Manchester City were about as bright as a 15 watt bulb as they dipped in the defence of their Premier League crown at the Stadium of Light.
City were widely expected to be basking in the glow of their fifth away win of the season at Sunderland today – instead their title hopes are flickering like dodgy Christmas illuminations.
Dim and dismal, this was a dark chapter in City’s less than convincing season, as they struggled to hold a candle to a spirited second half performance from Martin O’Neill’s men.
For the third season running, Roberto Mancini’s side came a cropper to their underdog hosts, leaving Sky Blue supporters scratching their heads in bemusement.
Just what is it about a trip to Wearside that undermines a team bristling with attacking intend and brimming over with brio, time and time again?
Admittedly it doesn’t help when your highly accomplished and universally acclaimed goalkeeper concedes a goal as soft as a goose feather duvet resting on quicksand?
Ex-City winger Adam Johnson’s 53rd minute punt into City’s 18 yard box was more rocket salad Boxing Day leftovers than rocket fast. The limp attempt crept under Joe Hart almost apologetically and ‘AJ’ looked suitably bemused at his belated Christmas gift from his former team mate.
City could argue, with some justification that warhorse and bandaged Pablo Zabaleta, was fouled by the uncouth Gardner in the run up to the goal, but that wouldn’t account for a big fat NIL on the City score sheet after 90 minutes.
This was a wretched afternoon for the Champions and a worrying one as far as the immediate future is concerned. It comes amid a run of unconvincing displays typified by lethargic build ups and the squandering of scoring chances.
It was a day when sequences were shattered. Previously, every time Aquero and Tevez had started together (14 occasions) City won. City also held the last unbeaten away record in the division – not any more.
A first away defeat since Easter Sunday should be viewed in perspective. 11 games is a fine run by any standards, but it’s the manner of the loss, within a perception that this is a City team lacking the panache and power of last season, that is a worry.
Yes, City’s backline has seen more changes than supermodel’s shedding their kit at a Milanese fashion show, but it’s scoring goals, rather than conceding them, where City have been lacking.
It’s a damning indictment that when it came to snatching a last gasp equaliser, Tevez was off the field, Balotelli was off the radar and Joleon Lescott was off the sub’s bench and hoping to get his head on the ball from any set pieces that might arise late on.
The sombre post match inquest seemed light years away as the visitors dominated the first half. Returning skipper, Vincent Kompany’s eighth minute header hit the crossbar with Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet beaten.
The Belgian shot stopper reacted quickly to the loose ball thwarting Yaya Toure’s follow up attempt. He smothered a 24th minute shot by David Silva following a good Argentine link-up between Aguero and Tevez.
Steven Fletcher reversed the one way flow of traffic forcing an excellent save from Hart with a stinging low drive. It signalled a gradual shift in emphasis and influence as Sunderland proficiently quelled and repelled the City attacks.
City’s two previous 1-0 defeats were riddled with controversy and ill –fortune – not this one.
It’s now mid-point in the season. City are seven points adrift of United, their play is ponderous, the goals aren’t flowing and, as an outsider looking in, one wonders if Mancini is getting the maximum out of the ‘materials’ at his disposal.
He didn’t have the best summer transfer market missing major targets like De Rossi and, loathe to say it, Van Persie (praise be that he still lives). That probably owed more to Brian Marwood than Mancini.
City need to be active in the January window if they are to retain the title. In Txiki Begiristain, Manchester City have a Director of Football well versed in negotiating big transfers. The question is do City want Mancini to spend the next tranche of Abu Dhabi dollars or is a war chest on hold for his successor?
As a fan I want whatever will deliver ongoing success to Manchester City. I would prefer it to be with the man who delivered City’s first trophy in 35 years and first title in 44, if he can get the job done.
He does however, need to re-assert his managerial pedigree and wheel and deal. If City don’t back him next month, it will handicap his ability to deliver which in turn will lead to his demise.
We can but watch as events unfold.