Yet Roberto Mancini’s attempts to whip up Manchester City’s followers ahead of Wednesday’s game by comparing the visit of Tottenham to a Cup final will have been met with groans from the old guard as they made their way home after a spirited comeback victory over Aston Villa.
Mancini was only 16-years-old when Ricky Villa embarked on his famous mazy Wembley run past four City defenders before slotting past Joe Corrigan to win Tottenham the FA Cup in 1981.
City’s current manager will hope another Argentinian in the shape of Carlos Tevez will make the headlines this week, particularly as the club’s recent record against Tottenham does not make for pleasant reading.
In fact Spurs have won 11 of the last 12 league and cup encounters with City, who must follow up victory in midweek by defeating West Ham next Sunday to make absolutely sure of a place in August’s play-off round of the Champions League.
“We now have what is effectively a Champions League final against Spurs and then another huge match against West Ham on Sunday,” said Mancini. “We must win against Tottenham, but I think we must concentrate the same way we did against Aston Villa and it is important we have good preparation for the match.
“What impressed me was that we did not sit back and relax. Everyone worked hard and we got our reward. I wouldn’t single anyone out because I was happy with everyone and now we go into Wednesday’s game with Tottenham with a lot of confidence.”
Negativity was threatening to drown City before a ball had been kicked on Saturday. The emergency signing of keeper Marton Fulop to replace the injured Shay Given had attracted controversy while doubts over the long-term futures of Mancini and Tevez had resurfaced.
Even when the game started, City frustrated their fans after conceding a soft goal to John Carew before clicking into gear to kill off Villa’s top four ambitions. They deserved the victory, although nerves took hold in an unexpectedly quiet second half before Shaun Wright-Phillips came on to inspire the final flourish.
Villa’s brave run, which seemed to have been ended in abrupt fashion by a 7-1 defeat at Chelsea, had been revived with four subsequent wins and a draw in five games. When Carew put them ahead, they had realistic hopes of profiting from City’s defensive fallibility, but although Carew later hit the bar, they scarcely threatened to capitalise on abundant possession in the second half.
Mancini had words of praise for Patrick Vieira, who did the solid holding job he was bought for, and Adam Johnson, whose tricky wing-play led to both goals in an extraordinary two minutes just before half-time.
Up to that point, Fulop, the Hungarian goalkeeper, had inspired little confidence and been forced to pick the ball out of his net after Villa’s first menacing attack ended with Carew scoring.
For the next 25 minutes Villa were the more fluent side. Fulop needed two grabs at James Milner’s powerful drive, and Stewart Downing fizzed one past the far post. In between, City had two confident shouts for penalties turned down and the third time they screamed, there was no argument. Stephen Warnock tripped Johnson and Tevez drove the penalty fiercely under Brad Friedel’s body. That began an eventful couple of minutes in which, with the home supporters still celebrating, Carew thumped against the bar. Yet City immediately broke, Johnson keeping his head and feet splendidly to set up an unmarked Emmanuel Adebayor to scuff it home.
Craig Bellamy’s clinical finish in the final minute completed victory while the sell-out Eastlands gallery was even treated to a public display of affection between the scorer and his manager. Bellamy, whose relationship with Mancini has been subject to speculation, ran to the Italian and gave him a high-five.
“I’ve always said there is no problem between Craig and me, after this, maybe people will believe it,” said the City boss.
For Villa, the season cannot end soon enough. Missing out on a top four finish after a strong challenge is another blow to add to the disappointment of finishing runners-up in the Carling Cup.
Martin O’Neill, who recently sent out confused messages about his own intentions, will sit down with Villa’s owner, Randy Lerner, shortly after the final game at home to Blackburn next weekend and hope to win the promise of additional funds to strengthen a team who have been unchanged for six successive games.
“We opened the season with a home defeat to Wigan Athletic and up to this point, we shared with two other teams the least number of defeats,” said the Villa manager. “It’s disappointing because we had lots of possession but I’m really proud of my players.”
MATCH RATING: *** – With so much at stake it was little surprise that both teams looked nervous at the start but the game burst into life shortly before the break as City scored twice in as many minutes while Carew was denied by the woodwork. Villa rallied briefly after the break before Bellamy sent the fans home happy.
REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear) 6 – Got the penalty spot on after Warnock’s clumsy foul on Johnson although he waved away strong home appeals for another spot kick after Warnock appeared to handle the ball inside the area.