3 February ~ Winning Ugly is a tennis manual written by former tour pro Brad Gilbert in which he explains how to achieve success even when hampered by a lack of ability or form simply by focusing on clear strategy and resolve to defeat an opponent. Gilbert would doubtless be wringing his hands in frustration at the current Manchester City squad, who, despite having no shortage of talent, are finding the art of grinding out the difficult win when not at their best a major stumbling block to their title aspirations.
It is all very well knocking five or six goals past your nearest rivals with the balmy, autumnal sunshine on your back, but the failure to scrape results against technically inferior, but doggedly determined, opposition in the howling winter winds of the Stadium of Light (that cliche sounded much better when it was Roker Park) or a freezing Goodison Park have given credence to those who believe City lack the mettle to go the distance.
The last thing City need after a morale-sapping defeat against Everton, a club against whom they have fared badly in recent history, is having to face another team who have traditionally overachieved against them. However, that is the cross they have to bear tomorrow, when they entertain an awkward Fulham team, who boast a record of just one defeat in their last eight visits to Eastlands.
Even during City’s remarkable start to the season the Cottagers were anything but craven. Fulham battled back from two goals down at half time to earn a draw in west London in September – the only league points City dropped until the end of November. City’s home record is still impeccable, but the arrival of a team whose unpredictability they often find unnerving will ensure a twitchy afternoon.
The last few weeks have highlighted a few uncomfortable home truths for City. Despite the obvious creative talents of David Silva and Sergio Agüero, the team are more heavily reliant on the physical presence of Vincent Kompany and Yaya Touré. These players build the platform on which the team can function at its best. The time and space opposition midfielders are being afforded while Touré is away on international duty with Ivory Coast helps explain why the team are struggling. That Touré chips in regularly with vital goals is appreciated even more in his absence.
Stefan Savic's inexperience as a top-flight defender has been badly exposed during Kompany's four-game ban. Being given the crook finger by Mancini at half time in the League Cup defeat at Liverpool is a sure sign he is still considered a work in progress.
A hefty thrashing of an uninterested Fulham tomorrow might be considered a godsend with the top of the table so finely balanced, but a hard-fought win against a fully committed team will say more about their long-term credentials. Tony Curran