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Back to where it all began

28 August 2010

We’re approaching the second anniversary of Sheikh Mansour’s takeover that dramatically changed the trajectory of Manchester City. Coincidentally, City are playing the very same fixture as two seasons ago: at Sunderland.

Even though news of the takeover didn’t break until the next day, that dramatic development and the 3-0 win at Sunderland are inextricably linked in my memory. I was still basking in the glow of that victory when reports of a wealthy Middle Eastern buyer surfaced.

I remember being rudely fixated on my iPhone while hanging out with friends on their deck for Labor Day, as the news just kept getting better and better. City suddenly had an owner with the deepest pockets around and the uncertainty of the Thaksin Shinawatra regime was no more. Then City were hijacking Chelsea’s move for Robinho. Then they were hijacking United’s move for Dimitar Berbatov. Then there were the reported bids for a number of other top names.

While it feels revisionist now, that 3-0 triumph at The Stadium of Light felt like the moment it all turned around for City as a club. It was Shaun Wright-Phillips’s first game back in sky blue after returning to the club who gave him his start as a professional. SWP scored twice against the Mackems that day, and that along with a strong display from another recent signing, Vincent Kompany, and the emergence of Stephen Ireland gave City fans a real sense of optimism.

Just like two years ago, the trip to the Northeast comes on the heels of an encouraging 3-0 home win that followed a humbling opener away against a European contender. This is an improved Sunderland squad from the Roy Keane side that would go on to stave off relegation in 2008-2009. However, thanks to the hundreds of millions invested in the club by the Sheikh, City are nearly unrecognizable from the side that won there 48 months ago.

Now City are expected to get three points in most of their away matches. For title contenders, there’s rarely such a thing as a good point. Sunderland were quality at home last season, losing only three times, but such are the expectations at City now that they are 3/4 favorites to win on Sunday.

This was a frustrating fixture last season, as City peppered the Sunderland goal with shots in the second half in search of an equalizer, but repeatedly were denied by Craig Gordon, who was having a blinder between the pipes that day. It took a miraculous finish from Adam Johnson deep in extra time — which I still question whether it was in fact a shot — to rescue a point:

I’m hoping for a result much more like the 3-0 win of two seasons ago than last season’s 1-1 draw. Going by both clubs’ current form, that shouldn’t be too difficult for City to achieve. Sunderland are off to a very poor start after dropping points at home to Birmingham in Week 1 and losing at West Brom last week. This is as good a time as any to make the tip to Sunderland.

I’m actually one of what is apparently a very small minority of City fans who don’t loathe Steve Bruce from his playing career at United. I was a fan of what he did at both Birmingham City and Wigan, and I like the players he’s brought in at Sunderland. I thought going into the season that Sunderland might be the club outside the Top 8 last season that are most qualified to make a run at a European spot. So far my faith appears to be misplaced, but I do think Sunderland have quality beyond the criminally overlooked and unfairly disrespected Darren Bent. At the very least, Bruce seems more capable than most of recognizing what is going on at Eastlands.

Mario Balotelli is racing to be fit in time for tomorrow game, but I don’t see Roberto Mancini taking any risks with him. Meanwhile, James Milner should be back in the starting XI after his midweek rest. David Silva improved as Thursday’s Europa League qualifier progressed, but I could see Mancini opting to give him at least a partial rest on the bench against Sunderland. Here’s what I expect Mancini’s team to look like tomorrow:

Oddly, the match won’t be shown live in the States. The folks at FOX Soccer could have shown both the 8:30 am Bolton-Brum and the 11 am Villa-Everton matches on FOX Soccer Channel and then picked up either the City or Liverpool match on FOX Soccer Plus. It looks like instead they elected to highlight the first paid weekend of FOXSoccer.TV by putting a couple of matches involving high-profile clubs live exclusively on there. Their approach worked on me, as I signed up for FOXSoccer.TV this morning. Hopefully they have ironed out some of the gremlins that popped up last weekend.

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