It was only last week that Manchester City came away from Stamford Bridge with a point probably knowing they could and should have taken all three. It was the classic case of both teams ensuring that they didn’t lose. Manuel Pellegrini’s men attacked, vying for the win, whilst Chelsea did what Jose Mourinho’s sides do best: frustrate, remain solid and break with pace. No real surprise then that the final score was 1-1.
Yet following Saturday’s dismal showing against Hull City at a flat Etihad Stadium the performance of the previous week was instantly forgotten. And the gap that was at five points now stands at seven.
It’s not the points difference, however, that remains Pellegrini’s biggest problem. Manchester City are no strangers to overturning deficits. As their fans sing they “fight ‘til the end”. We’ve seen them do it before twice overtaking the league-leaders – Manchester United and Liverpool – in the two seasons that they won the title. And, of course, nobody will forget the QPR game.
The problem for Pellegrini is that the impressive Chelsea performance papered over the cracks. City haven’t won a Premier League match since New Year’s Day, they crashed out of the FA Cup following a 2-0 defeat to Championship side Middlesbrough at the Etihad and the goals are starting to dry up.
City’s loss of form has coincided with the departure of Yaya Toure, currently away on international duty with the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations. His return, alongside new signing Wilfried Bony, should help the Blues resurrect their title challenge. And it’s something that needs to happen quickly, because the team look lost without him at present and the current midfield axis of Fernando and Fernandinho does not look worthy of the champions.
The former Porto midfielder Fernando, signed in the summer for around £12 million is increasingly looking like a poor buy, and it’s no wonder that with Toure away James Milner can feel frustrated at not being given the opportunity to play in his preferred central midfield role.
Yet the ever-reliable Milner has become a more permanent fixture in the City side this season and is fast becoming as important to the team as David Silva. The England regular may have a reputation for being slightly bland and is often underrated by fans who don’t support the team he plays for, but one thing’s for sure City would be worse off this season without him.
It was Milner’s heroics that spared their blushes on Saturday afternoon with a last-gasp equaliser. Likewise early in January when the Blues almost exited the FA Cup at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday. And he was arguably City’s best player against Chelsea last weekend. It surely must be high on the Pellegrini priority list to tie Milner down to a new contract, with his current deal expiring this summer.
As seasons go for Manchester City this one has been more reminiscent of the pre-Sheikh days. Back when the phrase “Typical City” was a lot more prominent. Their current form has scary similarities to that of earlier in the year before the Sergio Aguero-inspired Bayern Munich victory in the Champions League. The spine of the team in Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Silva and Aguero are all looking off the pace against the lesser lights of the Premier League at present – particularly at home.
There’s no tempo, there’s a lack of creativity and there’s comical defending. All of which were apparent on Saturday. Pellegrini may get the praise for playing attacking football, but Mourinho is the man that is delivering the results and charging his team to the summit. City’s goals have started to dry up and they’re not entertaining in the same manner that they were last year.
With persistent rumours linking City to Pep Guardiola and the club’s Director of Football Txiki Begiristain admitting that only a handful of coaches – including the Bayern Munich manager – have the required philosophy to manage the Blues, Pellegrini’s replacement may be being sounded out. Especially with the Chilean entering the last 18 months of his contract at the age of 61.
Of course, there’s plenty of the season left in which it can be turned around. But the Manchester City ship is taking on water and the composed Pellegrini, whose contract runs until the summer 2016, might be running out of time to save it.