There has been a real feeling of regret emanating out of Eastlands this past fortnight as Manchester City, finally playing like the Premier League champions that they are, have slowly started to whittle away at local rivals Manchester United’s seemingly insurmountable lead at the top of the Premier League.
Five points have been made up on Sir Alex Ferguson’s runaway train in just two matches, including, of course, that utterly convincing 2-1 win at the home of the champions elect. The result left neutrals around the country, and I am sure many inside the Etihad Stadium as well, wondering just what might have been had the real City shown up earlier this season.
If Roberto Mancini’s side win their game in hand, United’s advantage at the top will have been cut from 15 points to a far more respectable 10, with still five more matches in which to further reduce the gap between now and the end of the campaign.
City are in the groove at present, playing as if it were this time last season and they were in the midst of a closely fought title run-in, having won eight of their last nine contests. A quick glance at their top-flight home form shows just the one loss all campaign, albeit to you know who.
So just where has it all gone so wrong for Mancini’s men, as United led the champions by just four points on 23 Dec 2012 as we approached the halfway mark of the season?
Well it was at the turn of the year that the Italian lost the services of his three most influential players: skipper and centre-back Vincent Kompany, powerful midfielder Yaya Toure and ace goal-poacher Sergio Aguero.
Belgium international Kompany was absent for three weeks with a calf injury (Jan. 26 to Feb. 10), Toure was with Ivory Coast until the latter stages of the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa (Jan. 19 to Feb. 3) and "Kun" Aguero suffered a hamstring injury that kept the Argentinian sidelined for much of the month (Jan 1 to Jan. 19).
A trio of key absentees that affected the entire spine of City’s team at a time when United traditionally start to make their move for the title, resulting in that four-point gap widening to a mammoth 12 points by Feb. 12.
And compounding those injuries was the simple fact that despite Sheikh Mansour sinking an estimated £1 billion into the club since buying them in 2008, City’s squad this season, unlike United’s, was simply not strong enough to retain their title.
New summer arrivals Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, Maicon, Scott Sinclair and Matija Nastasic have not been able to make the difference when called upon by Mancini, especially at the start of the year, a lesson that the experienced ex-Barcelona duo of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain will surely not be making again in the upcoming transfer window.
However, get that side of things right, and the noises coming out of City are that the two former Barca boys are already making great progress on a list of possible transfer targets for next season, and there really is much to be positive about at Eastlands going forward.
Mancini looks like guiding City to a strong Premier League finish, the side should, barring a massive upset at Wembley next month, finish the campaign with silverware for the third year in a row, and they will definitely be a far stronger and more competitive outfit next season.
Expected to depart the Etihad this summer are strikers Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko, along with centre-back Joleon Lescott and midfield player Samir Nasri, possibly to be replaced by the likes of Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Neven Subotic and Paulinho respectively.
Just as important as injecting new blood into the first-team squad, City have also made it a priority to ensure that their star performers are all tied down on new bumper deals, with both playmaker David Silva and the central-midfield driving force that is Yaya Toure agreeing to commit their long-term futures to the club this season, with the possibility also that Aguero could soon follow suit.
The aim, naturally, for City next season is twofold: to get their hands back on the title, while also demonstrating to the rest of the Continent that this nouveau-riche club is capable of mixing it with the very best at Europe’s top table in the UEFA Champions League.
And, Mancini should be given one more opportunity to prove to the club’s owners, as well as his many sceptics in England, that he is the right man to achieve these twin targets.
Stopping the juggernaut that is United from winning the Premier League is no easy task in the first place, however, then preventing Ferguson and Co. from regaining the title is virtually impossible.
In fact, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2005 and 2006 are the only team other than United to have ever won back-to-back Premier League titles, with not even the great Arsenal sides of the late 90s and early 2000s managing to achieve that feat, so there is no disgrace in Mancini’s men relinquishing their grasp on the league championship to United this campaign.
But what is crucial, though, is that they get it back next season. And supported this time by a properly thought-out and constructed summer transfer strategy, Mancini can have no excuses if City’s name is not back on the trophy next May.