This match was seen by many as a formality, a game that would provide Manchester City with a straightforward win to pick themselves up after the defeat to Liverpool on Sunday. Sunderland, who are at the bottom of the league and have a manager who himself felt before this game that their chances of survival are minimal, were surely there for the taking.
But this has been no ordinary Premier League. To underestimate teams in this division is to jeopardise your own success, and that’s arguably what Manuel Pellegrini was guilty of in this match. A 2-2 tie has left his side's title hopes hanging by a thread, with Liverpool now firmly in the driving seat, six points ahead of City, albeit having played a game more.
Pellegrini made five changes to the side that lost to Liverpool on Sunday. In came Aleksandar Kolarov, Javi Garcia, James Milner, Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero. David Silva, who has been struggling with an ankle injury in recent weeks, missed out.
The home side went ahead inside two minutes and the feeling it would be a straightforward affair increased. The lively Sergio Aguero, making his first start since the return leg of City's Champions League tie with Barcelona over a month ago, played the ball to Alvaro Negredo who produced a superb dummy, allowing Fernandinho to score.
But City, once again, were wide open at the back and Sunderland carved out a glut of chances, with John O'Shea culpuable of missing two gilt-edged headers. The warning signs were there but City seemingly took little notice.
Connor Wickham, who had gone 29 league games without a goal, scored two in the second-half to put Sunderland in front as City's title hopes flashed before their eyes. Samir Nasri equalised after Vito Mannone fumbled his shot, and the Frenchman could have won it for City in the final moments, but he shot over the bar from six yards out.
City's title hopes had evaporated with a whimper.
Wickham had gone 29 Premier League appearances since his last PL goal.— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) April 16, 2014
Pellegrini’s tactical inflexibility has been laid bare in recent weeks and he must take responsibility for the collapse in his side’s title challenge. At Liverpool on Sunday, where most managers would have guarded against the threat of a team known for the attacking potency in the early stages of their home games, the Chilean sent his side out wide open and they were ruthlessly taken apart in the first 30 minutes.
It isn't like he wasn’t warned. Liverpool, the league's top scorers, had scored four in the opening 20 minutes against Arsenal and three in the early stages against Everton in recent weeks. Pellegrini’s naivety cost City that game, despite their excellent second-half performance, which almost rescued them a point.
Where the likes of Brendan Rodgers and Jose Mourinho pride themselves on their tactical flexibility, utilising players in various roles and switching systems to fit certain games, Pellegrini appears hellbent on sticking rigidly to his all-out-attacking philosophy, which has ultimately proved his side's downfall.
City have played 13 games more than Lpool and it shows. Four big games v Bayern and Barca, so pretty intense fixtures too.— Mark Ogden (@MOgdenTelegraph) April 16, 2014
Pellegrini told reporters after the game that the defeat to Liverpool had weighed heavily on his players' minds.
Of course the chances are less than before the match. It was very important for us to win the three points, for different reasons we couldn’t but we continue fighting to the end.
I don’t think less confidence, I think we couldn’t take out of the mind the game against Liverpool and that was the consequence why the team didn’t play well today.
At the start of the season, most observers were of the opinion City had the strongest set of players in the league, yet when it's mattered this season they've fallen short. Their manager must surely take a large portion of the blame, and the club's inquest into where it has gone wrong for City will surely begin straight away.
It's unlikely they'll get a better chance to win the league again and it seems they've blown it.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here: @RobPollard_.
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