There’s a few rumblings going around that Manchester City are on the verge of ‘doing a Newcastle’, spiralling into a demise that saw Kevin Keegan’s team of 1996 throw away a 12 point lead and succumb to Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils at ‘squeaky bum time’. Such a suggestion is understandable given the way City have fallen from a position of pre-eminence to a team now three points behind, with their tricky game in hand victory over Chelsea being their only recent opportunity to reign in the reigning champions.
Such a comparison, though, does a disservice to the way Roberto Mancini’s side have took to the Premier League this season and provided us with one team capable of laying down the gauntlet to the Red half of Manchester. Cold hard facts differentiate Keegan’s pretenders of ’96 with what may yet prove to be the real deal from the Ethiad Stadium.
So, here is the case for the defence. Newcastle lost eight league games in 1995-96; City have lost only four through 30 matches in 2011-2012. The Toon dropped 13 points in their final nine games; City are supposedly in crisis mode, but have taken an impressive 19 points from their most recent nine Premier League encounters. In the Premier League this season, City are averaging 2.33 points per game, while in 95-96 Newcastle recorded 2.05 points per game. As you may have guessed, City’s average this season would comfortably have won the league back in May 1996, with that year’s champions United only recording a 2.16 points per game average over the course of the season.
This all suggests that the supposed capitulation (which has, undeniably, been exacerbated by City’s poor European form – not that United’s has been any better) is down less to their own shortcomings but to the performance of a rival. Ferguson’s team have been breathtaking in Premier League games of recent weeks, and their ascendancy to the top of the tree has been exceptional. With Peter Crouch’s wonder goal undoing Joe Hart and co. at the weekend the gap is now three points and who would have thought that after the infamous 6-1 humbling at Old Trafford in October. Since losing 3-0 to Newcastle in January The Red Devils have won nine and drawn only one of their Premier League games, recording no losses. When you consider that the only points dropped felt like a victory – a pulsating comeback from 3-0 down to draw the game at Stamford Bridge – the case that it is United’s supremacy rather than City’s failings that has pulled them ahead is strengthened.
That argument is further underlined by City’s hard-fought victory over Chelsea last week and a resilience that saw them come back from a deficit to lose neither of their last two league matches. Teams with less mental strength may well have returned much less than the creditable four points Mancini’s team mustered from two testing fixtures. Would a team who is ‘bottling it’ have produced those results?
So after all of their recent difficulties it is worth remembering that City still have the league title in their own hands and the 30th April blockbuster at Eastlands will doubtless be crucial. Gareth Barry is right to come out and say that City cannot afford to drop any further points if they are to pip United. Yet if City were to win seven and draw one of their final fixtures and United stay ahead, the Etihad faithful should accept they only failed because their rivals were so good, and they can be proud of their season in the knowledge that they will be back again.
And when all is said and done that is what really separates City from the Geordie pretenders of ‘96 – Keegan’s team had their one chance and blew it; however this season finishes, rest assured that City will be contenders for many years to come.