Constants of City’s visits to Goodison Park over recent seasons? They always lose and rarely score.
Roberto Mancini might have brought the FA Cup, Premier League trophy and UEFA Champions League football to the blue side of Manchester, but his record in the respective half of Merseyside was shambolic.
In four trips to Goodison under the charismatic Italian, City netted once and failed to register a single point.
Now they return to this unhappiest of hunting grounds in the knowledge that anything less than victory will throw a wildly unpredictable title race into a fresh state of flux.
Nevertheless, there are reasons for Mancini’s successor, Manuel Pellegrini, to feel optimistic, despite Roberto Martinez masterminding arguably Everton’s most impressive season since their glory days in the 1980s.
“I think they play different football now,” Edin Dzeko told Manchester City's official website following his goalscoring contribution to last Sunday’s potentially pivotal 2-0 win over Crystal Palace. “They try to play technical football with the new manager, so it will be a very interesting game.”
While Dzeko demonstrated his customary penalty-box sharpness at Selhurst Park, here, he showed his tongue can be just as cutting.
The big Bosnian’s not-so-subtle inference was that Everton under Martinez’s predecessor, David Moyes, were not so in tune with the finer arts of the game. Way to kick a man while he’s down, Edin.
Moyes’ catastrophic and ultimately brief time in charge of Manchester United makes the notion of him being City’s tormentor-in-chief during his later years on Merseyside seem a trick of the mind.
Yet Mancini won just once in eight games against Everton. In City’s dismal return of one win in 15 Premier League games at Goodison Park, Moyes oversaw 10 fixtures.
Everton’s recent home victories to see off Arsenal and bring down the curtain on Moyes’ United tenure chillingly showed City that many of the qualities to have rattled them over the years remain. Both opponents were pressed high up the pitch to a suffocating degree, while a relentless work rate was roared on by a boisterous crowd.
Martinez’s tweaks to this style—as noted by Dzeko—have made Everton a formidable force this season. Those embellishments tied City in knots during the opening stages of this season’s league meeting at the Etihad Stadium.
But Pellegrini’s team squeaked a 2-1 interval lead and triumphed 3-1 as an Everton outfit committed to progressive football allowed room for David Silva and Co. to operate effectively and decisively.
City should still expect opponents to be breathing down their necks from kick-off on Saturday, although they may be spared the usual hostility from the Goodison terraces.
An Everton victory over City would put the title race back in Liverpool’s hands. Although cases of Evertonians rooting against their own team might have been overstated, the prospect of playing a decisive hand in Liverpool’s first league triumph in 24 years is one that could restrain fans from their usual gusto.
Were Championship League qualification still realistic, that would be the primary focus of the Goodison masses. But defeats to Crystal Palace and Southampton—amid a slew of injury problems—mean Arsenal will secure fourth place with a win over struggling West Brom on Sunday, even if Everton win less than 24 hours earlier.
On-loan City midfielder Gareth Barry joins the absentees this weekend. Martinez bemoaning Premier League rules that make Barry unavailable is understandable, given his team have won one of five league games missed by the seasoned holding player.
By contrast, the injury problems that interrupted City over recent weeks are disappearing in timely fashion. Sergio Aguero looks sharper by the match, and Yaya Toure produced a talismanic display on his return from an adductor injury against Palace.
Silva’s availability for this weekend, ahead of schedule following his latest bout of nagging ankle trouble, is perhaps the biggest boost of all. The genial playmaker’s dazzling form over recent months means his omission from end-of-year awards lists was confused as the defences he wrought havoc upon.
Hopefully, for City, Silva picks up where he left off in tandem with James Milner and not at the England international’s expense.
Rarely and perhaps regrettably, not an automatic choice in sky blue, Milner’s quiet industry was a telling factor in the Palace win. It could well be once again when the supreme attacking threat posed by Everton full-backs Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman are considered.
This is not to underplay Milner’s undervalued creative talents. He and Silva enjoy a wonderful on-field understanding—perhaps best demonstrated by their work in the October 2011 6-1 demolition of Manchester United.
The alliance is still going strong. Silva’s opener and Milner’s winner secured a stunning 3-2 comeback win at Bayern Munich in this season’s Champions League, and the latter’s introduction sparked a similar rally that cruelly fell short at Anfield three weeks ago.
It also helps that Silva and Milner, along with the bulk of their team-mates, have been here before. The 2011/12 Premier League title was won with margin for error exhausted.
“We talked about this earlier in the week - we have been in this situation two years ago and the most important thing we learned from that time is team spirit, to keep fighting until the end,” fan favourite Pablo Zabaleta told reporters last weekend.
Steven Gerrard and Liverpool’s slip against Chelsea offered City the chance to put these words into practice. Having frustratingly failed to grasp the title initiative on a number of occasions since the turn of the year, they were clinically efficient in southeast London.
If the spirit of 2012 returns alongside key players, while Everton ponder a top-four berth that appears to have slipped from their grasp, the time for Manchester City to lay their Goodison Park hoodoo to rest might just have arrived.
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