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Mar 23, 2012

Tevez return will be win or bust for City

ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and twice claiming the Ballon d'Or during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has also managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham.

With 12 minutes to go on Wednesday night, it looked as though the momentum had completely shifted towards Manchester United in the Premier League title race. But Manchester City pulled a massive result out of the bag against Chelsea and now the derby at the end of April seems like more of a title-decider than ever. I think both sides will drop points before then, though - it gets that little bit harder when the finishing line is in sight - and this weekend presents a tricky game for City, away at last year's fellow FA Cup finalists Stoke.

The importance of the victory over Chelsea cannot be overstated for City; if they were going into training today four points behind having played the same number of games as United, it could have had a really negative knock-on effect. It would have seen all sorts of criticism thrown towards Mancini, towards Man City. Instead, they're right back in the title race and ready to move on to the next game.

A trip to Stoke is never going to be easy - City know that having failed to win there in the Premier League - and they had a great result against Spurs in midweek. We've seen City slip up playing away at Sunderland and Swansea, and Tony Pulis' Stoke are an equally capable side, so they will really have to earn three points, it won't be on a plate for them. City will need to battle, scrap, win individual duels and then find some individual flair that's going to open up what is always a resilient Stoke team.

One player capable of providing that sort of spark is the returning Carlos Tevez, though I must say I am surprised to see him back in City colours. I've found the whole Tevez affair pretty astonishing, but I don't think we can judge whether Roberto Mancini's decision to welcome him back was the right or wrong decision until the end of the season. If they win the title it will be a masterstroke, if they don't it will be seen as a grave error. There is no in between with it.

It's certainly a brave move; I don't think I would have fetched him back after he refused to come on against Bayern Munich and the reason I'd have stuck by that is because of the message it sends to the other players. Here's someone who has been playing golf for a month-and-a-half while his team-mates have been battling away for the club, and suddenly he's just stepping back into the side. If you pick him ahead of James Milner, ahead of Edin Dzeko, these genuine guys who want to play for the club - it sends the message to them that there's one rule for Tevez and another for everyone else. If it had been Gareth Barry or James Milner who refused to come on against Bayern Munich, they'd be gone by now.

Sadly, that is the way in football - he is a special player, there's no doubt about it, and that means that compromises have been made for him. Mancini has swallowed his pride on this one - remember he said that Tevez would never play for the club again - but the decision shows that he honestly believes they need him to give them some impetus in the title race. And it's very possible that in two months, Tevez's misdemeanours could all be forgotten; he is a great player and could feasibly be the one to fire City to the championship. If that happens, everything will be right with Tevez, with Mancini, with the Manchester City supporters - Tevez could even end up staying.

The situation has been one that people like myself, who have been in the game a long, long time, find really difficult to understand. This is only something that could happen in the modern game, it couldn't have happened 20 years ago - it wouldn't have been allowed to happen. But it can now with the way clubs are run, with the way agents are involved with players - everyone involved is a multi-millionaire and it's not going to change their lives if they move or they don't play or if they win it or lose it - that's the sad thing.

It'l be interesting to see how much Tevez is used between now and the end of the season, and particularly whether he features in the Manchester derby. That United connection just adds further intrigue to what is a fascinating title race between these two teams from the same city, who train just a few hundred yards apart in Carrington. It's incredible, you couldn't have written it.

I don't think the two sides will be more than three points apart by the time the derby rolls around, but it's important for City to win games like this weekend's at Stoke. Mind you, Tony Pulis should have no problem motivating his players, not least because there's a chance to avenge that 1-0 defeat in last season's FA Cup final. City were unquestionably the better side that day, but Tony will be telling his players that they can be a match for them. The Britannia is a very intimidating stadium and it's also got a bit of a local spice to it as Stoke is only a hop and a skip down the M6 from Manchester.

I'm expecting an intense atmosphere, and think Stoke - buoyed by their draw at White Hart Lane - will make life very difficult for Man City. However, City should have the experience to cope with the occasion and though it could be a nailbiting one for their fans, I think the momentum is on their side.

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