By Georgina Turner
April 09, 2010

Is manager Roberto Mancini really going to stay at Manchester City, or will he disappear when "special club" Juventus puts the feelers out in the summer? Dare we believe that Jose Mourinho might once again stalk the corridors of a Premiership stadium next season and replace Mancini at Eastlands? Amid all the uncertainty, one thing's for sure: City is going to finish fourth ... isn't it?

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 Harry Redknapp's side is distracted by Sunday's FA Cup semifinal against Portsmouth, the Mancunians have the chance to extend their advantage to four points. That gap is going to look like a canyon as Spurs prepare to host Arsenal on Wednesday night. Though Tottenham typically takes a point from its home matches with Arsenal, and will be encouraged by the return of Aaron Lennon at a time when the Gunners are ravaged by injury, these are exactly the kinds of omen that precipitate flakiness at Spurs. Having sat fourth or higher in 32 of 38 game weeks before losing to West Ham to drop to fifth on the last day of the 2005-06 season, White Hart Lane is no stranger to jitters.

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.

Under Mark Hughes, Mancini's predecessor, City reliably let in goals. Conceding winning positions against the likes of Burnley and Fulham, as well as having to claw back for draws against clubs like Bolton and Wigan, suggested that cash alone would not earn City fourth. On the day Hughes was sacked, the club had drawn nine of the previous 11 matches and sat sixth, 12 goals worse than Spurs in fifth and three goals worse off than Liverpool in ninth.

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 Gareth Barry to equalize against 10-man Stoke, then all at the City of Manchester Stadium were forced to sit through an insipid goalless draw with Liverpool. By fielding Nigel de Jong, Barry and Stephen Ireland in deep-lying midfield positions in a 4-3-2-1, Mancini stemmed the tide of goals allowed, but, in addition, he managed to take the offensive sting out of a side that, even without absent new father Carlos Tevez, boasted the attacking talents of Emmanuel Adebayor, Adam Johnson, Craig Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips.

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 Patrick Vieira has paid dividends -- nine goals in the last two matches alone. Ireland may be less than impressed by his demotion to the bench, but Tevez has seven goals in his last six league appearances, and Adebayor looked his ebullient best while scoring two against Burnley. In that game, a 6-1 victory, Tevez, Bellamy, Adebayor and the increasingly influential Johnson shared 16 shots on goal between them; jeopardy loomed every time they glanced collectively goalward.

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.

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