City and Tottenham Hotspur have been leapfrogging one another like giddy schoolchildren all season. Now, just when a run of five straight wins looked to have put Spurs on course for their first berth in the European Cup since 1961-62, the Londoners are a point behind City in fifth, having been comprehensively beaten by Sunderland last weekend. Liverpool and Aston Villa, in sixth and seventh place, respectively, have friendlier run-ins but bigger points disadvantages to overcome.
Since the birth of the Premier League (in 1992), finishing fourth has required a points total somewhere between 58 and 74. Most often, something in the mid- to late-60s has been enough. With a home match against Bolton Wanderers and a trip to Turf Moor among their last fixtures, Spurs (currently on 58 points) will be reasonably confident of another six points, though three of their other remaining opponents -- Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United -- look less likely to yield a full return. On 59, City has United and Arsenal still to play, as well as playing host to Aston Villa. If Mancini's men can bank another six points from a successful visit to Upton Park and Sunday's match against Birmingham City, the single point now between them and Spurs could be crucial.
Mancini's City has a psychological advantage, too: While
Nor is Eastlands immune to them, but there's an air of confidence around the place, a tang of excited anticipation on the tongues of supporters with six games to go. Of course, watching their neighbors implode in Europe, and possibly in the title race, has helped, but City is in fine enough fettle to worry first and foremost about itself. Last week's 6-1 victory over Burnley can't be overstated -- Burnley hasn't won since the first week of February and even bottom-club Portsmouth picked up points at Turf Moor -- but the way Mancini's men are playing is impressive nonetheless.
Arriving in that context, Mancini set to work making his defense harder to beat, which seemed to do the trick until City skidded into another couple of draws in February. First, traveling supporters had to wait until the 85th minute for
After Liverpool came a trip to Stamford Bridge, and while there's no doubt that Chelsea played a large part in its own undoing, the difference in approach from City, a 4-2 winner, was palpable. Since then, employing a 4-2-3-1 anchored by Barry and de Jong or
While Johnson had to be satisfied with three assists, five different players got on the score sheet in a ruthless display that might have surpassed the nine goals Tottenham put past Wigan (in November) had a biblical downpour not hit. Burnley will blush at the fact that City's front four barely set foot inside their own half, a luxury few remaining opposition will afford them. But those still to play City are nonetheless faced with finding a way to curb the incisive and instantaneous forward passing that characterized every sky-blue sweep toward goal.
A May 5 match between City and Spurs could really drive a wedge between the clubs' point totals. Both sets of supporters hope that next month's meeting will still mean something -- at the same time they pray that they've already done enough to ensure that it does not.