Early Doors

City must avoid ‘second-month syndrome’

Early Doors

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Roberto Mancini (PA Photos)

The freezing weather in Britain and much of Europe at the moment may make it feel as though it is just too cold to embark on anything of true significance right now, but this weekend could be a pivotal one in the Premier League title race.

For only the third time in the past two decades there are two clubs level at the top of the table at the start of February. Manchester City and Manchester United both have 54 points going into this weekend's games. Both clubs have won, drawn and lost the same number of matches, though City are nominal leaders by virtue of their superior goal difference.

Had City been told at the start of the season that they would be in this position they would have grabbed the opportunity quicker than you could say 'Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan'. But, having been as much as five points clear back at the beginning of December and dishing out that 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford, they could be forgiven for looking at the table and feeling as bitter as the current seasonal conditions.

The past two occasions on which the lead has been shared on February 1 will not make comfortable reading for City either.

In 1999-2000 United were joint-top with Leeds on 47 points, though they had scored 15 goals more than David O'Leary's team. By the end of the month United were six points clear thanks in no small part to a 1-0 win at Elland Road. The campaign ended with United retaining the title with a whopping 91 points, 18 above runners-up Arsenal with Leeds dropping to third place. That season proved to be the high-watermark for Leeds' "living the dream" under Peter Ridsdale's extravagant stewardship, on the domestic front at least.

It was Arsenal who were level-pegging with United in 2007-08, with the two biggest rivals of the Premier League era both on 57 points going into the seventh month of the season. The Gunners even ended the month two points clear, but by the end of March they had suffered the sort of late-season slump which has come to define them in recent years, slipping to third, six points behind United. Alex Ferguson's side went on to beat Chelsea to the title on the final day of the season before doing the same in Moscow 10 days later in the Champions League final.

City appear better equipped to cope with the strain of running parallel to United at such an advanced stage of the season - certainly better than an expensively-yet-hastily-assembled Leeds side or an Arsenal team getting used to life without Thierry Henry, in any case.

They can also look to this weekend's fixtures with a degree of optimism as they prepare to welcome Fulham to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday evening. While the visit of the Cottagers - recently shorn of Bobby Zamora but with Clint Dempsey unerring in front of goal of late - is by no means a formality, it is a fixture vastly preferable to that which United have in front of them.

The champions travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, a venue where City lost back in mid-December and had their aforementioned five-point lead dented in the process.

United, on the other hand, have won five of their last six encounters with Chelsea including their most recent visit to Stamford Bridge in the Champions League last season.

Since that win over City, Chelsea have only lost once in eight league games, but they have also drawn five of those games. During that run, the only league match they scored more than once in was a 2-1 victory at Wolves.

The expected returns of Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Nani could hardly be better timed for United, especially with the visit to Old Trafford of Liverpool next on their fixture list.

City may have suffered defeats to Sunderland and Everton in the league since the turn of the year, but they have the chance to make amends over the next week if they can record back-to-back wins over Fulham and Aston Villa, by which time the brothers Toure may well be back among their ranks.

This is a crucial time in the campaign during which Roberto Mancini's team must take the initiative if they are to avoid becoming just another side who pushed United for so long before fading at the last.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "If Terry goes to the Euros the trial will impact on his holiday. It won't impact on his pre-season because he'll get a rest after the Euros. It'll just be his down-time but it won't be Anton's down-time. People are making decisions that impact one of our players. Anton is involved in the case and they have been given a date that is slap bang in the middle of our pre-season from my point of view and Anton's. I don't know how they have come up with the date, whether they have had discussions with the FA and made sure it doesn't impact on the Euros. But they haven't discussed it with us. It seems to be set in stone. I might be completely wrong but I wasn't in that discussion if there was one." - Queens Park Rangers manager Mark Hughes is annoyed at the July date set for the trial of John Terry on charges of allegedly racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, claiming it will affect his player more than the England captain. According to widespread reports, Terry may not have that role for much longer if the FA board decide to take the armband back from him once again, something they are reportedly meeting to discuss today.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I was beaten with fists and kicks to the neck, head and feet. I saw our fans die before us and we were unable to do anything … I have to think about my life differently now" - Al-Ahly coach Manuel Jose describes the ordeal he and his players suffered during Wednesday's rioting at the stadium in Port Said, Egypt, which claimed dozens of lives and injured more than 1,000 people.

COMING UP: Get detailed previews for every one of the weekend's Premier League matches as well as team news for the rest of England, Scotland and Europe's major leagues.

Paul Parker and Jim White get to vent their spleens in their latest blogs, while The Fantasist will drop by to host the latest fantasy football webchat around 3pm.

Away from football, you can follow live over-by-over coverage of the third and final Test between England and Pakistan.

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