On a night of chronic under performance and frustration, two massive bonuses emerged for Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
Having played second fiddle to an adventurous Wigan Athletic for the majority of 94 minutes, a cracking Carlos Tevez strike saw City snatch an expected, but undeserved win.
More significantly in the context of this campaign, Roberto Mancini’s men were served notice that the FA Cup Final will be anything but a walk in the park at Wembley on 11th May.
Mitigation abounds for Mancini’s side’s below par showing following a very flat, uninspiring victory. It was always going to be a case of after ‘The Lord Mayor’s Show’ but, nonetheless, it was incredibly irritating to watch the Champions lumber through the motions.
Mancini made five changes after the titanic, physically and mentally draining, FA Cup semi final against Chelsea on Sunday. The Italian used his rotation system but clearly it disrupted City’s rhythm.
The Premier League’s top defence was virtually unrecognizable with Clichy, Zaba and Nastasic making way for Kolarov, Lescott and the returning, but ring rusty Richards. Naturally, Joe Hart was restored to goal after his shock omission at Wembley. Influential and in-form James Milner was given a breather with Javi Garcia starting.
It was a strangely lethargic, lacklustre City on show, whereas the relegation threatened Latics were decidedly sharper.
Wembley colossus Yaya Toure degenerated into a lackadaisical, sloppy individual, squandering possession and being dispossessed with alarming regularity, but hey, we all have a bad day at the office once in a while.
Mancini said his team were tired after the highs of Wembley and, while one understands the human dimension and the frailties of the species, these are professional athletes, five of whom were as fresh as the morning dew!
The saying is that if a team plays badly and still wins then it’s a good thing. By their own exemplary standards, City were appalling, so does that make them world-beaters?
Very rarely would I concede that City were lucky to win, but this is one such occasion. Roberto Martinez’s men were fleet of foot, quicker to the ball, more incisive and, frankly, the better team throughout the evening.
Wigan top scorer Arouna Kone was a constant threat to Kompany and Lescott, whereas ex-Celtic and Villa midfielder Shaun Maloney a menace with his probing passes and willingness to ‘have a go’ at goal.
Richards was given an unconventional welcome back to the first team with a kick in the head from Jean Beausejour. It was the said Wigan ‘ninja’ whose cross was cleared by Kolarov as Kone hovered with intent.
Kone was involved in a lightning raid by the visitors, linking with Maloney before Di Santo evaded Lescott and Kolarov for what seemed a certain Wigan goal.
Hart reminded everyone that he IS the best goalkeeper in England with a sensational point blank save. City immediately launched their own assault with Yaya thundering up the field, laying it off to Tevez whose low cross eluded Aguero’s boot by a fraction of an inch.
The second half continued in much the same vein. Maloney curved a beautiful shot around Hart only for Lescott – covering his keeper’s back – to clear inches from the line.
Kompany’s last ditch challenge denied Kone on the six yard box, helping Hart on his way to his third Golden Glove award for clean sheets in a season.
City sought to redress the balance with substitute Milner’s brilliant cross across the face of the Wigan goal, but to no avail. Moments later sub Dzeko’s snap shot was snuffled out after good approach play from Tevez and Yaya.
The game ebbed and flowed and and Paul Scharner – with his immaculate ‘Superman’ hair parting – sent a header crashing against the crossbar – ruffling City’s feathers if not his own follicles – before the effort was ruled offside.
It appeared as if City might fail to score at home for the first time in a league match at the 47th attempt – but King Carlos had other ideas.
Samir Nasri continued his recent effective streak as he made one of several forays upfield, before playing the ball out wide left to Kolarov. The Serb with the sweet left foot squared the ball to the ever industrious Tevez.
Now fully restored in the eyes of most City fans as one the club’s best and most favoured sons, Carlito wriggled and dribbled past Scharner and other members of the Wigan rearguard, ‘opening up’ his body, as if to shoot at the far right of keeper Joel’s goal.
Instead he somehow managed to re-direct a rapier like strike into the roof of the net at the near post.
Hallelujah! City in the lead, against the run of play. The home side had, nonetheless, had the majority of possession and mustered 10 attempts with four on target.
It was a less than magnificent seventh win on the bounce against Wigan – seven games where City have neutralised the threat of their opponents , blanking them on each outing.
Wigan are now deeply entrenched in their annual relegation skirmish and one wonders how much attention they will be able to give the FA Cup Final, while fighting for their top flight footballing lives.
As for City, they surely cannot play as badly as this, come the big day. The team now oozes players who are more than capable of expressing themselves and celebrating their skills on the biggest of stages.
The mentality, the overall approach and levels of application will need to be and – without a shadow of a doubt – will be, spot on for 11th May. City had a fortunate escape, but it served as a timely reminder that a Roberto Martinez side is well capable of causing problems and even an upset.
The beauty of City’s situation is that a Roberto Mancini side is even more capable of counteracting any such threat and asserting its supremacy in all departments.
On a night of gusty weather and abandoned supermarket carrier bags swirling around the Etihad pitch, Wigan undoubtedly put the wind up City.
Having weathered the storm, City are just about home and hosed in second place and able to give their undivided attention to a hat-trick of trophies for their passionate Italian leader.