Story of a Season: Part Two - Priority Change

Posted by Simon Curtis

Robin van Persie free-kick Man Utd v Man cityPA PhotosRobin van Persie's stoppage-time free-kick at Eastlands in December was arguably the key moment in the 2012-13 title race

If Ajax cleans brightest, then City were in need of industrial strength bleach to clean up their Champions League act, once their two games with the Amsterdammers had been played. A dismal and lethargic 3-1 defeat in Holland was followed by a sloppy and demoralising 2-2 draw at the Etihad. Once the yearly excuses of annual participation in the competition's group of death had been delivered, it was time to lick wounds and find real reasons for the collapse.

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Questions abounded: Would this have a knock-on effect in the league? Were City's expensive stars not up to it? Was Roberto Mancini cursed in European competition? As autumn faded and winter took its grip, the blue half of Manchester munched on an unseasoned salad of cold comfort and sour grapes.

A November surge produced a welcome win over Tottenham, a tough draw at Stamford Bridge and the annual mauling of Aston Villa - this time to the tune of 5-0. The match with Spurs was a cliff-hanger for the second consecutive season, with the crowd made to wait until the 88th minute for Edin Dzeko's winner, smashed high past Villa keeper Brad Friedel. The end of the month saw a hard-fought win at Wigan, which exposed some of the season's ongoing problems to a wider audience.

The mercurial Kun Aguero partnered Mario Balotelli up front. The little Argentine's form had been affected by his opening-day injury and the goals - for him and for the side - were not flowing as they had the previous season. Worse could be said to have happened to the big Bosnian, who was to spend the entire season in and out of the side, his hunch-shouldered misery clear for all to see. The Wigan game did see a brief return of the sheer doggedness that had brought City their first title in 44 years, with goals finally arriving midway through the second period of a game where Wigan had at the very least given as good as they got. The Latics would feature in two more significant clashes with City before the season was out and would have a big say in the destinations of both the end-of-season trophies and City's urbane Italian manager.

Whilst eyes began to swivel in the direction of Dzeko, whose patchy form seemed to epitomise all that had started to go wrong for the Blues, City were still unbeaten in the league, a run which stretched back 20 games when one took the end of the previous season into account. The run had actually started against West Brom the previous April, on a night when a galvanised City kick-started their run in with a 4-0 win whilst Manchester United were busy losing unexpectedly at, of all places, Wigan Athletic. Whilst the symmetry of this little moment in time was captivating, City's struggle for form was less so.

The appearance of Maicon and Javi Garcia in the Wigan win served only to remind everyone of the club's failed transfer spree in the summer and how being unbeaten this far into the season did not actually mean so much when the biggest threat was already out in front and building up a real head of steam. United's wily old manager had always warned against looking at the league table with any degree of seriousness before Christmas, but, as the festive season loomed on the horizon, the indisputable truth of a widening gap in terms of points and form could no longer be ignored.

December started catastrophically, with the annual failure to tame Everton's energetic enthusiasts, a dozy defeat to Borussia Dortmund's second string and a home Manchester Derby that told the world once and for all that the 2012-13 die was about to be cast. City lost the unbeaten run, the game itself and the psychological battle for the rest of the season in one fell swoop. It was at once the most important and the most damaging result of the season.

Two down thanks to a dose of unorthodox defending, City came screaming back to draw level when Pablo Zabaleta, having a season to remember already, blasted in a delicious late equaliser to tie a thundering game up at 2-2. Sadly, with City surging on adrenaline and looking the better bet to snatch a dramatic winner, we were instead rewarded by the sight of Samir Nasri choosing unwisely to protect his family jewels ahead of the space at the end of the City defensive wall for a 92nd-minute free kick from Robin van Persie. As Nasri ducked and took a firm hold of himself awaiting impact, the ball sheared off his knee and the minor arc produced just enough effect on the ball to edge it away from Joe Hart's fingertips and inside the far post. Van Persie, the striker Mancini had coveted all summer, had won it for United. City's unbeaten run was over. The gap at the top had been extended to six points. It had been possibly the most detrimental result of the season, once again demonstrating capably the infinitesimal margins that frequently exist between success and failure.

As the year once again wound down with a comedy defeat at the Stadium of Light (no injury-time offside winner this time, just Adam Johnson rubbing City noses in the dirt), attention moved uneasily to the FA Cup and a home tie with Gianfranco Zola's Watford. With the gap seemingly widening at the top on a weekly basis, people were beginning to ask if the FA Cup and not the Premier League might become City's main focus in the new year. How the press and, more importantly, City's energetically ambitious owners, might take to this wild swing in priorities, would be open to quite some debate.

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