Manchester City failed to score against West Brom in a tense and exhilarating game at the Hawthorns.
It was the first time City had failed to find the net this season in a Premier League game. It was also one of the best goalless draws that one could wish to see. West Brom's first ever Premier League point on a Boxing Day—they had lost all five festive games to date—provided the home fans with plenty of end-of-year cheer.
Manchester City fans, however, saw their side fail to turn possession to their advantage, and watched some uninspired performances from some of their most gifted players. A series of similarly blunted performances in the season's run-in could shatter City's title hopes. Dashing talent wins sprints, but not marathons.
West Brom manager Roy Hodgson explained his defensive strategy in the press conference after the game. It was about keeping the right distances between our players and their players, he told journalists. The trick was to keep goal side of the City superstars, not to get too close so that they could race past, but to tighten up as City got anywhere near the final third.
West Brom effectively slowed down their opponents' build-up play. Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini admitted after the game that his side needed to move the ball around at a faster pace.
Hodgson's tactics worked. City dominated possession in the first half, most of which was played in Albion's territory. After half an hour's play, Mario Balotelli managed to get the ball into the net with a miss-hit volley that bounced embarrassingly past goalkeeper Ben Foster. But the assistant had flagged for offside. Not even Balotelli argued.
In the second half, Albion continued to defend just as Hodgson had asked, but they also started to believe in themselves, and dared to venture forward. Jerome Thomas drove the ball low from 20 yards to see it thump into the foot of the post with Joe Hart well beaten. It was desperately unlucky.
But so was Balotelli's audacious effort at the other end—a 35 yard shot that floated over the keeper and dipped onto the crossbar. But, there was no breakthrough moment. Albion frustrated and occasionally threatened Manchester City. David Silva and Ya Ya Toure earned their bounteous match fee. So did Milner, until he was taken off. But the other City players didn't.
Once West Brom started to prove to themselves that they were worth a point, too many Manchester City players failed to play with the drive and desire that is going to be needed in the long months ahead.
The City players have entertained us wonderfully thus far into the season, and they are still top of the table. But Manchester United, dour, unrelenting and untiring, have closed the gap and look in ominously good form.
It's been a breeze so far for City. But they really should have beaten West Brom at the Hawthorns. In the first 45 minutes, they had done enough to demoralise the home side.
In the second half, too many of their players lacked passion. They may have more class in depth than Manchester United.
But at the Hawthorns, they failed to display the strength of character that will be needed to snatch the Premier League trophy from their illustrious neighbours.