Bolton 2 Manchester City 3: In seasons gone by, previous Manchester City teams might have found a way to squander a match like this against less-talented but determined opposition with a point to prove.
City might have lost their nerve and folded, or simply never believed that they were good enough to see it out anyway. Yesterday, however, Roberto Mancini’s team did something different.
They wobbled at times, and the two goals they conceded made Mancini berate his team’s “stupid” defending, but when it mattered in the final minutes of pressure from Bolton Wanderers, when backs were up against the wall and the injury time board was held up, City held on. Their reward is that this morning they wake up as the club at the top of the Premier League table with the privilege of being able to say to their old enemy Manchester United: over to you.
United need to win tonight against Tottenham to keep pace with City and Wolves, who are the only two sides so far to have won both their opening two games. Yesterday was a memorable game, one which Bolton doggedly refused to give up on, and one in which City held their nerve when Owen Coyle’s team scored twice and made life uncomfortable.
These are early days yet for City, and with the arrival of Samir Nasri imminent this week there are more famous international names to accommodate in the squad, but so far, so good for Mancini. If Monday’s 4-0 drubbing of Swansea City was the opening-day flourish, then yesterday demonstrated other qualities that a team with pretensions of winning the league must have.
The reputations of England’s big clubs – most notably Arsenal - have been dented at the Reebok in the past and while no-one would claim that Bolton provided anything like the kind of test that City can expect to face at certain stages this season, it is still a very decent three points in August. At the end of last season City won here when there was little to play for, but in the two previous seasons to that they suffered a draw and a defeat at the Reebok.
With Dzeko sparkling yesterday and David Silva orchestrating the best City had to offer, they looked far removed from the team often placed in an attacking straitjacket by their manager last season. Yesterday Mancini played Dzeko as the spearhead to the attack with Aguero lurking just behind him and when finally they picked up the tempo 20 minutes into the game City looked high-value rather than just expensive.
As usual, Mancini bridled at the suggestion that he has changed his approach and, in his mind, it would seem that it is just a case of a few tactical alterations that have refined the way in which his team play. But when you compared the City of yesterday to the one that protected themselves with a five-man midfield and an acute lack of ambition in certain league games last season then the difference was noticeable.
As for Bolton, they were first undone by a bad mistake from Jussi Jaaskelainen who was bamboozled by a shot from David Silva on 26 minutes that deviated just enough to make the Bolton goalkeeper look foolish. There was no deflection to the shot that the Spain international hit but there was more than a touch of the Jabulani-wobble that afflicted World Cup goalkeepers last summer who tried to keep their eye on that godforsaken ball.
Bolton had been good value in the early stages and twice they came back into the match at 2-0 and 3-1 down with well-wotked goals that asked questions of City’s defence. That deficiency was what provoked Mancini’s temper in the aftermath. He found it difficult to understand how his team could dominate a game to the extent that City did yesterday and still find themselves only 3-2 up in the closing stages.
Before Bolton scored their first, there was a second for City, driven in from the edge of the area by Gareth Barry’s trusty left peg. It was his first goal for the club since Boxing Day and it was a beauty, struck hard and true into the top left corner of Jaaskelainen’s goal and an inch past the nose of Micah Richards who swayed out the way like a batsmen letting a bouncer go through.
From a position of great control with seven minutes of the first half remaining, City allowed themselves to be dragged back into a contest by a tremendous goal from Ivan Klasnic. Martin Petrov, the former City winger, gathered in a long ball out to the left wing and his cross was struck first time by Klasnic who had pulled away from Joleon Lescott sufficiently to give himself the space to shoot.
Having dominated much of the first half, City gave themselves another two-goal lead within two minutes of the start of the re-start. This time Dzeko got control of an unpromising high ball forward and turned to charge at goal. Zat Knight will not wish to revisit this experience because being muscled out the way, as he was by Dzeko, is any central defender’s worst nightmare. With a sight of goal, Dzeko’s finish was emphatic.
It has been said all along that Dzeko would require time to adapt to English football having previously needed a season in the Bundesliga before he found his feet with Wolfsburg. At pnds27m and with City having little time – or need – to wait around, the pressure was always going to be greater in England but for the first time now since he arrived in January we are starting to see what all the fuss was about.
Dzeko was excellent yesterday, leading the line in the old-school fashion – knocking defenders about and working them hard with his running. But there was still time for another old-fashioned centre-forward to intervene. Kevin Davies headed in substitute Mark Davies’ free-kick after the hour – again Lescott was the culpable defender – and the game was back in the balance.
Carlos Tevez came on to a warm reception from the City fans for his first game back since his anti-Manchester rant. Adam Johnson, another substitute, wriggled past Knight again and might have scored. Paul Robinson left his studs on Silva’s thigh. But however exasperated Mancini might have been with his team’s defending they have maximum points from two games – and that is something to build from.
Bolton (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Robinson; Eagles (Pratley, 78), Muamba (M Davies, 60), Reo-Coker, Petrov; Klasnic, K Davies.
Substitutes not used: Bogdan (gk), Alonso, Blake, Wheater, Blakeman.
Manchester City (4-4-1-1): Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; Silva (Zabaleta, 88), Y Toure, Barry, Milner; Aguero (Tevez, 68); Dzeko (Johnson, 80).
Substitutes not used: Pantilimon (gk), Clichy, Savic, Balotelli.