22 January ~ After the tense, cup-tie nature of Tottenham's last two visits to Manchester City – both of which took place in the closing weeks of the last two seasons and settled which club would qualify for the Champions League – the two meet today in very different circumstances. The game provides City with an opportunity to restate their title credentials. With a three-point lead at the top (and with back-to-back league wins) it is easy for City to dismiss any criticism and insist all is well. But after defeat to Sunderland, an FA Cup exit and a poor showing in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final, the aura they carried through the autumn has gone, at least for now.
January has not been a pleasant month, full stop. The league win over Liverpool and the points dropped by others have been the only bright spots. The psychological war also kicked off in earnest, with Rafael van der Vaart questioning City's nerve and Harry Redknapp talking of City "buying the title". But of more pressing concern was the most fundamental of problems for a team: the absence, for differing reasons, of key players.
There have also been a series of negative headlines, most of them resulting from the actions – and subsequent attempted justifications – of Roberto Mancini. This attention is unlikely to cause the club much damage. These days any censure a club receives from outside just seems to get automatically recycled into a siege mentality.
Given their missing players and the form of the two teams, you suspect City would be happy with a draw, even if Manchester United go on to beat Arsenal in the later game. The match with Spurs will be City's last against a side from the current top nine until Chelsea visit the Etihad on March 17. Although Everton, Blackburn and Swansea all bring potential problems, they provide a sequence of games from which a genuine title challenger should expect to collect plenty of points.
During the same period, Spurs must go to Anfield and the Emirates before hosting United, who themselves have tough fixtures coming up against Chelsea and Liverpool. If City can return to anything like their old performance levels, they have a real chance of heading the table going into the last ten games.
Whether today's game is a classic or a dud, it will at least be a novelty for a generation of football viewers. This will be the first serious, post-Christmas leadership tussle without any of the old Big Four. The Premier League is changing. Whether either of these sides can force the ultimate change in May, it is going to be fascinating to watch. Robert Jones