Will Joe Harts Blunder Against Everton End Up Deciding This Tightest Of Title Races
It was not a howler of 2013 standards, a rick to rank alongside the calamities of early last season.
It was not one of those charges into disaster that pockmarked his start to that campaign and drained one of football’s deepest wells of confidence.
Not even close. But by the renewed, rarefied standards Joe Hart has set, it was a slight misjudgement. And one that cost his team triumph.
Brutally harsh, yes. Unfair, indeed.
After all, the devilish delivery from Leighton Baines, the dart, leap and deft header from Steven Naismith and the absence of a diligent Manchester City marker had as much to do with Everton’s equaliser as Hart’s ill-fated attempts to intercept the cross.
But between two teams inseparable as the title race turned for home, small margins will matter, fractional errors will prove crucial.
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Knotted together with 18 rounds to go before kick-off, Chelsea have landed the opening blow of 2015.
And Manuel Pellegrini knew it.
In normal circumstances, an away point at Goodison Park to counter Chelsea’s victory over Newcastle would not be the gravest setback.
But Pellegrini knew the Everton who greeted his players in the first half of this very decent contest was not the Everton that once roughed up the elite as a matter of routine.
Confused, constricted by fear, continually unsure in possession, Everton invited a first-half City landslide.
That it did not materialise bugged Pellegrini long into the night. It turned a valuable point into an unsatisfactory point.
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But it will only be the start of the varying narrative of this fascinating title duel. As news was filtering through from Stamford Bridge that Chelsea were winning without dominance, City were doing the exact opposite.
Dominating to little effect.
There was a simple, confusing explanation – too often, the quest for precision caused imprecision.
Example. Jesus Navas had at least half of Joel Robles’ goal to take advantage of.
In going for the corner, he increased the chances of error.
On other occasions, though, Stevan Jovetic was too rash. The arrival of Sergio Aguero for the final, frantic quarter will give City optimism for less wasteful times ahead.
But this whole occasion was a reminder to City that there must be no hitches in the signing of Swansea’s Wilfried Bony.
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Sadly, recent history shows Aguero cannot guarantee 100 per cent availability between now and the end of the season.
Bony is a must. Pellegrini will be hoping Yaya Toure is not the only Premier League player to return from the Africa Cup of Nations fit and with energy in reserve for the rest of the domestic season. He was not too down, Manuel.
And nor should he be.
There were a few concerns – Eliaquim Mangala gets himself into the odd musclebound mess, Navas and Jovetic showed why they flirt with being fringe players.
But there were plenty of positives from a City team on a fine run.
While Toure’s healthy return and Aguero’s wellness will be crucial, David Silva could still be the crux of City’s title challenge. He just might be the most beautiful player in the Premier League, his elegant promptings deserving kinder compliments from Jovetic and Navas.
Silva was involved in Fernandinho’s goal and will be involved in a lot more between now and the climax in late Spring.
Action ImagesGoal: Fernandinho scores, but David Silva had a lot to do with it
But with 17 rounds now remaining, it is impossible to tell where the tiny decisive margin will be gained or lost. Hart’s decision to come for – and not get near – Baines’ set-piece will not bother Pellegrini one jot.
And in the final scheme of things, it might not matter.
But as they started the year divided only by the alphabet, this Saturday was the first face-off.
And Hart and City blinked first.
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