City's stylish transformation continues
Manchester City 2 - 2 Blackburn RoversWhile their future is appearing increasingly attractive, Manchester City had a brief glimpse of history.
Less than eight minutes separated them from a 10th successive home league win, something they last achieved in 1953-54, when Roque Santa Cruz, whose name lends itself to numerous seasonal headlines, turned Scrooge with his second equaliser. Yet City's ultimate disappointment is an indication of their transformation. Last season, scoring twice at home would have prompted a celebration, not an inquest into the dropping of two points.
Instead, City should console themselves with reaching 35 points - a tally that, given the mediocrity at the foot of the Premier League, effectively guarantees safety. Solace should come, too, from the performance of Martin Petrov, showing City's creative contingent extends beyond Elano.
Yet Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose judgment has been almost faultless this season, faced questions about his team selection after Elano and Dietmar Hamann were demoted to the bench, with neither deemed fit enough to play every game over Christmas. An advocate of a winter break during his England days, the Swede handed just that to two of his most influential performers and the German's quiet authority was missed as Blackburn clawed their way back into the game.
Even before then, Santa Cruz had already escaped from Micah Richards to glance in David Bentley's free kick. Blackburn manager Mark Hughes said: 'David's got fantastic delivery. What Roque does is make things happen in the box. He makes great runs and he's an intelligent football player.'
The same combination brought a second equaliser after a short corner. Bentley whipped in a cross and Santa Cruz reacted quicker than Richard Dunne to head in at the near post. It was initially disallowed before referee Howard Webb, to City's chagrin, reconsidered. The offside David Dunn, though he attempted to make contact with ball, ultimately did not interfere with play.
Assistant referee Darren Cann, whose admission he had been wrong to flag initially made him a rarity among officials, became one of the few to come in for praise from Hughes. He said: 'He was strong enough and brave enough to admit he had made a mistake because the flag had gone up too early and anticipated something that didn't happen. We're grateful. It was the right decision, it was a valid goal.'
Eriksson, unlike many other managers, remains measured in his reaction to such setbacks. 'I'm disappointed because we conceded two goals from set pieces,' he said. 'They were very similar, I would say, and we could have and should have defended better. I use the referee's word after the match, it's a grey area and I agree with him. I really don't know if it was offside or not. For me it is interference, but whether it is for FIFA, I don't know.'
What is indisputable is that both sides possessed a deliverer of high-quality crosses. Bentley, who started the game in the hole behind Santa Cruz and ended it on the right flank, provided further evidence of his quality. So, too, did Petrov. Left winger figured high among City's many problem positions last season. It doesn't now. Petrov, offering incision in abundance, has a direct style based upon sheer pace and accurate crossing.
A willingness to run beyond defences which, coupled with quality service, enables him to be devastating especially when confronted with opponents as inadequate as Zurab Khizanishvili, Blackburn's unfortunate right-back. The tormented Georgian lasted 45 minutes before Brett Emerton was handed the most thankless task at the City of Manchester Stadium.
City play to Petrov's strengths. It is noticeable how many more passes they direct to the left flank than the right. Within 10 first-half minutes he should have had a hat-trick of assists, with only Rolando Bianchi denying him that rare distinction.
His miss was, quite simply, startling. After Petrov had exchanged passes with Stephen Ireland, the Bulgarian reached the byline and pulled the ball back for the unmarked Bianchi. Less than six yards out and with the net unguarded, it should have been the simplest of tap-ins. Instead, he somehow failed to make contact.
Bianchi attained a form of redemption by passing to Petrov when he created the opener, his deep cross being headed in by Darius Vassell. Then Stephen Ireland released Petrov, who whipped the ball in for Bianchi. His earlier aberration notwithstanding, a goal was seemingly guaranteed when Ryan Nelsen intervened by putting the ball into his own net.
Once again, the supply line to Petrov was significant. Eriksson excels in positioning players in the hole between midfield and attack where Premier League defences, in particular, struggle to mark. Normally, Elano is the elusive individual. With him on the bench, Ireland was auditioning for the role of his deputy and replicated his impact.
This was a convincing impression of City's playmaker, especially with his ability to penetrate the Blackburn defence and pick out Petrov. Elano himself belatedly emerged to almost embarrass Brad Friedel with an audacious volley, before Santa Cruz ended City's winning run.
With Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham and Chelsea still to visit the City of Manchester Stadium, tougher tests await here, but it is hard to quibble with their current record of 28 points from 10 games. Santa Cruz's personal statistics are just as impressive. It is now seven in four games for the prolific Paraguayan and, for the first time in that run, Blackburn have avoided defeat.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Martin Petrov - In quite scintillating form. Perhaps the best left winger in the Premier League this season. 'Petrov was fantastic, especially first half,' said Eriksson.
• MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Though the performance probably merited three points, there was a makeshift look to the City side with Vedran Corluka anchoring the midfield and Darius Vassell on the right flank. If they are to dislodge Liverpool or Chelsea from a Champions League position, which is still possible, Nery Castillo will not be the only January arrival.
• BLACKBURN VERDICT: A team noted for their consistency have only won one of their last 10 games, but there were signs of improvement, especially in the second half. 'Our performances have been frustrating,' said Hughes, and the search for a clean sheet goes on. Well as Bentley and Santa Cruz are playing, he could benefit from others providing similar inspiration in the final third.