It was the result neither side wanted. The 2-2 draw was about as welcome as flatulence in a space suit.
The stalemate only benefitted those who were not present at the Etihad Stadium, as Manchester City’s title hopes were derailed and Sunderland’s Premier League survival bid hit the buffers.
Brendan Rodgers and Jose Mourinho could raise a glass to City’s ineptitude, whereas Fulham’s Felix Magath and rookie Norwich manager, Neil Adams, could smile at Sunderland’s misfortune.
Apart from the odd snatch of torturous hope, this was a singularly underwhelming affair, elevated only by early expectations of a City goal-fest and a late late show of desperate endeavour.
The end of proceedings left a capacity crowd as flat as a snake’s belly, knowing that when it came to the crunch City had no bite, devoid of guile, energy and heart.
Fernandinho’s opening goal, within 114 seconds, flattered to deceive the expectant home support against a Sunderland side who had previously mustered just a point from their previous eight games.
City’s less than bestial Alvaro Negredo produced a beautiful ‘dummy’, enabling Aguero’s pass to carry through to an unmarked Fernandinho, who fired home from close range.
All too soon it was apparent that the Battle of Anfield had left its scars, both psychologically and physically.
Two of City’s standout performers, David Silva and Yaya Toure, were absent through injuries picked up or exacerbated on Merseyside, and the sky blues sorely missed their creativity power and presence.
Vincent Kompany looked as if he was still carrying the after effects of the injury that impacted so negatively on his performance last Sunday, whereas Sergio Aguero is obviously short of match fitness and his usual razor sharp edge.
Having started in the best possible fashion, City deteriorated into a pattern of lethargy, lacking that certain ‘zip’ and one-touch passing flair that has bemused so many opponents this season.
Sunderland maintained a disciplined defensive line and were all too often first to the ‘second ball’. Despite the one goal advantage, City weren’t pressing the Mackems, weren’t forcing them into errors with the whole team looking ‘leggy’ – wearied by their recent adversity.
Having suffered at the hands of Mark Clattenburg four days previously, City had grounds for complaint against referee Martin Atkinson.
Ex-Manure defender Wes Brown was fortunate to stay on the pitch after a reckless, uncontrolled ‘tackle’ on Aguero. The centre back had both feet off the floor as he followed through on Sergio. Atkinson saw it differently and didn’t even award a free kick.
In the second half, Sunderland striker Connor Wickham bundled Aguero over in the penalty box but, once again, Atkinson didn’t want to know.
The goals that had once flowed so freely at the Etihad showed no signs of coming as Gus Poyet’s workmanlike side, resplendent with lively ex-City wingman, Adam Johnson, continued to break up City’s stuttering attacking play.
It was hardly a shock when Wickham, the mountainous young striker, scored only his second ever Premier League goal, to square proceedings in the 73rd minute. Emanuele Giaccherini’s cross evaded the entire City defence and the 21-year old prospect tucked the ball past a helpless Hart.
Sunderland merited the equaliser and looked set for a shock win when, 10 minutes later Wickham, showing a speed and hunger sadly lacking among the City team, sprinted approximately 70 yards to smash the ball past Hart, who was left cruelly exposed.
The Mackem supporters behind Hart’s goal celebrated deliriously as they savoured a PL lifeline and a win over the team they have come to haunt in recent years.
Having recorded four consecutive 1-0 wins at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland have now forced two draws in their last four visits to City, including that unforgettable 3-3 draw in City’s title campaign during 2011/12.
It looked like they were on for maximum points until Samir Nasri notched his 10th goal of the campaign with the most innocuous of shots, one that Vito Mannone allowed to painfully and pitifully trickle over his goal line.
The keeper, Sunderland’s League Cup semi-final hero in a penalty shoot-out at the Trafford Troglodytes, cut a pathetic figure, prone on his goal line almost reduced to tears.
Nasri had beaten him at Wembley with an Exocet missile volley – this time it was the polar opposite.
With two minutes of regulation time left plus four minutes of added time, City finally seemed to realise the PL title was on the line – it was almost May 13th, 2012 all over again.
Sergio had given way to sub Stevan Jovetic just before the hour, so history couldn’t repeat itself – it wouldn’t be an ‘Aguerrooo’ moment all over again – but it was oh so very nearly a ‘Nasriiiiii’ occasion!
With the seconds ticking down, the Frenchman who had had a below par night, cut in from the left, gave a give and go pass which was returned via a melee involving Milner and Jovetic inside the box.
All he had to do was hit the target and it would have reignited City’s title bid and self belief…it went over the bar and hope was extinguished at a crestfallen Etihad.
Mathematically, City can still win English football’s top prize and, in a season with more twists than a game of Pontoon, the incredibly unlikely could yet become reality.
Before Sunderland deservedly gained the draw, City could have been champions with six wins and one Liverpool draw. Pellegrini now requires not only the Scousers, but also Chelsea, to drop points.
It represents a massive disappointment, but unlike Sunday, City can have few complaints – bar a couple of refereeing mistakes – they didn’t earn the win, in the way that they had deserved the draw at the weekend.
In the wake of the result there were some City fans on social media and a radio station, aptly described as ‘Talkshyte’, calling for Pellegrini to be sacked…unbloodybelievable!
Thankfully Sheikh Mansour knows the quality of his Manchester City manager, and Manuel Pellegrini will be given both time and the budget to make a good thing better, at all playing levels within the club
City’s MP has been on a steep learning curve this season. He arrived in a new country, culture, job, club, players, opponents, playing style – plus he came into the role on the back of personal tragedy having lost both his parents in quick succession.
How many of those calling for the Chilean’s head have had to cope with so much in such a concentrated period?
A good transfer window this summer will see Pellegrini better prepared and eager to go by the start of 2014/15, and I for one don’t want managerial change. A more qualified judgement would be better cast this time next year.
By David Walker