Sunderland dominated for much of Saturday’s game and Martin O’Neill will be frustrated his side didn’t take all three points. However, on the flip side, Manchester City will have mixed emotions as their Premier League title ambitions were severely dented. The home side had all the possession in the first half but Sunderland still posed a threat on the counter-attack as Sebastian Larsson showed when he caught the City defence off-guard just after the half-hour mark with a cool finish. This lead was pegged back when a contentious penalty was awarded following a suspected dive by Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli slotted past Simon Mignolet to bring City right back into it. Despite City’s equaliser, Sunderland continued in the ascendency and Nicklas Bendtner rose above Micah Richards to finish off a smart cross from Stephane Sessengnon. After half-time Sunderland doubled their advantage thanks to another Larsson strike and City’s hopes of resurrecting any result looked over. But the Super Mario show took centre stage and halved Sunderland’s advantage before Aleksandr Kolarov levelled in the 88th minute.
Going into the game at Eastlands, Roberto Mancini would have seen this as a crucial fixture to maintain City’s push for the title. The bookies placed the Citizens as hot favourites based mainly on their 100 per cent record at the Etihad in the league stretching back to February 2011, not to mention Sunderland had lost all seven of their previous trips to City’s stadium. However, the game didn’t go to plan and with the Sunderland travelling support cheering every pass with just 20 minutes remaining, Mancini would have been elated to come away with the draw as City eventually managed. If his side had lost, the Italian’s position at the club would potentially have been called into question and certainly the gap between City and Manchester United would have become almost unassailable. So in terms of the title race, the result represents a big blow but not a knock-out punch and the Manchester derby will still be hugely significant on 30 April.
Sunderland boss O’Neill has done many great things in his managerial career to date. His silverware success is an obvious testament to his hard work but much of what he does behind the scenes escapes unnoticed and it’s really what places O’Neill among the managerial elite. At Sunderland, the inclusion of James McClean has been an obvious master-stroke, however the biggest spotlight was placed on the loan signing of Bendtner and how the Black Cats boss has managed such a temperamental talent. Prior to his time at Sunderland, the Danish striker was known more for his antics off the field than for his exploits on it – a prime example of a wasted talent. But this season Bendtner looks to have put his past behind him and is finally fulfilling the talent that Arsène Wenger once saw in him. His powerful header and superb assist that helped secure a point for Sunderland as he continues to blossom into a complete striker. O’Neill imbeds a hard-working team ethic into his squad and this is another attribute Bendtner has added to his game. Overall, the Danish forward is starting to look like a prolific finisher who could become a 20 goal-a-season player for Sunderland in the future if Wenger is willing to let him go.
Many have questioned why Roberto Mancini continues to keep faith in controversial striker Balotelli. And after Saturday’s match we are none the wiser. The Italian striker showed us all his sides on the way to City’s 3-3 draw with Sunderland. Prior to the game, Mancini was quoted as not being able to trust Balotelli and this came to the fore once again when he threw another tantrum as he became embroiled in a bust-up with team-mate Alexander Kolarov over a free-kick with City were trailing 3-1 – captain Vincent Kompany had to restrain his immature colleague. Nevertheless, as is always the case with Balotelli, he answered his critics by keeping his composure and nonchalantly dispatching his first-half penalty before rounding off a superb footballing display in 85th minute. Defying his detractors, he took the ball into the penalty area from the right, and proceeded to lash a rasping shoot into the roof of the Sunderland net with Mignolet rooted to the spot.
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