The analysis rather writes itself, doesn’t it? Great performance. Great point. Means little if we don’t follow it up on Tuesday night.
Tuesday night will be approached in good heart though, and because of this. Before the match, hopes were limited to a respectable performance that offered encouragement for the two winnable home fixtures that followed. A point wasn’t regarded as a serious outcome, while victory seemed faintly comical.
But City have performed stoutly at the bigger clubs this season (and yes, that makes the failures elsewhere all the more aggravating). This was no exception, and from the off it was clear that City were intent upon making amends for the pitiful performance against Newcastle last week.
There’d been changes too, four in personnel and a shift to the 3-5-2 formation that seems to suit us much better. Jelavić, Hernández, Robertson and Davies were all dropped as McShane, Aluko, Bruce and Brady came in. New signing Dame N’Doye was on the bench for the Tigers.
Manchester Hunter, as our the City owner so imaginatively suggested they be renamed, with without the talismanic Yaya Toure, and manager Manuel Pellegrini made three changes of his own. In came Samir Nasri, Edin Džeko and Pablo Zabaleta.
We were treated to snowbound scenery over the Pennines en route, but upon arrival in Manchester it was a pleasant enough afternoon. Outside, the stewards were characteristically unfriendly outside, though I’ll charitably assume the cuff that knocked my specs off was accidental. Inside, they did at least clear leave us alone, and a reasonable City following was allowed to collectively stand. Meanwhile, despite them being the English champions, Manchester Hunter evidently didn’t appeal enough to the sort of half-scarf wearing tourists who pollute our followings elsewhere to turn up here. Good.
Equally good was how City began the game. Far from sitting back and letting their hosts dictate the game, the first effort of the game came from Steve Bruce’s men, smart play fashioning a chance that Aluko hit low straight to Joe Hart.
Encouraging stuff, and though Džeko had a header well saved by McGregor a few minutes later, it was obvious that the champions were a little off-colour, in no small part because of City’s tenacious organisation and intelligent play on the break.
After quarter of an hour, City came desperately close to taking the lead. Robbie Brady sent in a superb cross from the left that Elmohamady met at the far post. Electing to use his head this week instead of cheating with his hand, the Egyptian smacked a meaty header goalwards that struck Hart’s crossbar and bounced to safety. Great play, and unlucky for City.
Things quietened after this, largely to City’s benefit. The game wasn’t a particularly fluid one, with City not surprisingly happy to sit deep. With half an hour gone, we still hadn’t faced a serious threat to our goal, and the spookily silent home fans conveyed the sense of unease around the Etihad.
That unease escalate dramatically on 35 minutes, when City took the lead. Aluko fastened onto a neat through ball by Brady, though Demichelis nicked it off him. That’d drawn Hart of his line though, and when Demichelis’ scuffed clearance fell to Livermore, his low drive from 25 yards was parried by Hart, almost on his own penalty spot. The ball was headed clear, bobbled around a bit and in the process of tackling a blue-shirt Gastón Ramírez struck the post from the edge of the area. The ball then fell to Meyler, who coolly slotted the ball past the still out of position Hart. And in!
The City fans who’d been aching for the ball to go in for some twenty seconds went absolutely mental as Meyler sauntered off in delight. As we partied, it had the effect of knocking the home side even more, and the next chance actually fell to the Tigers. A delivery from the right by Huddlestone was again only half-cleared to Aluko, who skied what was quite a difficult chance.
With half-time imminent, a chance fell to Sami Nasri in the area after tidy build-up play by the home side. He was in a couple of yards of space, and must have thought he had the chance to take a touch. He’d reckoned without Alex Bruce, who gobbled up the space and inserted a brutally challenge that took the ball and Nasri in one glorious moment. Splendid, brave stuff. And it enable us to cheer the lads off at half-time still ahead.
Well. After the horrors of last week, we’d seen a hearty response. At half-time, we still ruminated on the prospect of losing – still the likeliest outcome, according to the bookmaking fraternity. But at least we’d seen something from our team to restore hope.
That hope was to increase as the minutes of the second half ticked by. Not until McGregor made a fine save in the 55th minute to tip away a Džeko volley did we face a serious challenge to the lead – though just a minute later, the home side had a legitimate looking claim for a penalty when Bruce tussled with one of theirs. Not given. Felt fortunate.
Still the minutes ticked by, with City looking remarkably comfortable. Elmohamady was booked, Aluko was withdrawn for Robertson, and then more yellow was flashed at Dawson and Livermore as the game went through a horribly scrappy phase.
Bit by bit, City almost completely withdrew as an attacking force, ceding huge tracts of space to Hunter. N’Doye came on for Ramírez, and then yellow was aimed at a brace of home players, Nasri and then Fernandinho.
In the 90th minute, we were lucky to avoid a leveller when a magnificent piece of control by Aguero saw him bring down a looping cross and then smash a shot from a narrow angle against the bar and away.
Then, just when we thought we’d done it, we hadn’t. Huddlestone coughed up a cheap free-kick for a foul on Aguero, and from the resulting free-kick James Milner sent a fabulous curling shot around the wall and past McGregor.
You can quarrel with the wall’s positioning (though it seemed fine), or McGregor’s reactions, but it was also a very good strike. A man on the line would have punted it away of course, but these are all ifs and buts.
There was no time for anything else, and the game ended level. A bitter end perhaps, but as the players came over for deserved acclaim there’ll be no-one who could seriously doubt that we were worth a point, a trifle unlucky not to get more, and that the heart and spirit were back. And that was every bit as precious as the unexpected point we won.
Well done City. Now, if we could just follow that up on Tuesday…