West Ham 0 Manchester City 0
Roberto Mancini’s tinkering backfired again as Manchester City blew the chance to join Manchester United at the top of the Barclays Premier League at West Ham tonight.
Ten days after his three-at-the-back experiment in City’s shattering Champions League defeat at Ajax, manager Mancini was at it again at the other end of the pitch at Upton Park.
But the decision to start with Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko in the same XI for the first time failed just as spectacularly as the champions failed to score for the first time in almost seven months.
It could have been even worse for Mancini’s men had Kevin Nolan not seen an early goal controversially ruled out for offside as West Ham more than held their own and were marshalled brilliantly by Winston Reid and James Tomkins.
On this evidence, City really will need the “miracle” Mancini predicted to rescue their Champions League campaign, starting in Tuesday’s revenge mission against Ajax.
Their manager’s radical tactics are becoming reminiscent of another Italian, famously dubbed ’The Tinkerman’, and we all know what happened to Claudio Ranieri.
Mancini yesterday mocked suggestions he could become a victim of the swelling ex-Barcelona influence at City, amid rumours Pep Guardiola may be lined up to replace him.
He refused to deny he reports he came close to agreeing to join Monaco before City’s extraordinary title triumph.
He proved he was a gambling man at both ends of the pitch today, handing Kolo Toure his first league start since August and recalling James Milner, although he was forced into a last-minute change when the latter hurt his hamstring in the warm-up and was replaced by Gareth Barry.
That may have scuppered Mancini’s Plan A but there were no excuses for the shocking defending that should have seen them behind inside four minutes.
Mark Noble played a simple straight free-kick over the top, which Nolan brilliantly volleyed first time past Joe Hart.
The assistants’ flag was up instantly, although replays showed Nolan may have been level.
Five minutes later and City should have been bemoaning an offside flag but Dzeko headed a simple rebound wide anyway after Jussi Jaaskelainen parried Samir Nasri’s stinger.
Mohamed Diame was close with a rising drive after easily beating Toure, who was looking far from comfortable as a makeshift right-back.
He was almost caught out again when a good crossfield ball found the lively Matt Jarvis, whose cross was met superbly on the run by Yossi Benayoun.
Hart appeared to tip the Israeli’s thunderbolt against the bar and over but the officials thought otherwise.
Andy Carroll also went close to his customary goal against City, whose new-look attack continued to misfire.
The same could be said of the assistant referees, who spared Balotelli’s blushes when they controversially flagged again after the striker horribly shinned Tevez’s free-kick from point-blank range.
The Italian also snatched at a cutback from Toure and miscued an overhead kick from Nasri’s cross before the break.
Jaaskelainen almost fumbled Tevez’s snapshot after the restart before getting away with spilling the striker’s corner as City threatened, while James Collins was also booked for a cynical check on Dzeko.
But West Ham got going again and Nolan failed to glance Benayoun’s cross on target before Carroll did likewise with his own overhead attempt.
Benayoun joined Collins in the referee’s notebook as Tevez continued to pull the strings for City, although his finishing was badly awry when give a chance to break the deadlock.
That was nothing compared to one of the misses of the season midway through the half from Barry, who controlled Tevez’s ball on his chest put somehow prodded wide from barely three yards.
Mancini had seen enough and hauled off Balotelli for Sergio Aguero, with Hammers boss Sam Allardyce sending on Gary O’Neil for Diame.
Suddenly, City were swarming but Reid and Collins were producing heroics at the back.
West Ham were also a threat on the break, Carroll’s lunging finish after more fine work from Jarvis his final act before the introduction of Carlton Cole.
O’Neil and George McCartney were both booked and Aguero almost caught out Jaaskelainen from a quick free-kick.
Tevez and Collins were replaced by Javi Garcia and Jordan Spence, while Mancini played his last card when he threw Scott Sinclair on for Nasri, to no avail.