West Brom dig deep to frustrate City
FULL of frustration, Manchester City left here with a solitary point amidst plenty of talk about a tipping point. By the time Roberto Mancini's side next take to the field, they may have surrendered the high ground of the Premier League to Manchester United.
"I think United will win the next game,'' said Mancini of the champions' home fixture with Blackburn Rovers on December 31, Alex Ferguson's 70th birthday. "It's more difficult for us.
"I'm disappointed because we play January 1 (versus Sunderland away) and January 3 (versus Liverpool at home) and Liverpool play December 30 (home to Newcastle) and then the third against us.''
Mancini's annoyance is with Liverpool enjoying a longer rest. "I'm not happy with this situation,'' he said. "It's not correct. To play twice in 48 hours will make a difference. We know that it's impossible to stay top for all 38 games but I am confident we can do a good job by the end. United have a strong team but we are strong enough to do this."
City need to stay strong, stay calm and remember the phenomenal depth of their squad. Sometimes it is about strength of character as much as technique. West Brom's back-four cost £2.3m yet they tackled and blocked, harried and headed clear as if their season depended on it, utterly frustrating the leaders, who failed to score for the first time in the Premier League this season.
Albion can hardly be accused of parking the bus, not with Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie up top and the lively Jerome Thomas driving down the flank, almost breaking Joe Hart's right-hand post at one point.
But it was the performance of four unsung defenders that guaranteed such an ear-splitting roar at the final whistle.
Vincent Kompany, one of the few City players to do well, lamented afterwards that his team "didn't have the killer instinct today" but they need to grind out wins. City needed to move the ball quicker when regaining possession to catch out West Brom before they could rebuild the barricades.
Mario Balotelli tried hard but ran into a defensive wall. David Silva, Aguero and Samir Nasri shimmered about but failed to hurt West Brom. Even Mancini's attacking subs, Adam Johnson and Edin Dzeko, were unable to trouble Roy Hodgson's defence.
"We knew the magnitude of the task,'' reflected the West Brom manager. "We are not a great clean-sheet team so it was great to do it against a side of Man City's calibre. It's a bit concerning when you're the opposing manager watching the likes of Dzeko and Johnson coming on when already you are dealing with Aguero and Balotelli. They do have a lot of riches at the moment.''
City certainly had a lot of the ball. The movement of Nasri, Aguero and Silva behind Balotelli was fluid enough, just simply not incisive enough to find a way through.
Albion kept dropping deep, two banks of four capped by their two strikers pressing. Long nicked the ball off James Milner, then Odemwingie closed down Yaya Toure. The tone was set.
Milner headed wide to cries of "Villa reject". Nasri was denied by Ben Foster. Gareth McAuley cleared a Gael Clichy cross. Billy Jones slid in for a fine tackle on Aguero.
Albion did threaten occasionally on the counter. Chris Brunt startled Hart with a volley just wide. Kompany did brilliantly to intercept a Brunt cross.
The second half began with City dominant. Balotelli, cutting in from the left, unleashed a 30-yarder which beat Foster but not the bar.
But Albion were more forceful after the break. When Thomas crossed from the right, Kolo Toure dozed off, allowing Long a glimpse of goal but he headed wide. Most of the action was in Foster's goalmouth. Jonas Olsson headed out another Clichy cross. McAuley nipped in to nick the ball away from Aguero. And on it went.
City still had to beware West Brom on the break -- 18 minutes from time, Thomas drove in from the right and was thwarted only by the post. Down the other end, Albion's defenders were repelling all-comers. McAuley cut out crosses from Clichy, Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta. Olsson was first to a Johnson cross before making a marvellous stop on Silva. The game ended with Jones dispossessing Dzeko. How fitting.
For all City's frustration, Hodgson can see them rivalling United until May.
"I think it will be tough right through to the end,'' he said. "In some ways the riches are on the blue side of Manchester and the experience, quality and talent is equally as good on the red side.
"The impressive thing about Manchester United is they had just put five past Fulham and now they have done it again (against Wigan yesterday). They are flying. It will be a fascinating duel.'' City must find top gear again.