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Dec 22, 2012

Unlikely hero Barry sparks Royals' rage

Cometh the hour and a half, cometh Gareth Barry. Plenty of players have been synonymous with injury time over the years, but rarely Barry, the man who often seems to blend into the background. Yet, for the second successive match at the Etihad, his actions after the 90-minute mark had repercussions.

It was in added time in the previous home game, against Manchester United, that he incurred a suspension for using inappropriate language to the fourth official Mark Clattenburg. This time Brian McDermott was the mild-mannered man driven apoplectic by late drama at the Etihad.

Barry, the frustrated figure 13 days earlier, came to City's relief and rescue on this occasion. A thumping header flew past Adam Federici, transforming a sterile stalemate into a hard-fought win. Once again, Manchester City had scored late. Once again, their manager was vindicated in victory. Roberto Mancini has been questioned for his tactics, man-management and personnel choices but few should doubt he has instilled spirit in his charges. "Our character is strong," the Italian said, after muttering: "My heart."

It was not a day to lower the blood pressure. A match that, on paper, seemed a regulation home win became a fraught, frantic affair with Reading agonisingly, cruelly close to a point that would have ended their losing run and City moments away from a draw that, if United win at Swansea on Sunday, would have put them eight points adrift in the title race.

Instead David Silva, granted space for once, whipped in a cross, and Barry, with a long-disguised sense of dynamism, powered into the penalty area, leapt high above Nicky Shorey, breaking both the deadlock and Reading hearts.

"An absolute joke," McDermott, not normally one of the more outspoken managers, said. "It was a certain foul. He hung in the air, but you can hang in the air all day long if you are on someone's back." Mancini was as convinced, but on the other side of the argument. "No foul. Absolutely not," he countered. Shorey's case would have been stronger had he attempted to win the header himself, rather than simply standing there, but Reading's persecution complex is becoming more pronounced.

When Kerim Rekik, City's Dutch debutant, had collided with Jay Tabb in the box, the Reading midfielder was sent tumbling to the ground. Neither had the ball - a cross was coming into the box - but McDermott insisted: "It was a penalty. We have had three or four of those, we have had a handball goal against us and an offside goal against us - all of which have cost us points. We didn't get a penalty at Wigan, didn't get one at Southampton and didn't get one today."

The broader question is one of merit. Reading, for their defensive determination, impressive organisation and Stakhanovite work rate, deserved a point; theirs was an admirable reaction to being thrashed by Arsenal. And yet City, too, were entitled to the view that, for their perseverance, possession, pressure and chances, the three points were rightfully theirs. "We deserved to win," Mancini said.

They are a side who, particularly on their own turf, find a way to win, even when below par. This was a case in point. With Reading focusing on defence, City required an early goal that they could not muster. Mancini's men were unbalanced by injuries, a team without a left flank going forward. Minus Samir Nasri, Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero alternated, one Argentine in his preferred position as a striker while the other was nominally the left winger, though in reality more of a deep-lying forward.

An understandably cautious Rekik was reluctant to advance meaning that City, often narrow anyway, only had width in the shape of the indefatigable Pablo Zabaleta. Eventually Mancini decided desperate times called for desperate measures, remembered City signed Scott Sinclair in August and brought him on for a rare outing.

Ultimately, the goal came from their left wing, though not from Sinclair. Silva, switching flanks, turned provider and Barry, doing the job the strikers are struggling to, scored. Indeed Tevez now only has four goals from his last 20 games and two of them were penalties. Having changed the derby as a substitute, he is winning too few games he starts, an affliction that Edin Dzeko has long suffered from.

Mancini sacrificed first Javi Garcia, then Tevez and finally Rekik in his bid to be bolder. Their reward eventually arrived and, three years after the Italian's appointment, they are three points adrift of United. And so 2012 at the Etihad Stadium, a year made memorable by one injury-time goal, scored by Aguero in May, finished with another, bagged by Barry in December.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Alex Pearce. A giant of a performance at the heart of Reading's defence, and Pearce also proved a threat in the City penalty box. Defeat was harsh on him, as it was on many of his colleagues.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: It is not the season to be Joleon. It was another reminder of how far Joleon Lescott's star has fallen that the former first choice found Dutch debutant Rekik preferred at full-back, even though once a regular at left-back for Everton. Vincent Kompany, an unused substitute, and James Milner, who made a late cameo, should be fit for Sunday's trip to Sunderland, while City could benefit from either Nasri or Kolarov returning to add thrust on the left flank.

READING VERDICT: Naïve and open against Arsenal, they reinforced the midfield with Jem Karacan and had a gameplan that worked rather well. Jimmy Kebe was a threat on the right flank with his pace but Reading have to decide whether they can win games after sacrificing a striker. They have back-to-back home matches now; fail to win both and the Championship will surely beckon, despite their excellent efforts here.

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