I SAT, transfixed as if in a time warp, watching Manchester City defender Matija Nastasic head over his onrushing goalkeeper Joe Hart to gift Fernando Torres Chelsea’s winner at Stamford Bridge in the final minute of time added. It was a colossal, potentially catastrophic, mix-up between the two City players a mistake that had me shuddering as I relived a similar nightmarish moment from 37 years ago. On December 29, 1976, City played Liverpool, with whom they were vying for leadership of the old First Division and, subsequently, the title, just as they are this season with Chelsea. I had put City 1-0 up in a match seen as crucial to the outcome of the title race and what happened next was brought back into stunning focus by events at The Bridge on Sunday. As we battled to maintain a lead and get a win that would have been a massive boost to our title ambitions, centre-half Dave Watson sent a back header over keeper Joe Corrigan and into the net for an own goal. The match was drawn 1-1… and Liverpool went on to win the title from City by one point!
Now, I know there is an awful long way to go before this season’s outcome, but all I can say, from City’s point of view, is that I hope, come next May, they do not have cause to look back on this mad moment, having just missed out on the big prize by one point. For one point was in their grasp, and deservedly so, as the seconds ticked down on Sunday evening. The inquest into that costly clanger will be under way at City’s training ground, but the damage is done and manager Manuel Pellegrini can only hope there are no more suicidal mistakes. Frankly, City cannot afford any further lapses if they are to fulfil their potential and become champions for the second time in three seasons. For, in my opinion, they are their own worst enemies. Pellegrini’s squad is the strongest in the Premier League and the team should be in a better position in the table. However, City – described by Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho after this match as “the best in the league” – keep shooting themselves in the foot and I believe there is one particular weakness, in the holding midfield area. When City pipped Manchester United to the title two seasons ago, the key players were midfielders Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry. Having claimed the crown, City let Dutch World Cup final ace de Jong leave the club and I don’t think he has been adequately replaced, despite the signings of Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell. When Pellegrini succeeded Roberto Mancini last summer he sent England star Barry to my other former top-flight club Everton, having spent £30m on Fernandinho. The Brazilian is obviously a class act, yet I can’t help but think that, on the evidence thus far, Everton are emerging as the main beneficiary from this chain of events. Barry has been outstanding as Everton have made such an impressive start to the campaign. He hardly ever misplaces a pass – he produced a beauty on Saturday from which Leon Osman struck the clincher in the 2-0 win at Aston Villa – and I think City miss the combined influence of him and de Jong in front of their back four.
The back four? Well, there is no doubt that, in the continuing absence of injured Vincent Kompany, City have another problem. They brought in Martin Demichellis as cover for their captain and key defender and I’m not convinced he is the man for the job. It might be that Micah Richards, who can’t nail down his right-back place because of the superb form of Pablo Zabaleta, would give City a more formidable presence at the heart of defence. I know there are doubts about Richards’s discipline in that role, but he is certainly a muscular, powerful figure, brimful of energy and aggression. He is worthy of consideration while the team struggles to adjust without the massive influence of Kompany. I also believe these factors combine to give a possible explanation for the frustrating failure of the awesome Yaya Toure to dominate every match, which he is capable of doing. When Kompany is missing, too often Toure assumes a more defensive posture, playing matches where he tends to blend rather than impose. The Ivorian midfielder is one of several magicians in the City ranks, such as David Silva, Samir Nasri and strikers Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo, players who can change a game with a touch of genius. But Pellegrini must tighten things up at the back and in midfield in order that these guys can cast their spells on the opposition, keep City’s challenge going right to the end – and avoid the prospect of arriving at the final day and looking back in dismay at “that” goal at Stamford Bridge.
At this point I must give credit to Torres, whose lung-bursting run in pursuit of Nastasic’s ill-conceived header enabled him to squeeze the ball inside the near post and complete a personal display that was further evidence of his rehabilitation under Mourinho. Like the reinstated John Terry, at centre-back, Torres appears to be thriving with the “Special One” back in control at Chelsea and he is starting to look like the devastating striker he was at Liverpool a few years ago. While on my favourite subject, strikers, let me add my voice to the TV debate between Alan Hansen and Robbie Savage at the weekend, when Savage nominated Liverpool’s Luis Suarez – what a fabulous hat-trick against West Brom – and Daniel Sturridge as his top partnership, with Hansen going for Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. My pick of the “pairs” is City’s Aguero and Silva, though I concede that Silva is not a pure striker. These two are demonstrating an increasingly-telepathic understanding and they display utter respect for each other’s abilities on the pitch. With players like these, I must stick to my prediction that City will be in the mix at the end of the season.
WHAT a monumental win for Gus Poyet and his Sunderland team in the Wear-Tyne derby! Defeat is tough to take in a big-city derby, and the pain for Newcastle this week will be severe. But it would have been so much worse for the Black Cats had they had their tails tweaked by their arch rivals and been left with just one point from nine matches. Only once in Premier League history has a team with one point from a possible 24, which was Sunderland’s situation going into the match, escaped the drop. That was in 1998/99 when Southampton won their last three matches to stay up. This 2-1 success lifted Sunderland off the foot of the table, above Crystal Palace, and it gives Poyet something to build on. Having brought in one or two players who he believes can do him a job, like Bardsley and Colback, Poyet now needs to work on developing a new-found spirit. Certainly, in O’Shea and Cuellar, two vastly experienced players, I believe Sunderland have much more stability at the back than Palace, who face an increasingly difficult fight to survive in the wake of Ian Holloway’s decision to quit. Four times Palace have gone into the Premier League and four times they have been relegated straight away. It’s going to be a helluva task to avoid a fifth first-time demotion. Holloway brought in 14 players in the summer and gave up the struggle to integrate them. I did warn at the start of the season how tricky it would be for Palace to adjust to the extra demands of the big-time and I did so bearing the scars of my harsh experience at Manchester City. We barnstormed through two divisions in two seasons to get into the Premier League and I knew that too many of the players who got us there would not be up to the challenge of keeping us there. Looking at the Palace squad that won promotion, I sensed they faced similar problems to mine in 2000-2001.
FINALLY a word of congratulation to League One Bristol City on their 4-2 win at Carlisle, their first league win since March. What a huge boost for Sean O’Driscoll and his players, who were relegated last season. And what a relief to get that monkey off their backs. City were my second-last club as a player, from 1977-1980 and I have nothing but good memories of Ashton Gate, the city and its people. As a member of the League Managers’ Association Performance of the Week panel, along with Sir Alex Ferguson, Barry Fry and Dave “Harry” Bassett, I give my vote to The Robins.