Back to Earth with a bump - and three more points

Posted by Simon Curtis

For a team whose last two matches have seen a heroic win away to the champions-elect and an FA Cup semi-final triumph over the Champions of Europe, City managed to look more than just a little humble against Wigan Athletic on Wednesday.

Despite various changes in personnel, there seemed more than the odd pair of tired legs out on the Etihad turf during the 1-0 win. It is Wigan, of course, who will line up opposite the Blues on May 11 at Wembley for the FA Cup after their own victory at Wembley against Millwall and, as dress rehearsals go, this one didn't.

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It is clear that the Big Show in London still needs a little practice. Here was an opportunity for the artists and artisans to get together to eliminate any kinks in the script, to try their utmost to remember words and phrases that will make the audience gasp and to get all those gaffes out of the system before they take to the big stage when it really matters.

Clearly Wednesday mattered a little more to Wigan than it did to City. As they consider yet another escape from danger, Wigan fans hold their breath and wait for the timely action to unfold, for the crucial results to appear, as they seem to do around this time every year. Their side is talented, their manager too and the heavy-footed big boys just above them in the table can feel the hot breath on the backs of their necks.

The message from this game must be: Don't look back, Villa, Newcastle, Stoke, Sunderland, for Wigan are in a decent vein of form.

Perhaps, in hindsight, the visitors will feel they have more chance of gaining those critical points in some of their forthcoming games, but in truth there was fruit to be picked here, too. But for fine saves from Joe Hart, the Latics would have been ahead before sublime work from the terrier Carlos Tevez sealed the points late on for City. It was proof that if you plug away at the basics, the words all fall into place eventually and the tigerish scavenging of Tevez, a willing runner all night, brought its reward eventually.

Roberto Mancini, mindful of the critical game at White Hart Lane on Sunday, rested a number of the battlers from Sunday's epic semi-final. In came Lescott, Kolarov and the long-absent Micah Richards in an almost completely refurbished back line. Even Hart behind them had not played against Chelsea.

Costel Pantilimon's fine efforts in that match did not bring him a second consecutive game. Instead rumours persist of interest from Fiorentina in the beanpole Romanian keeper. If Richards' long-awaited appearance gained whistles of delight from the crowd, the sight of Javi Garcia lining up in midfield tempered the enthusiasm of some for whom the Spaniard epitomises the failed transfer activity that has blighted City's progress this season. At times it appeared a supermarket bag blowing around midfield had gained slightly more pace than the big man.

Pace is not everything, however, and speed of thought, positioning and an eye for space and movement of others can see so-called slower players through a game with flying colours. One only has to look at the recent performances of Gareth Barry to see a much-maligned player performing to the very best of his ability.

Wigan will well remember Shaun Goater, another player whose gait and first touch belied a keen nose for where the goal was. It was the gangling Bermudian who stole the show the last time a match between these sides really got the blood moving, 14 long years ago, when both City and Wigan were struggling to emerge intact from the third tier of English professional football.

This stuttering, disjointed match had little of the edge-of-the-seat raw tension of that occasion and was more of a return to some of the darker moments of a City campaign that began so rich in promise but is now ending in the relatively becalmed safety of a likely second-place finish.

City fans are unaccustomed to glancing at league tables at this time of the season and not pouring over maybes and what-ifs, but the growing certainty is that United are too far ahead and that the chasing pack do not have the legs to catch up from behind.

This can be a help or a hindrance in the coming weeks, leading to complacency and selection reshuffles like Wednesday, or it can be seen as a chance to end the season brightly and strongly, surging hard for the finishing line and fine tuning for the big day out in London in May.

If a dress rehearsal helps gauge an audience's responses to what will happen on the big night and helps the man in charge pare down the material and rearrange the cast of stars to fit into the plan for 90 minutes of allotted action on the big occasion, then this will have been a useful exercise. As they say in showbiz, it will be all right on the night.

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