It's all come down to the FA Cup for Manchester City.
Out of the title race, humbled at home by Aston Villa in the League Cup and making an early exit from Europe, winning the FA Cup would represent the only bit of respite for beleaguered City and manager Roberto Mancini. Yet even Mancini lifting the trophy in May might not be enough to save his job, especially with Jose Mourinho sure to be seeking a new employer this summer.
Here are three games to watch in the fifth round this weekend, led by City hosting Leeds United.
1. Manchester City vs. Leeds, Sunday
What a shocker it was for Manchester City last weekend at Southampton, and Mancini had to shoulder much of the blame.
As good as the aesthetically pleasing Saints were, the Italian boosted the home team by starting Javi Garcia in the center of defense and Samir Nasri in midfield instead of James Milner, who was City's best player a week earlier, when his side was fortunate to draw Liverpool 2-2. It would be all too easy to focus on Joe Hart and Gareth Barry for their individual errors, because Southampton controlled most of the 90 minutes.
Mancini's recent criticism of Hart and striker Sergio Aguero -- two no-nonsense players who always fight for the cause -- is reminiscent of a father chiding a favorite son: He knows they can do better. Mancini not castigating Nasri suggests he probably knows he bought a dud. He's not worth the effort.
City has missed captain Vincent Kompany's presence in the heart of defense, so his possible return would be welcomed by Mancini, and Yaya Toure has had another week to recover from the African Cup of Nations. Such was City's desperation to not drop points last week that Toure started. He was, not surprisingly, lethargic.
If Hart doesn't play, don't label it a benching. Backup Costel Pantilimon has started in City's two previous FA Cup games.
“This is a match we have to win,” City striker Carlos Tevez, back from compassionate leave for family reasons and in a goal slump, told the club Web site. “It is very important for all the players because the FA Cup is something we still have a good chance of winning.”
Mancini will know not to underestimate any team managed by Neil Warnock, and Leeds thumped City 5-2 in Manchester when they last met in the competition 13 years ago. Leeds, too, upset Tottenham in the previous round of the FA Cup.
Facing the defending Premier League champion could re-energize Leeds, which is winless in three in the Championship and sold top scorer Luciano Becchio to Norwich in January.
A win, or even courageous loss, would assist Leeds in its difficult chase to make the playoffs -- not to mention putting Mancini's position under further threat.
Prediction: 4-1 Manchester City
2. Oldham vs. Everton, Saturday
Those who witnessed Oldham's 3-2 win over Liverpool in the fourth round would say the Latics should be challenging for promotion in the third tier of English football.
Instead, Oldham sits in the relegation zone and parted company with manager Paul Dickov -- a scrappy striker adored in his playing days at City -- shortly after eliminating the Reds.
Easier to get motivated for Liverpool than, oh, let's say, Colchester or Carlisle, eh?
Even before the win against Liverpool, Everton manager David Moyes didn't need reminding of Oldham's prowess in the FA Cup. Five years ago, Everton fell 1-0 at Oldham in the third round. It's been part of a feast-or-famine scenario for Moyes in the FA Cup: Everton reached the final in 2009 but, in addition to the defeat to Oldham, stumbled at Shrewsbury Town in 2003.
Unlike Liverpool, Everton is certain to start its strongest team possible, which means impressive trio Marouane Fellaini, Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines should all feature. Fellaini will be a nuisance going forward and help to defend 6-foot-6 striker Matt Smith, the two-goal hero against Liverpool, on set pieces in the Everton box. Smith, suffering from a shoulder injury of late, is expected to be fit.
Oldham's other goal scorer against Liverpool -- Manchester City owned fullback Reece Wabara -- has since left for Blackpool on loan.
“I've lost to Oldham and Shrewsbury, so I'm well aware of what can happen if you don't prepare correctly,” Moyes, whose Toffees are fading in the race for fourth in the Premier League, told reporters this week.
He'll be prepared this time.
Prediction: Everton 2-0
3. Luton Town vs. Millwall, Saturday
Just qualifying for the third-round proper of the FA Cup was an achievement for Luton: The Hatters, who won the League Cup in 1988, now play in the fifth-tier Conference.
Once into the mix in early January, Luton didn't stop there, adding to the Wolves' misery in the fourth round and ousting Norwich at the end of January. But the buildup to Saturday's game hasn't centered on those surprising victories. Rather, thoughts have turned to 1985 and the "Kenilworth Road riot" when Millwall, historically associated with hooliganism, visited Luton's ground in the quarterfinals.
In a story published Friday, the BBC described the events that unfolded that evening as "being the most vivid and plaintive example of 1980s hooliganism."
Away fans ripped up seats and stormed the pitch after Luton's 1-0 win, clashing with police. It was mayhem.
“I think we've moved on as a society, let alone moved on in football,” Luton managing director Gary Sweet said.
More police than usual, however, will be inside the stadium, Sweet added.
If anything untoward develops, there is no hiding -- the early kickoff is being televised in the UK.
It's all come down to the FA Cup for Manchester City.