Wigan Athletic 0 Manchester City 1: This was not the type of effervescence with which Manchester City have set the Premier League alight in the past five months and threatened to take a hammer to goal-scoring records which have stood since the 19th century, but Roberto Mancini would have taken it.
“I think we can also win some games 1-0. Sometimes we want to win with a 1-0 in the Italian style,” he said a few weeks back and it is his work as an assiduous observer of Sir Alex Ferguson which will have told him that last night's scoreline was one that wins titles.
All things in perspective: City are now three goals off their 60-goal tally from their entire last campaign. But 10 goals in eight matches reveals a club in the midst of the grinding phase of a title challenge. It was Roberto Martinez who perhaps best summed it up the night's significance for City, when it as all over. “I think it was a scrappy game but the important thing wasn't the performance. It was the result,” he said.
His own side, rooted at the opposite extremity of the Premier League table again last night, were pitiful at times and revealed an inability to defend which suggests that the journey to the door marked “survival” will be a very long one. Martinez finds the positive in most things but his pride in “our ability in possession and how hard we make it for the opposition” obscured the fact that at the two ends of the field, Wigan neither finished nor defended too well, which is not promising.
It was the Roberto wearing the scarf who wore the longest face, though. Mancini is tying himself up in knots over imaginary red cards, stretching credibility with claims that he is more entitled to seek a player's dismissal than Wayne Rooney, because he stands further from referees. But Mancini's battles with authority tell a far deeper story – of an individual facing the hard yards of the title race and the attendant pressures. Mancini was 90 minutes away from a crisis last night. His assistant David Platt went into the game predicting that the cameras would be seeking out signs of tension in the Italian and from now on the TV studio directors did not need to look too hard. When Edin Dzeko missed a chance, late in the game, it was instructive to see the manager make to throw his gloves to the turf in fury.
He knew there was a chink in his side's armour and for a moment – an awfully fleeting moment – it seemed ready to reveal itself. The absence of Vincent Kompany, for the second of his four games under his suspension, deprives City of their defensive core and Micah Richards' hamstring also removed him from a backline shorn of Kolo Touré. So it was that the sight of Joleon Lescott mistiming his jump as it arced over his head in the first two minutes caused as much anxiety as that of the dangerous and unpredictable Victor Moses, dancing around Stefan Savic.
The danger subsided but never entirely receded. The course of a night is never predictable on a pitch which cuts up like Wigan's and even as the game headed towards its later stages, Joe Hart's toe was the only impediment to James McArthur salvaging a point. “It's toes like that which win you championships,” observed Gary Neville, speaking with reasonable authority on this subject from the comfort of a TV studio.
It also takes a deep reservoir of talent. Dzeko rose above the Wigan defence to make the one-goal difference and lift himself from a personal struggle to score – which he had failed to do since the scrambled goal at QPR on 5 November – but it was an English winter's night and the Englishmen stepped up. Gareth Barry and James Milner were superb. It was Mancini's good fortune that there is also no escaping Antolin Alcaraz's flaws. If the Paraguayan's foul on Dzeko, in a dangerous place on the left side of City's box, was not crime enough, he also remained glued to the turf as the Bosnian rose to head home David Silva's ensuing free-kick. McArthur managed a leap of sorts in that pivotal moment but he was nowhere near the striker. No goal this season has been as comfortable for Dzeko as this, his 13th.
At times City strolled through Wigan almost at will. Silva was not at his best – the rest he requires will probably have to wait until Yaya Touré returns – but he and Samir Nasri waltzed around the pitch with almost comic ease at times. Sergio Aguero wriggled beyond so many men after 55 minutes that he appeared about to complete a goal reminiscent of Ricky Villa's, against City in the 1981 FA Cup final, but no shot materialised and Aguero was virtually on top of Dzeko when a shot came in. The chaos was no less when Gaël Clichy's cross was deflected off Alcaraz, Aguero and Gary Caldwell before rolling just wide of Ali Al Habsi's far post.
The Omani goalkeeper is perhaps the talent Martinez has most to give thanks for. This was the kind of bleak evening which his mentor John Burridge, once of City, would have told him about when he had taken him from a hill village where the goats roam and begun making good on his promise to turn him into a Premier League goalkeeper. The 30-year-old's double save from Dzeko and Silva, to whom he had watched his hapless defence gift possession to City twice, underlined his reputation as one of the discoveries of the season.
The night ended with Mancini recoiling at another perceived injustice. Substitute Nigel de Jong's ball over the top flummoxed Maynor Figueroa and Aguero, waiting to pounce beside him on the half way line, span away into his path when Figueroa raised a hand to stop it. Mancini saw red, demanded red and the fact that his wrath had not entirely subsided in the press conference room suggested that he his anxieties are not entirely eased. Tottenham, in Manchester on Sunday, present another type of challenge entirely.
Booked: Wigan McCarthy, McArthur, Figueroa. Manchester City Zabaleta, De Jong, Milner.
Man of the match: Barry
Possession: Wigan 48% Manchester City 52%.
Attempts on target: Wigan 4 Manchester City 8
Referee: M Atkinson (W Yorkshire)