FEATURE: The Easter Period That Kept City In The Premier League

Manchester City’s Easter in 2017 isn’t going to be anywhere near as important as the one they went through ten years earlier. For a start, Easter fixtures appear to be more spread out than they used to and it’s become a more regular spell of the season – Pep Guardiola’s team beat Hull 3-1 at the Etihad on Saturday 8 April, followed that up with a 3-0 success at Southampton on Saturday 15 April, and will then play the FA Cup semifinal with Arsenal eight days later. It’s hardly jam-packed.

In what would be Stuart Pearce’s final campaign at the helm of a cash-strapped City, Easter saw the the club’s longest unbeaten run of 2006-07. The Blues played on Good Friday and Easter Monday, completing a five-match spell where they went without defeat in the Premier League.

To put that into contrast, City have gone on three runs that have been longer than that this season already – and there’s still six matches to play, meaning there’s opportunity for another to be added to that list.

It’s to be expected. Pearce’s team was built on a shoestring, while Guardiola’s has had hundreds of millions invested into it. The 2007 side was aiming to stay in the division, the 2017 lot are disappointed not to have won it. Quite the contrast.

By mid-March of Pearce’s final season, City were in trouble. They were finding goals hard to come by at the best of times and clean sheets were beginning to dry up – meaning they’d lost all of their last five matches, having scored once in the last six. Bernardo Corradi’s 62nd-minute strike at Portsmouth, in a 2-1 defeat, was the only time the Blues had found the net in the top flight since New Year’s Day, two-and-a-half months earlier.

They wouldn’t score at home again in the Premier League for the remainder of the season.

A goalless draw with Bolton at the Reebok Stadium in mid-January had left City in a reasonable position. They were 10th, 11 points above the bottom three and just seven off the UEFA Cup spaces. They were about to end their best spell of the campaign to that point, having won three and drawn one of their games through and after the Christmas period.

But it wasn’t until the next Christian festival of the year that the fans would be able to enjoy another good run. Blackburn and Reading both left Eastlands with victories, after City had failed to show up in either fixture, before Portsmouth took maximum points off the Blues as they made the trip to the south coast. Home games against Wigan and Chelsea then ended with 1-0 defeats, too.

Five losses on the bounce left the Blues six points ahead of Charlton in the last position in the relegation zone, and fourth from the bottom. Any ideas of climbing the table towards the UEFA Cup positions had gone – sixth was 13 points and 11 positions away. Few had realistically expected a European push – City were awful that year – but fans were hoping for more than a perilous slip towards the drop zone from a mid-table footing at the turn of the year.

The revival started at Middlesbrough. A very tight game between two uninspiring teams was thrust into City’s favour when Sylvain Distin broke the deadlock just after the hour mark, smashing a loose ball from a corner into the roof of Mark Schwarzer’s net. It seemed to take an age to drop for him, but he connected well and put his side into the lead.

All campaign he, along with Richard Dunne, had been the rocks that Premier League survival was built on. While the Blues didn’t score many goals, they kept their opposition out fairly well too – and it was those scrappy victories and draws, like at Christmas and Easter, that meant the club stayed just above water.

The second goal was pure City 2007. A long punt downfield from Andreas Isaksson bounced loose and was picked up by Joey Barton. He overhit a pass through to free-signing Emile Mpenza, who was able to stretch on the slide and redirect it past the on-rushing Schwarzer, into the net off the base of the post.

The revival continued in the next match, again in the north east. City were at Newcastle and looking to put some more breathing space between themselves and the relegation zone. Mpenza again was the star of the show – having hit the bar in the early moments with a powerful drive from long range, the Belgian lashed home a left-footed effort on a one-on-one with Shay Given with 10 minutes to play. Played through by Michael Johnson, Mpenza drew the goalkeeper and fired his shot into the net.

Six points from six took the Blues up to 13th and further towards safety. Third-bottom was Charlton, who were next up for Pearce’s side at the City of Manchester Stadium.

Of course, the Blues weren’t able to find the net – they were on the infamous run of firing blanks by this stage – but it was crucial that the Addicks didn’t get a win to close the gap. In a fixture where nothing happened, the manager decided it best not to lose rather than risk pushing for the win and a 0-0 finish suited the home side far more than the visitors. It kept the gap the same, but reduced the number of games for City to slip nearer to trouble.

Three days later, on Easter Monday, the Blues made the trip to the capital to face Chris Coleman’s Fulham. The home side were in a very generous mood – and the travelling fans were delighted to see Barton find the net with just 20 minutes played. It came after Mpenza had chased down possession in the corner and the ball squirmed clear into the middle, where the midfielder slotted it home.

A precise through ball from Barton 15 minutes later then played DaMarcus Beasley in behind the Fulham defence. The American, on loan from PSV Eindhoven, slotted a cute finished beyond Antti Niemi to double the visitors’ lead.

On the hour mark, Darius Vassell put the game to bed after another defensive horror-show from the home side. A punt over the top from Mpenza was fluffed by Liam Rosenior and it left Vassell to run clean through on a one-on-one from midway in the half. Niemi simply fell over, selling himself to one side, and the striker didn’t have to do much to poke it past him into the net.

A consolation goal from Carlos Bocanegra from a corner 15 minutes from the end wasn’t enough to change the outcome. It took the Blues to the hallowed 40 point mark.

That run, added to a creditable 0-0 draw with Liverpool – then comfortably in the Champions League and regulars in the top four – was enough to keep City in the top flight. In fact, Pearce only took one more point in the final five matches – a 1-1 draw at Watford, in a result that relegated the Hornets. The Blues finished 14th and four points above the drop zone, but in truth they’d been safe for several weeks before the bottom three was confirmed.

Written by David Mooney

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