When the going gets tough

Posted by Simon Curtis

With the small matter of a fifth-round FA Cup tie against Chelsea, two Champions League games with Barcelona, and the Capital One Cup final with Sunderland among the next six Manchester City fixtures, you would be right in thinking the pointy end of the season has arrived early at the Etihad.

City are in the unique position of fighting on four fronts as March approaches, a far cry from the spring buds of the past that have yielded tears and tantrums aplenty down the years as relegation struggles took shape and managers flew out of the front gates.

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With sore muscles requiring rest and tired minds needing distraction, the midweek postponement of the Premier League game with Sunderland was a godsend for Manuel Pellegrini and his stretched staff in more than one way. It will give injured players more time to prepare for the more important games coming up, allow those carrying knocks to try to shake them off with rest and recuperation and will keep the shadow of Sunderland away from our doorstep until the Wembley final in the first days of March, allowing any tactical or selection secrets to remain just that.

On the negative side, the Sunderland game that was called off so late in the day, after storms put the safety of spectators in doubt, would have acted as an excellent opportunity to get back on to a winning course, after City's compass bearings drifted off-kilter somewhat in the two previous games against Chelsea and Norwich City.

As the Londoners prepare to return north to the Etihad in the FA Cup, there is no longer any room for maneuver. How fascinating it will be to see what lessons have been learned from that evening of pain and breathlessness against Jose Mourinho's well-drilled and willing runners. Will Pellegrini choose to counter Mourinho's excellent midfield quintet by restocking the Blues' own middle orders? Will the wily Portuguese come up with something different to once again put a spanner in the works?

He will already be unhappy that his ruse to try and influence the FA into throwing the book at Yaya Toure failed and that his own Chelsea side had to play on through the bad weather in midweek, only to find their exertions were to little avail, when opponents West Brom produced a late equaliser at The Hawthorns. With Arsenal also held to a stalemate in a scrappy, nervous encounter at the Emirates by plucky little Manchester United, this tilting, swaying title race took a lurch in City's way without the Blues even steeping out onto the wet grass. With Liverpool joining the fray on the back of their 5-1 trouncing of Arsenal and a brave comeback at Fulham, and even a hitherto wobbly Tottenham coming up strong on the ropes, the race for glory is shaping up into quite a spectacle.

Among all of this jockeying for league position, the critical games start right here for City, and Pellegrini and his players know that this is where all of the good work that has been put in up to now can either turn to dust or elevate this group of players into the gilded annals of Manchester City's hall of fame. Glory awaits those who are brave, those who keep their nerve, and those who can maintain tired legs and good form into the final stretch of this fascinating season.

It was often said in the past, when successive City managers searched desperately for excuses for their latest abject failures, that when the going got tough, the crowd's nervousness sometimes transmitted to the players on the pitch. Certainly, many have said that they are influenced by the atmosphere in a ground, while others manage to shut out all surrounding noise and concentrate on the job in hand.

It is clear that City's current squad is made up of the kind of world-class professionals who live for the biggest of occasions. What the likes of Toure, Sergio Aguero and David Silva have not already experienced in top-grade football can be written on the back of a postage stamp. Whether those of us of a nervous disposition watching from the touchlines are yelling our support or under our seats in the midst of a nervous breakdown should not ultimately matter too much, therefore.

City fans can rest in the knowledge that the team is run through with strength, toughness, ability, talent and experience. Let us hope then that the maxim when the going gets tough, the tough get going applies to the boys wearing sky blue in the next six matches and beyond.

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