Defence must get it together if City are to make play-offs
PUBLISHED: 07:31 18 February 2017
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Another week and another four valuable points for City, although a realistic assessment would be that this is still a side capable of overwhelming the weaker teams on its day, but with fundamental defensive frailties which can be ruthlessly exposed by opponents with more quality.
After Newcastle had strolled through a statuesque central defence within 30 seconds on Tuesday night it looked like the week could turn out to be a microcosm of City’s season so far.
And had John Ruddy not kept out Aleksandar Mitrovicć when he was clean through after another defensive mix-up that could well have proven to be the case.
However, there is now a steel about City which was so sadly and obviously lacking before Christmas, and that was exemplified by a performance from Cameron Jerome which was close to superhuman in terms of effort expended. But, make no mistake, had this game been played in November the result would have been markedly different.
Alex Neil deserves a great deal of credit for that, and as one of his harshest critics this season I am more than happy to accept that he has bounced back in a way that I thought beyond him. But I also think we must accept that there is still some way to go before getting into the play-offs, let alone winning them, becomes a realistic prospect.
That won’t be helped by the current rash of injuries, but at least the Carrow Road crowd are firmly back onside and the atmosphere on Tuesday was the best for some months. There is a definite air of optimism about the place that wasn’t in evidence as points slipped away before Christmas.
That process has undoubtedly been aided by the emergence of a new cult hero in the form of Mitchell Dijks, who appears to be the love child of Stuart Pearce and a Sherman tank. His surges up the left flank with opponents bouncing off him are just the thing to get the fans cheering.
Ultimately people want to see their team being competitive and playing attractive football and it doesn’t get much more attractive than Saturday’s demolition of Nottingham Forest, including one of the best goals I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing live from Jonny Howson. Forest, fielding a number of players with whom City have been strongly linked over the last year, simply couldn’t live with the Canaries on the day.
However, Tuesday was a different story and I think most of us were on the edge of our seats every time the ball went into City’s box as both central defenders struggled against the aerial power of Mitrovic and the pace and movement of Ayoze Perez.
Had Ruddy not been at the very top of his form, and aided by the woodwork twice, Newcastle could have been out of sight, but you earn your luck on a football pitch and ultimately City were well worth a point because they found a way to stay in the game. And even though they were ultimately unable to resist some relentless Newcastle pressure, a return of 14 points out of the last 18 is to be heartily applauded.
While that sort of return would normally be considered play-off form, City’s self-inflicted problem is that they are having to play catch-up, and with the clubs above them showing great consistency that sixth place looks as far away as ever.
All City can do is to keep battling away and picking up points, because every game between now and the end of the season is going to be a mini cup final. I have no doubts about their quality going forward, but the key to their play-off hopes will be whether they can find sufficient defensive mettle to cope with the sort of in-form strike forces that they will encounter when they meet the sides above them.