In the world of the after match football interview, the word ‘character’ is used and abused more than most.
Managers and players willingly trot out the word e.g. ‘…the team showed real character…’, simply because they rallied to earn a draw, who knows, maybe even a win, in the face of adversity.
Whichever, it’s cue cliché corner and more ‘characters’ than a Walt Disney Parade.
Character be blowed – it’s called doing the job – a job for which players and the managers in the Premier League are handsomely remunerated and rewarded.
For all the misuse of the word, Manchester City are going to have to summon up a combination of virtuous and distinguishing features and show their mettle, if they are to stand even the remotest chance of reeling in Liverpool’s six point lead.
Manuel Pellegrini’s team clawed back three points on the leaders, courtesy of a pretty routine victory over a WBA who, although fighting for Premier League survival, weren’t able to summon up a second shock within a week at the Etihad.
Rock bottom Sunderland had deprived City of two vital points, courtesy of a 2-2 draw last Wednesday night, but Albion – thankfully – weren’t made of the same stuff.
Winning was as easy as one, two ,three or, given the goalscorers – uno, dos, tress – as Zabaleta, Aguero and Demichelis produced what must be a Premier League first, a trio of sequential scores netted by different Argentines.
But for all their South American class, all three City strikes were overshadowed by a goal that would have sat well in the portfolio of the greatest Argentinian player of all time, Diego Maradona.
Graham Dorran’s 16th minute pearl was as classy a goal as will be seen at the Etihad this season. The Albion defensive midfielder looked more like a Brazilian forward as he took two deft touches, before hammering a half volley beyond Joe Hart to make it 2-1.
It was as bizarre as it was brilliant, stemming from a comedic cock-up of a City free kick. Within seconds of the Baggies gaining possession, the marauding Sessegnon swarmed up field, laid the ball off to Vydra who squared the ball to Dorrans and Albion were back in the match.
Having raced into a comfortable 2-0 lead within nine minutes, courtesy of Zaba’s instinctive third minute header and a well executed 20 yard ground shot from Sergio, City were poised to polish up their goals haul, just in case the PL title comes down to goal difference on 11 May.
The optimism was suddenly – and thankfully only temporarily – dimmed by the Baggies’ goal, as visions of the apology of a performance against Sunderland flashed back into focus.
Any failure to win would render City’s title challenge impotent, but this time the boys in blue found a steely resolve to get the job done.
So often the butt of criticism, some of it warranted, but some of it not, Martin Demichelis has visibly grown in stature since Vincent Kompany was sent-off at Hull in mid-March.
The pony-tailed one stepped up from a follower to leader in the 2-0 win at the KC Stadium, marshalling ‘his’ backline, aided and abetted by Javi Garcia, another who has attracted a lot of adverse comment since joining City in August 2012.
Previously labelled ‘misfits’, both have come to prominence and were vying for the Man of The Match laurels as time ticked down on this comfortable 3-1 win.
Can you imagine the tsunami of criticism that would have hit MDM if it had been him, and not Kompany, who had gifted Liverpool’s winner at Anfield?
David Silva, the man who must surely be neck and neck with Yaya Toure as City’s Player of the Year, was stretchered off midway through the second half.
Silva has arguably shown himself to be the single most important member of City’s First XI this season, with his influence transcending that of Kompany, Yaya and Aguero.
The loss of the Spanish creative genius for what is said to be two-to-three weeks (does that actually equate to season-ending from City’s perspective?) is a crushing blow, especially in tandem with Yaya still missing.
Merlin has nursed his fragile ankle(s) through many a campaign, but this season above all others, he seems to have been targeted by opponents i.e. stop Silva & you go a long way to stopping City per se.
If that maxim carries weight then Manuel Pellegrini is going to have find a ‘work-around’ pretty damn fast.
Stevan Jovetic may provide the most viable option at this late stage of a season which has seen City look increasingly lackadaisical in games that were just waiting to be won.
From the outside looking in it’s difficult to know the mindset, physical conditioning and well-being of the players, save to say the energy levels seem to have waned.
It may be that Pellegrini’s preferred style of attractive, expansive and high octane football has taken its toll over a long and gruelling campaign.
All the talk about City’s large squad (for the record it tops out at 25 players, the same as every other Premier League club) Pellegrini has only utilised 23 players over the season.
It would be doing the manager a disservice not to mention his star striker, Sergio, has missed literally half a season and Kompany, Silva, Nasri, Nastasic and Jovetic have also been ruled out for long periods at-a-time.
Irrespective of the rationale behind the malaise that has seen City drop off from a high intensity pressing game – especially when not in possession – it’s something that has to addressed and rectified for the last 360+ minutes of the season.
It might also help if kit manager Les Chapman, packs some tin hats for the visit to Crystal Palace.
Rejuvenated under manager Tony Pulis, Palace are – along with Liverpool – the form side at present with five wins from their last five PL games, including a home win over Chelsea and an away victory at Everton.
City couldn’t manage the former and face the toughest of tasks on 3 May attempting the latter.
With so much hype and City hopes resting on Liverpool dropping points against Chelsea, it could yet be that the crowning of the champions could be determined by events at the Palace, with Liverpool the next visitors after City.
Mourinho’s focus will be on the UCL semi-final 2nd leg against Atletico Madrid and, for that reason, he will more than likely put out an under strength side at Anfield on Sunday.
Petr Cech and John Terry incurred season ending injuries in Madrid last night, while Eden Hazard is unlikely to be risked before Atletico go to Stamford Bridge next week.
Understandably, Mourinho knows he has great chance of winning the Champions League for a third time and making history by doing so with three different clubs.
What had been billed as a potential blue salvation line for City at Anfield has all but disappeared.
How ironic if it were to be Tony Pulis, the man who loves to hate City, who damages Liverpool in City’s favour.
With such a tangled web it’ll be interesting to see how the central characters in the PL soap opera emerge in the next few days.
City can dig as deep as they like in summoning up the mental and physical strength to record a ninth away win and edge closer to 100 PL goals scored.
It’ll count for nothing if Chelsea, with their eyes on the Champions League Final in Lisbon, concede to Liverpool before a ball is kicked.
By David Walker