Verdict: Manchester City 0 Everton 2
Goals: Cahill 33 and Arteta 85 for Everton.
Another disappointing defeat to Everton put a dent in City’s Champions League ambitions as we failed to break through a typically organised defence in a feisty, frustrating game.
Joleon Lescott may have been the most talked about of City’s absentees but it was Wayne Bridge and Emmanuel Adebayor who were more sorely missed as we struggled to create and take chances. The ridiculous four match ban for the Togolese finally caught up with City as we needed one of his moments of brilliance to convert territorial advantage into a goal.
Roberto Mancini surprisingly dropped Santa Cruz to the bench and reverted to a five man midfield with Stevie Ireland getting another opportunity. Possibly mindful of the trouble Everton had caused our full-backs at Goodison Park, Mancini moved the defensively strong Zabaleta to left-back, while the height of Richards was restored to the team. Vieira made way for the greater covering skills of de Jong.
This was a match where the result determined much of the media’s assessment, with City’s peformance widely derided, while that of David Moyes’ side has been lauded. The reality was a closer affair where both sides enjoyed periods of dominance, with the critical moment coming against the run of play.
Everton started brightly as City seemed unconvinced by their own 4-5-1 system leaving Tevez isolated against Distin and Jagielka, who were able to gobble up any high balls punted forward. Then City found their passing game and started to dominate midfield with Ireland coming into the game after a quiet start.
What proved to be City’s best chance came from a finely lobbed throughball from the Irishman and Tevez looked sure to reach it ahead of Howard. The wet turf saw the ball accelerate slightly to prevent Carlos getting a decent touch and the Everton keeper took him out while defensive cover saw the shepherded away.
Tevez was everywhere in the opening period, looking determined to lead City on a charge to fourth place. Likewise Bellamy wasn’t going to allow Everton to dominate as they had done at Goodison Park. Two moments changed all this.
The first was Heitinga’s cynical foul from behind on Ireland that effectively took him out of the game. This was a real blow for the player as he had been given a precious opportunity by Mancini and was looking dangerous.
Next came the opening goal. An increasingly rare Everton break saw Cahill hold off Barry until he reached a nice spot for a free-kick where he went down. The sharply taken set-piece that saw the Australian score was in contrast to all our corners and free-kicks where we failed to create a single decent chance. It’s in such fine differences that games such as this can be won or lost, and so it proved.
Both the crowd and the team were deflated by the goal, with the referee not helping things as Moyes’ side continued to show they’re not averse to using football’s dark arts. Another professional foul, this time on Tevez as he did brilliantly to break free, saw City’s frustration boil over.
For once the Argentine wasn’t able to do it on his own, and the he received little assistance when first Craig Bellamy, then Roque Santa Cruz were asked to play alongside him.
A goal ahead, Everton could sit deeper and focus on absorbing City’s attempts to break them down. Any opportunity for the skill of our attacking players on the break was gone, and Mancini was forced to bring on Santa Cruz early in the second period.
Once again we steadily regained the initiative after a quiet opening, though Roque wasn’t giving us any additional impact in the penalty area. Vieira was the final throw of the dice, with Richards surprisingly making way. Zabaleta switching to right-back and Barry to left-back was presumably meant to offer more creativity from the left-back spot – as it had against Sunderland.
It didn’t work as Everton were able to exploit Barry’s unfamiliarity with the position. De Jong may have been a better sacrifice for Vieira as by this time we required more creative passing from the middle.
Against a well organised defence we needed the additional attacking option of full-backs augmenting wingers and this was where Bridge was missed. The right-footed Zabaleta can’t play the role of overlapping left-back and the struggle to get a regular supply of crosses into the box was noticeable throughout.
On the sidelines, Mancini looked increasingly frustrated with the players failure to create openings and the timewasting tactics of Everton. The confrontation with Moyes was entertaining enough and should assuage any doubts about his committment to City’s fourth place mission.
He knows how he wants the players to play and his stress levels rise visibly when they fail to carry it out. Sadly a touchline ban looks inevitable, which is a shame as the in-game directions have proved a useful facet of his management style. A mobile link-up with Brian Kidd beckons.
At the final whistle, it felt like our Champions League aspirations lay in tatters, with the only silver lining coming in Aston Villa’s draw against Sunderland. Undoubtedly a good night for Liverpool and Tottenham, but on reflection not fatal to ourselves.
“We thought we could capitalise on our game in hand but it didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t work out that way and we are devastated in the dressing room.
“There are no ifs and buts. We have eight cup finals and we have to win them all starting against Wigan on Monday night.”
Our fate is still in our own hands if we beat Tottenham. What this result means, like our draw at Sunderland, is there is less room for error. With games against United, Arsenal and Villa before Spurs, this is a tall order but not one that’s necessarily beyond us.
The return of an in-form Adebayor could give us a lift, while recent matches have shown a commendable fighting spirit within the team – no matter what Moyes might say. This squad looks increasingly determined to get into the Champions League and whilst it may need a couple of slip-ups by our rivals, it could still be done.