Man City face familiar and similar foe in Everton with away form in spotlight
The fixture list for Manchester City takes a rather familiar turn throughout January. Three out of the four Wednesdays in the month will be spent with Manuel Pellegrini's side facing Everton, as a Premier League clash at the Etihad is neatly bookended by the two legs of the League Cup semifinals.
In the past, that run of games would have been enough to drive supporters to the edge. For almost 20 years, City just couldn't buy a win at Goodison Park. Before Manuel Pellegrini arrived, the club had just one victory there in 15 visits -- but the Chilean has since turned that form around and he's unbeaten in his three matches in the blue half of Merseyside.
Of course, three games is hardly enough to start drawing any firm conclusions, but Pellegrini's record of two wins and a draw at Goodison is a fairly bright light at the end of a very bleak tunnel. None have been easy games, but City have performed much better there than they had done in previous years in each.
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Pellegrini's team, while picking up results, still haven't been at their imperious best in the last few months. The opening weeks of the season are now a distant memory and it has felt like performances have been some way below the high bar that was set early on. Christmas has been kind in terms of points picked up, but there was still plenty of room for improvement with the performances.
The 4-1 victory over Sunderland was comfortable, as many fans would have expected it to be, while the 0-0 draw with Leicester was somewhat underwhelming in truth. A haul of seven points from a possible nine was completed with a late 2-1 win against Watford at Vicarage Road, but it was hardly easy viewing and it was largely down to good fortune that Pellegrini took the victory there on Saturday. It was down to two moments of individual brilliance from Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero that separated the teams.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why City fall apart when Vincent Kompany is absent -- after all, one player shouldn't make that much difference, but it seems like he does -- though that's the reality the club is facing, and he's still out with injury. That's not an appealing thought with Everton's in-form striker Romelu Lukaku ready to bully Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi over the course of three matches in four weeks.
Yet, despite Everton's ability to score at will, they too seem vulnerable at the back. Roberto Martinez's team have managed one win in their last seven Premier League matches -- and again fell onto the back foot for large spells of the 1-1 draw with Tottenham on Sunday. If City can put pressure on their hosts, it could make the home crowd nervous -- though the direct opposite is also true.
It seems that both City and Everton have the same deficiencies. The two sides look to be putting the ball in the net, but they're both struggling to defend well and are conceding soft goals too frequently. That may make for an entertaining semifinal for the neutral and a nail-biting one for either set of supporters; City fans might look back fondly on the Kevin Keegan style "you score three, we'll score four" approach, but it didn't make comfortable viewing at the time.
While the draw for the FA Cup hasn't been particularly bad for City with visit to Norwich's Carrow Road on Saturday, it does present something of a problem for Pellegrini. He won't be able to rotate as much for that tie as he might have hoped with the Toffees looming on the horizon. This could put pressure on his already under-fire squad to produce the goods -- it's only in the last few weeks that the injury situation has eased, after all.
The focus for the Chilean has to be coming away from Goodison Park with a positive result. It's not a huge deal scoring in the away leg of this competition since the away goals rule only applies after extra-time is played, but it always helps to have the slight advantage in the bag -- so Pellegrini probably wouldn't turn his nose up at a score draw.
With the club's home record this season, even a narrow loss, while not entirely preferable, wouldn't be too much of a disaster.
A lot has been made of City's troubles away from home this campaign. The failure to win on the road for three months before the victory at Vicarage Road on Saturday was confined only to the Premier League, however, and in that time, there have been some good wins at Sevilla and Borussia Monchengladbach.
Supporters will be hoping the result at Watford has well and truly removed any mental block that had been there ahead of the first of many games against Everton.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney