Superb Sunderland gave Mancini plenty to ponder (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Few gave Sunderland a chance this afternoon. Coming off the back of being knocked out of the Cup midweek with a dismal showing and with Manchester City looking to further their title aspirations and also continue their impressive home form there seemed to be only one logical outcome to today's fixture.
Unfortunately for Roberto Mancini, Sunderland put in a memorable performance and were five minutes shy of completing an incredible double over the sky blues.
Read all about it after the jump...
Martin O'Neill made a number of changes to his side upon the seemingly daunting task that awaited them at the Etihad. The big bad Greek centre half Kyrgiakos made a return to the bench following Tuesday night's poor showing and was replaced by a returning Matt Kilgallon who partnered Michael Turner in the heart of Sunderland's defence. There was also a return to the starting eleven for Jack Colback who's versatility was called upon as he was employed in the left back slot with Keiran Richardson fit enough to make the bench as Wayne Bridge was ineligible for the game.
Manchester City received a boost in the shape of the influential Vincent Kompany whilst Kun Aguero was indeed missing due to whatever weird and wonderful injury he picked up during the week that narked his manager so much. The much mentioned stat before kick-off seemed to suggest an easy victory for the home side looking to boost their title chances as Sunderland are yet to win at City's new home.
The early moments of the game saw City go against their usual style of play as the home side put an early cross into the Sunderland box, possibly to test the "makeshift" back four, but Sunderland were able to clear thanks to a foul in the middle. Sunderland themselves then decided to test City's defence in similar fashion as a Larsson cross eventually dropped to James McClean who was happy to take a first time, left-footed, drive on goal which was painfully blocked by Michah Richards. A lively, open, game seemed on the cards.
The first chance of the game fell to Stephane Sessegnon, who nicked the ball away from Micah Richards before racing on to goal. The Benin wizard always had the goal in his sights and overlooked a superb overlapping run from McClean on his left. Sessegnon's shot was blocked and the young Irishman to his left was furious he had not been played in on goal. Richards hobbled off following the passage of play still smarting from McClean's drive as City continued with ten-men.
It was City however who came closest to opening the scoring as Kolarov capitalised on a foul by Lee Cattermole just outside Sunderland's penalty area. Kolarov placed his shot over the visiting side's five man wall and Simon Mignolet had to be at full stretch to keep out the fierce freekick.
Undeterred, Sunderland continued to play with a freedom and lack of fear, spreading the play across to Phil Bardsley who was happy to put a ball into City's box as SAFC committed a number of men forward. A promising sign for the noisy travelling fans.
Dzeko made his first real impact on the game as he breezed past Michael Turner with ease before firing a ball across goal which was cleared by a stretching Matt Kilgallon. City continued to press the away side with a lot of fast paced and intricate passes around Sunderland's area, which whilst pleasing on the eye led to little.
On the fifteen minute mark Sunderland wasted a real opportunity with a brilliant attacking move. The ball found its way to Larsson on the right hand box who rolled a ball into a lurking Sessegnon. Instead of taking the shot on, possibly thinking about his earlier chance, the playmaker placed the ball into the bath of Craig Gardner who made a run from deep into the area, but his shot was just wide.
Dzeko again caused the Sunderland defence all kinds of problems as he latched onto a nice, sweeping move from the homeside which he started, linking up with Silva and Balotelli before unleashing a shot on target with the outside of his right boot which was straight at Mignolet. Lovely technique.
City began to take more control of the game as twenty minutes passed. Lee Cattermole was penalised for daring to tackle David Silva and the home side capitalised on the fortuitous decision with a sustained period of pressure which again saw City happy to throw balls into the box to mix things up. Mignolet did well under pressure to swat away an inswinging corner as a result of Cities sustained pressure. The Belgian could do nothing minutes later however as Mario Balotelli met another corner ahead of Dzeko but his effort sailed over the bar with his strike partner in a seemingly better position.
Sunderland managed to take off some of the pressure with a half chance of their own courtesy of James McClean who received the ball in the City penalty area before spinning on the ball and working himself into a shooting position only for his effort to sail wide of Joe Hart's right hand post.
Sunderland capitalised on their period of pressure on the half hour mark as Sebastian Larsson placed a shot from the edge of the area into the corner of the net leaving Joe Hart with no chance. It was nothing that the travelling side didn't deserve following an impressive start to the game playing with no fear with the pressure now off. It was a quick freekick on the left hand side of the game which led to the goal. Sessegnon received the the ball before junking inside and finding an unmarked Larsson who was given enough time and space from City's defence to place his shot home.
The game would then descend into the Phil Dowd show who had already waved away a couple of protests before finally deciding to buckle under the pressure of a baying City crowd. The decision was given as Dzeko knocked the ball past Craig Gardner on the edge of the area following a mazy run before leaving allowing his standing leg to make contact with the Sunderland midfielder who was trying to get out of the way. A really poor decision. Who else but Mario Balotelli to step up and place a cool, calm and collected penalty into the back of the net.
The lively contest took an ugly turn as Jack Colback and Micah Richards innocuously clashed heads trying to win the same ball. Dzecko and Bardsley seemed to disagree on something, perhaps Edin is one of those panic buying muppets stockpiling petrol and it was a case of handbags at dawn with both sets of players pushing and shoving. Much ado about nothing.
With three minutes of extra time allocated it looked as if Sunderland would be happy to see out the half. Nicklas Bendtner had other ideas however. It was another quick freekick which would prove to undo Manchester City who were still organising their defence. The Swede gave the ball to Stephane Sessegnon who put an inviting ball into the box which the on loan Dane was all too willing to nod home. A fantastic end to an enthralling first half.
With City finding themselves trailing for the first time this season Mancini reacted by replacing Micah Richards with Adam Johnson, the England defender obviously struggling from that early knock, the only change for either side as Phil Dowd got the second half under way.
Sunderland started the half brightly with plenty of the ball in the City half but were also happy to drop back, get men behind the ball and frustrate both the City side and their fans when necessary and who would blame them given the platform they had built. However it was far from a case of parking the bus, oh no, as on the fifty-fifth minute Sunderland hit Manchester City with a classic counter attack, a classic Martin O'Neill tactic. SAFC broke through the middle via the talismatic Stephane Sessegnon who fed Nicklas Bendtner on the right hand side. The Dane progressed forward awaiting Sebastian Larsson to complete his lung-busting run before feeding the Swede with a superb pass, leaving Seb with a golden opportunity to further Sunderland's advantage - which he did! The away fans were delirious and celebrated in City style, doing the Poznan.
The goal forced Roberto Mancini into further action as he replaced David Silva with Carlos Tevez, the fickle City fans cheered their "hero".
The goal also sparked City into life and as expected the home side pressed Sunderland, desperate for a way back into the game as their title aspirations slipped out of their hands. SAFC however were compact and resolute, more than up for the fight. As the minutes passed City looked more and more frustrated and no better was this frustration illustrated as Kolarov and Ballotelli argued over who would take a free kick, indeed the City fans' patience with their unpredicatble forward and boo's could be heard as he delayed proceedings.
There was even time for Matt Kilgallon to showcase some fantastic feet in the City penalty area that would have impressed even Lionel Messi. Yes you read that right, Matt Kilgallon, who left numerous blue shirt in his wake with a clever back heel. Magical stuff.
As seventy minutes came and went you could sense the impatience grow among the home fans as City huffed and puffed but were unable to break down a compact Sunderland side who were growing in confidence with every minute that went by.
Messi, I mean Kilgallon, was forced off through injury, a real blow for the lad who had been fantastic all afternoon, and was replaced by the Greek. Mancini also threw caution to the wind and brought off a quiet James Milner and replaced the maggie reject with the on loan Pizarro.
Sunderland then hit the self destruct button in a crazy few minutes when the game looked relatively safe. First off the travelling side, namely Sebastian Larsson, allowed Mario Balotelli time and space on the edge of the area to wrap his right boot around the ball which flew past Simon Mignolet. Moments later the title challengers were level as they besieged Sunderland with wave after wave of attack and the away side cracked under the pressure as a low drive from Kolarov on the left flew through a crowded penalty area and past a rooted Simon Mignolet. A real sucker punch as SAFC had looked so strong up until the last five minutes.
And that was that. The points were shared and whilst many may be disappointed with the result having found ourselves in such a strong position, lets not be too harsh on the lads who put on an eye-catching performance, came so close to another memorable victory and put a serious dent in City's title challenge. A point gained rather than three points lost.
Team (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Mignolet (6), (6), Kilgallon (7), Turner (6), Colback (8), Larsson (7), Gardner (5), Cattermole (8), McClean (7), Sessegnon (8), Bendtner (8)
Subs used: Kyrgiakos (5), Vaughan (5)
Man Of The Match: Stephane Sessegnon - VERY tough call today as the lads put in a superb shift and almost came up with an unlikely victory. Jack Colback was superb on his return to the side and looked very neat, tidy and composed at left back. Lee Cattermole was back to his best in the centre of the field and Nicklas Bendtner kept up his run of recent good form leading the line. However it was Sessegnon who just about edged it for me, with the playmaker having an important part to play in each of our three goals.
Overall a fantastic, if slightly disappointing result. Few gave us any chance this afternoon and I am sure we have ruined a coupon or two across the country but we should be very proud of the way our side played this afternoon, almost the perfect performance.