For Manchester City, the holiday season has presented the defending champions the opportunity to start the new year by making a championship push. Now trailing Manchester United by just four points, City has three league games between now and January 1.
The first of this vital stretch comes against Sunderland on Wednesday, a side that is fighting to fend off the relegation zone but has played solid defense this season and will look to be inspired by the home crowd the day after Christmas.
On paper, it's a lopsided matchup in favor of Manchester City. But as we've seen all year long in the Premier League, paper and the pitch are two very different things. Let's take a closer look at this post-holiday clash.
Where: Stadium of Light, Sunderland, England
When: Wednesday, December 26 at 10 a.m. ET
Watch: FOX Soccer; FOX Soccer 2Go
What They're Saying
Kolo Toure thinks Manchester City is channeling the spirit of the Invincibles, the legendary Arsenal side that didn't lose a Premier League game in the 2003-04 season.
Seriously, he thinks that. From Richard Jolly of ESPN:
It was the same at Arsenal, that team who were the Invincibles. We just knew when we were losing or drawing, we could get the crucial goal. We have the same winning mentality here. We never accept drawing or losing a game.
It's really important to be calm because we know we can score at any time. We have so many attacking players who are capable of scoring. This time it was a midfielder who scored.
We just keep believing we will score. The belief comes from the quality players we have. Last season we know about the crucial goals we got late on and this time, Gareth Barry came and did the same.
Most Important Player to Watch: Carlos Tevez, Manchester City
You can make the argument that David Silva is the more important table-setter, Yaya Toure has a greater overall impact on the game, Sergio Aguero is the team's most dangerous scorer or that Vincent Kompany is the skipper and backbone of City's defense.
All true. But for now, nobody on City has scored or set up more goals than Carlos Tevez.
The fiery Argentinian has scored eight goals and tallied five assists, both marks leading Man City. He may still be winning back the favor of some of City's fans after last season, but Tevez has looked the part of the world-class striker he is this season.
Key Matchup: Sunderland Back Line vs. Manchester City Attack
There's a reason Sunderland has seven draws in Premier League play this season, tied for the third most. Yes, the team plays solid defense (24 goals allowed this year), but it can hardly score itself, managing just 19 goals on the year (fifth fewest in the league).
And seeing as Man City has allowed just 15 goals on the year, it's hard to imagine Sunderland suddenly brimming with goals in this match. No, to win this match Sunderland is probably going to have to keep a clean sheet.
That's no easy task, of course, not with Tevez, Aguero, Silva, Edin Dzeko and yes, even Mario Balotelli all at Roberto Mancini's disposal. Keeping City off the board will be a tall task for Sunderland, and even holding them to just a goal and hoping for a draw will be difficult.
But Sunderland won't be outscoring most opponents this year through a threatening attack, and Man City is no exception. If Sunderland hopes to pull off a shocking upset, it will have to come through a fantastic defensive effort.
Sunderland will likely bottle things up early and feed on the home crowd to take the game to the half tied at zero. But Man City will create too many chances and dominate too much of the game, leaving Sunderland with a 2-0 victory.
Hit me up on Twitter—if my tweets had a home, they would name it the Stadium of Light. Such a cool name for a stadium.