Poyetry In Motion Leaves Pellegrini With Envy
So, Roberto Mancini had it right, all along. After yet another defeat at the Sunderland Stadium of Light last Boxing Day, he grumpily commented "Next year we don't come".
The ex-City boss was reflecting on a game when his side had 20 shots but somehow failed to trouble the home keeper, as the blue half of Manchester slid to their third loss on the trot in Wearside.
Fast forward 11 months and Manuel Pellegrini will no doubt know exactly how his predecessor felt. Once again, this time on a beautiful autumnal afternoon, Manchester City laid siege to the Sunderland goal, with 24 attempts. Once again, the Black Cats custodian, Vito Mannone, was never seriously threatened.
Almost inevitably, too, once again, Sunderland made them pay for yet another win against the odds. This time, however, the stats don't bear out the truth. Last season their win was laced with good fortune, this time around Sunderland's victory was earned with a mixture of commitment, composure, organisation and at times a dash of skill.
In front of another large and raucous home crowd, Gus Poyet had set his stall out from the start. His team knocked the ball around nicely, keeping possession rather than the accustomed hopeful punt forward, and trying to unlock the City defence with a bit of guile.
It almost came off. After the visitors had pinned Sunderland back without creating anything, the home supporters were roaring their encouragement when - in the 13th minute - a beautiful cross from Seb Larsson - wide on the right - was met by the head of Steven Fletcher, going wide of the far post from about 8-yards-out.
Before that, James Milner had an effort comfortably saved by Mannone, and around five minutes afterwards, Aleksander Kolarov's shot went harmlessly wide of the right hand post. At this point, City seemed comfortable without offering much in the way of cutting edge, with Sergio Arguero well shackled by the magnificent Wes Brown.
Their comfort was soon knocked out of them though, with the huge Stadium of Light crowd erupting as Sunderland took the lead in the 21st minute. Brown, on the left, put forward a perfectly weighted long pass to, of all people, Phil Bardsley.
A villain in so many Black Cats supporters eyes, the Scotland international full-back shook off the attentions of the flailing Milner, who claimed in vain for a foul, and on the edge of the six-yard box slotted a low shot across Costel Pantilimon into the far post corner of the net.
It was a lead Sunderland deserved. Whatever it is that Poyet has done with them, it seems to involve home comforts. Before this, two home games, two victories, and supporters purring at the massive improvements. In stark contrast, the two away games had resulted in a couple of dismissals, five goals conceded, and humiliating defeat.
City themselves are no strangers to the away day blues this season. Prior to this trip to the North East, just four points had been gained from five games away from Eastlands, including three defeats. Added to that the psychological disadvantage of having already suffered three successive 1-0 defeats in Sunderland, and the enormity of the task could be seen.
To Manchester City's credit, they took control of the game, pinning Sunderland back for long spells with neat, controlled passing. The half time introduction of Jesus Navas wide on the right was also an astute substitution by Pellegrini, who caused the home rearguard no end of problems.
If their possession and territorial advantage, together with their patience, couldn't be faulted, their end product certainly could. Aguero, especially, missed glaringly in the 32nd minute, with a header missing the far post when it seemed far easier to score, after a fine Kolarov cross on the left gave the Argentine international a gaping goal to aim at.
Then in the first five minutes of the second half, Navas, on for the disappointing Javi Garcia, made his presence felt. A cross was headed wide by Alvaro Negredo, then Navas had a go himself moments later, a shot well inside the penalty area superbly blocked, with the rebound similarly dealt with.
Other than that, City never threatened Mannone in the Sunderland goal, despite the promptings of Navas The Black Cats defence coped with everything thrown at them superbly, with Brown and Bardsley excelling, and Celustka and John O'Shea so effective at cutting down space.
Larsson and Jack Colback worked tirelessly in midfield for Sunderland, too, covering every blade of grass, and closing down the City attack. In fact, you looked through the entire Sunderland team, and what you saw were players that didn't have a bad game between them.
By contrast, the Manchester City forward line of Aguero, Negredo, and eventually Dzeko, simply never looked like wanting to match the will-to-win attitude displayed by their markers, although Aguero admittedly had a shot 20 minutes from time smartly saved by Mannone. Yaya Toure, Milner and Sami Nasri never looked like delivering that killer ball. Only when Navas was in possession did City pose any threat at all.
As aimless shot after aimless shot rained down on the Sunderland goal, you could see the home defence visibly relax as the minutes ticked away. Twenty-four attempts at goal would normally guarantee a victory. With only four on target, however, and only one of those particularly dangerous, the Wearsiders never seriously looked like being pegged back.
With echoes of the famous old Roker Roar coming back, too, it meant the Sunderland Stadium Of Light was again the place to be on a Sunday afternoon as the ground rocked with noise and colour. Intoxicating stuff. This is getting to be quite a habit, not only for the team and supporters, but for Poyet himself too.
He was understandably in ebullient, if exhausted, mood afterwards. "I am very proud, very tired, like I played the game. If you can see players standing on the bench, everyone was like they were playing the game, and that is how much it means to us."
What it also means is six points out of the last three games, after the first eight yielded just one. Now within touching distance of Stoke City, a team they visit next, Poyet must now spend the next few days working out how to replicate their new found home form under his management in away games.
Travelling is clearly a problem, too, for City. After 12 goals in two games at Eastlands in the previous eight days, Pellegrini reflected on a blank day and fourth away defeat in six Premier League matches. "I'm concerned because we are losing too many points away. Of course that makes winning the title very difficult because if you don't win away it is hard to try and fight for the Premier League title. I don't think we are playing badly but we must improve."
That they must do, especially in the last third of the field on their travels. True, they are just half a dozen points from the top. Tellingly, though, that is the difference between winning half your away games and winning just one at this stage.
As for Sunderland, the turnaround, not only in their results, but in the way they play the game, has been remarkable under Poyet. It is, of course, far too early to draw any sort of considered view of what the likable Uruguayan may achieve at the Stadium of Light.
But the signs are good. Adhering to the first rule of football, winning your home games, will be crucial for Sunderland if they are to stage an unlikely rescue from Premier League relegation. It is from such home comforts under Gus, that Sunderland are within four points of safety, and are in the quarter finals of the League Cup.
One way or another, despite City's lofty heights and the Black Cats struggles, Pellegrini might just be casting an envious eye over at Sunderland and Poyet. If keeping the Wearside club up looks thankless, expecting to win every game, every trophy, is something he might just find impossible to cope with, especially if City's away day blues continue.
He has one saving grace though. At least Manchester City don't have to play Sunderland away in the league until next season. Mancini had a point.
Sunderland, once more, have all three.
Sunderland 1, Manchester City 0