Manchester City shaved another three points off Chelsea’s lead but it was as if they’d had their throat cut, with lifeblood Sergio Aguero suffering a serious injury.
A fortuitous penalty ultimately delivered a hard fought and deserved 1-0 win over Everton, but the focus fell on a horrible Aaaarrggguero moment when the Argentine super striker sustained suspected knee ligament damage.
If, as feared, Sergio is sidelined for weeks if not months, it will be the biggest body blow imaginable to City’s charge to retain their Premier League crown and progress in the Champions League.
On present form Aguero is, quite simply, the best player in England – arguably in world football – and is irreplaceable. The loss of his goal-taking and goal-making could halt the momentum of Manuel Pellegrini’s side, who have sliced five points off Jose Mourinho’s eight point advantage in just a week.
Ruled out of Wednesday night’s showdown in Rome, Sergio’s injury is akin to Spartacus being absent from the Third Servile War, when the Thracian gladiator led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic.
The heart of many a City fan bled blue as Sergio cut a forlorn figure, tearful and hobbling badly around the perimeter of the Etihad pitch, back to the dressing room. It appeared that Everton’s Muhamed Besic had deliberately impeded Aguero on the field immediately prior to the injury.
With Aguero missing, Yaya Toure banned and doubts hanging over the return of Captain Fantastic Vincent Kompany and ‘Merlin’ David Silva, City could – metaphorically – be a team lacking a spine in the Stadio Olimpico.
A more devastating quartet of absentees is difficult to imagine from any City side for such a critical encounter at such a crucial stage of the season.
With only the giant Ivorian of the four on the field of play against Everton, City still managed to overcome the resilient Scousers, so often their nemesis in the past.
It wasn’t the prettiest of wins but it was a victory that showed grit, determination and still, a fair modicum of flair.
Samir Nasri, stepped up, James Milner never slowed down and stand-in skipper, Yaya looked like he’d regained his appetite for football in City sky blue.
Joe Hart produced a superb save from a goal-bound Romelu Lukaku strike, to demonstrate why his imminent signature on a new long-term City contract will be most welcome in the next day or so.
With a very combative and, at times, downright dirty Gareth Barry in their ranks (Team GB was cautioned and earned himself the dubious honour of the most booked player in Premier League history with 99 yellow cards) Everton managed to sustain apprehension levels among the City supporters through to the final whistle.
The shrill pitch of referee Andre Marriner’s mouthpiece was heard when England colleagues, James Milner and Phil Jagielka came together with a relatively innocuous bump in the visitor’s 18-yard box.
Horribly inconsistent in his decision making, Marriner awarded City a penalty as ‘Jimmy’ went to ground, but was immediately on his feet as he sought to retain possession of the ball.
Indefatigable, the winner of the Man of the Match accolade, Milner looked a little surprised at Marriner’s benevolence – the Everton defenders were stunned.
With Sergio off the pitch, Yaya shouldered the burden of spot kick responsibilities and drilled a text book drive low into the bottom right of the net, beyond a valiant Tim Howard.
Yaya has a 100% success rate with seven-out-of-seven penalties converted in the Premier League. It’d be appropriate to say long may it continue, bar the fact Aguero is the nominated penalty taker and City want Sergio on the pitch as often as possible.
Sergio’s replacement, 18-year old Jose Pozo, in only his second PL appearance from the bench, came close to doubling City’s lead with a sweet half volley, only to see it ricochet off Howard’s leg.
Milner had surged down the left flank and delivered a pinpoint cross to the former Real Madrid prodigy.
The youngster was substituted to make way for the vastly more experienced, but obviously not match-fit Edin Dzeko, hence Pozo’s 55 minute run out, allowing the Bosnian striker to ease back in over the final half-hour.
Apart from one deft header to set up a Milner volley, following a visionary looping pass from Lampard, Edin took it all a bit too easy for the liking of many of the home supporters.
With Sergio out, Dzeko needs to recapture his form from the run in on City’s title winning drive – and quickly – because his goals will be as vital now, as they were last April and May.
Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando both ‘earned’ deserved bookings, the French defender for an errant foot in the back of Samuel Eto’o, the Brazilian midfielder for an unfortunate kick to Barry’s head.
Apart from the rash and unnecessary challenge on Eto’o, the much maligned Mangala looked composed and imposing alongside the more refined and experienced Martin Demichelis.
Gael Clichy has been a transformation in City’s five-game winning run, possibly benefitting from regular playing time in the absence of the injured, but now available Aleksander Kolarov.
Pablo Zabaleta is gradually coming back to his best and the team’s second PL clean sheet in a week – only the fifth in 15 games – suggests the defensive fragilities are now being better addressed.
The same cannot be said of City’s insipid corner kicks which continue to frustrate and disappoint. 11 were awarded against Everton and none produced any real threat to boosting the ‘Goals For’ column.
Of City’s commendable 19 attempts on goals only three were on target, it would have been so different had Sergio not been reduced to tears.
How the Champions will cope without their best player in the coming days, weeks even months, will be a test of Manchester City’s mettle.
If this particularly dark cloud is to have a Silva lining, it could the re-introduction of the Spanish creative genius in Rome in three days time.
A fully fit squad would have won the day in the Italian capital and, provided CSKA didn’t shock European football with a win in Munich, earned City passage to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
If an injury ravaged and suspension hit side can scramble into the draw for the last 16 it would be one of Pellegrini’s greatest achievements…albeit City shouldn’t be in such a perilous position in the first place.
It’s not a case of don’t cry for me Argentina – tears have already been shed for Sergio – but there could yet be tears of jubilation if City show the world they are far from being a ‘one-man’ team.
By David Walker
Dedicated to my friend Steve Trinder and his son Jake for whom better times lay ahead. See you soon fellas.
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