More points scattered to the four winds
Manchester City have managed -- by dint of a performance as alarming in its slackness as the last two fixtures had been in their robust efficiency -- to complete quite a record on what from now on will be called "Wearyside."
In four consecutive visits to this part of the world, City have now managed to lose each time by the same score, 1-0. Two came courtesy of goals so late, half the crowd was already in the No. 55 bus heading back into town.
Sunday was not such an occasion. The home side scored early enough and then hung onto their lead with resolute and basic defending. The statistics suggest, as they did on those previous occasions, that one could not have expected Sunderland to score more than once from the scarce chances that they had concocted, but then sometimes statistics just make everything feel so much worse anyway.
This was one of those occasions when it is best to know as little as possible about the shapeless mess you have just witnessed. In stark contrast to recent home performances, Manuel Pellegrini and his charges constructed an away effort lacking in guile, style and cohesion.
What a difference a week can make. From the scintillating displays against Norwich and then CSKA Moscow to the standing stones of Easter Island in one fell swoop. If there were the beginnings of a pattern, a story line to the season, developing during the early weeks of the season, then what we now have is a full-blown novel: "Manchester City: Traveling on Diminishing Returns."
Defeats at Cardiff, Aston Villa, Chelsea and now Sunderland suggest there is something of a problem developing. When a side can carve up the opposition almost at will in their own backyard but have difficulty doing a passable impersonation of competence away from the comfort of home, you sense that an alarm bell or two are not far from being set off.
City now sit eighth in the table, a position unlikely to please the club's owners for long. They have produced a curate's egg of a season so far: in parts magnificent, in parts hapless and hopeless. Progress in the Champions League and the Capital One Cup is beginning to make City look a little like a cup side: capable of giving almost anyone a tanning on their day, but also likely to cave in against weak opposition when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction.
City fans will be less than delighted to head back to a personality disorder that troubled the club for decades, but which appeared to have been solved by a string of relaxing visits to the analyst's sofa.
Now, though, we are back on that mauve couch, feet twitching, while gazing at the wallpaper and wondering how to explain ourselves.
The points haul from away games so far this season in the Premier League stands at four from a possible 18. The likes of Hull City and Fulham might turn their noses up at that. As for a team who had in recent weeks been hoisted as many experts' title favourites, this is clearly far from acceptable. Pellegrini and his staff will this week take time to ponder two obvious problems arising from the current situation: the continuing disarray in defence and the profligacy going forward.
Both reared their heads at the Stadium of Light. When a side has more than 20 attempts at goal, one could reasonably expect one or two of those to be converted into goals. Equally, when a club has such a glut of international defenders, it might seem odd to outsiders how complicated it is proving to be for Pellegrini to find four capable of playing as a unit.
Many will mention that, as results went this weekend, City have missed a great chance to climb onto the very shoulders of this season's pacesetters, but there is an alternative way of viewing this. The club began the weekend six points off the lead and they finish it thus.
A win here would have placed City third, tucked in right behind Arsenal and Liverpool at the top. The leaders, so long the object of gushing praise from all angles, have been beaten by the reigning champions, criticised from pillar to post all season. There is still plenty to straighten out and plenty to play for. For City, the horizon is thick with fixtures between now and the end of the year. On Dec. 31, we will all have a clearer picture of what is likely to happen to a title race which at present resembles a stock-car race rather than a thoroughbred gallop.
By then City will have visited West Brom, Fulham, Bayern, Leicester and Southampton. With the pressure on and a critical gaze falling on City's form and shape, a definite pointer to whose name will be inscribed on this season's trophies will lie before us.