ground they did in the first half, Swansea were pressed back for long periods of time.
Aguero once again was profligate in front of goal as he had a chance served up on a plate by Balotelli. The clever Italian read Culker`s pass and played a fine ball to Aguero who had a run on goal, but his shot was poor by any standards and failed to even test the keeper.
Hart was well protected by his centre halves and Kolo made one good interception soon after Aguero`s miss as Graham played a good ball across the City six yard box. Allen seemed destined to score before the City centre half showed a speed of foot to intercept the ball and clear for a corner.
City were denied a clear penalty in the 60th minute as Balotelli was tripped by Allen as he ran into the Swansea box ball at his feet. There was more contact than there had been in the penalty awarded against City, but Lee Mason showed clear consistency in favouring whoever was playing against City and waved play on. Replays showed clear contact and whether deliberate or not, a penalty should have been awarded.
Richards was next to go close after Silva jinked and twisted his way through a host a Swansea defenders on his way into the box. He played the ball to the onrushing Richard`s whose shot was saved sharply by the excellent Vorm.
Swansea were limited during this spell to a couple of half chances as first Caulker flashed a header wide from a corner and then Routledge shot tamely at Hart. The City keeper had never really been under serious pressure since Barry`s withdrawal and the change in tactics by Mancini.
Disaster though was not far away. City were enjoying a steady spell of pressure and it seemed only a matter of time before an opening fell their way to take the lead. The ball had been played back to Savic who stood near the half way line as City looked to press the game in the opposition half. A pathetic attempt at a pass to Yaya fell several yards short of its intended target and right to the feet of Sigurdsson.
With Savic being last man and the City team in attacking positions up field, Swansea easily worked the ball wide right to Routledge who crossed the ball into the City box. The City defence were caught out, every man not in position and Hart for the first time was left stranded as Routledge`s cross was met by the head of the newly introduced Moore who headed past Hart and into the City net.
City rallied from this setback, as the Swansea players seemed as shocked as their opposition counter parts that they had taken the lead. Kolo Toure went near with a header and then Aguero and Silva both went close.
City looked to have equalised as the game neared its end. Putting the ball legally into the back of the net is usually a goal, but not when Lee Mason referees. Again he showed great consistency. A cross went into the box for Richards, who had been off side, but had retreated to a level position before the ball was played.
In football, the benefit goes to the attacker when players appear level, but not in Lee Mason`s book. As the cross came in, Vorm unusually flapped and missed the ball completely. Richards rose majestically to put the ball in the back of the net. The City fan`s went wild as did the player`s. The referees assistant, blinded by sun and level with Richards, not the passer of the ball had given offside. Mason rather than ruling it a goal stayed consistent and gave a free kick to Swansea.
City desperately looked for the important point that would keep them top and in the dying seconds even Hart went up to join his attackers. All to no avail. A sub-standard performance by a number of players combined with players not good enough for the team cost City today.
A well done goes to Yaya for another leading performance and to Balotelli who remained on the pitch despite being denied a clear penalty and being kicked from pillar to post without the usual protection from the referee.
A well done also to Mancini who was forced to play Savic after injuries to Zabaleta, Kompany and Lescott and changed things when it wasn`t working. He will need to dig in over the next few games as certain referees will make sure his team are facing an uphill struggle.
I finish with a special mention to Lee Mason who once again has only served to reinforce the rumours doing the rounds of conspiracy to stop City ‘buying` the title.
Joe Hart – 7
Saved a penalty and not at fault for the goal.
Micah Richards – 7
The pick of a poor bunch in defence today.
Kolo Toure – 7
Made a good interception and could have scored a couple.
Stefan Savic – 5
Really not good enough and directly at fault for the goal.
Gael Clichy – 6
Attacked on accasion and defended ok.
Nigel De Jong – 6
Doesn’t have the range of passing needed to be a top top player.
Yaya Toure – 7.5
Tried to take the game by the scruff of the neck and was let down by his team mates.
Gareth Barry – 5
Sacrificed tactically early on to allow Aguero to come on. Clearly disgruntled with substitution. Not like Barry as he is normally a team player and the change of tactics clearly worked.
David Silva – 6
Not at his best. Could have won the game but cant score for toffee at the moment.
Samir Nasri – 6
Another non game for Nasri. Starting to look like a flop.
Mario Balotelli – 7.5
Kicked, Strangled, Punched, Stamped on and generally abused under the watchful eye of Lee ‘I don’t like City’ Mason. Denied a clear penalty in the 60th minute.
Sergio Aguero – 6
Came on in 37th minute for a clearly disgruntled Gareth Barry. Didn’t have his best game and can’t score at the moment.
Adam Johnson – 5
What’s the point.
Even less point.
Roberto Mancini – 6 Can’t win away from home for some reason.
Ref Watch – Lee Mason
Booked De Jong early on for a perfectly good tackle and set his stall out. Clearly doesn’t like City and seems to have an agenda against the club. I would be interested to watch all his games ‘against’ City and analyse his performances in depth as we seem to play against 12 men when he referees. He allowed too many Swansea fouls on City players (especially in the final third) to go without retribution and gave free kicks every time City players sneezed in the wrong way. Ended the first half as City appeared about to score. Denied Baloteli a clear penalty in the 60th minute. Denied City a perfectly good goal. A nasty specimen and a very poor excuse for a referee.