By James Goldman
Overburdened and mystified by their manager’s indulgence of Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez return to the scene of their most destructive performance in Manchester City blue on Saturday, pale imitations of the players who tilted last season’s Premier League pendulum back in their side’s favour.
With the April sun on their backs and only the faintest whiff of the title in their nostrils, City’s all-Argentine strike force set about dismantling Norwich with a performance that married brute force and beguiling beauty.
Tevez battered the ball past John Ruddy at his near post with a swerving drive, before his impish back-heel offered Aguero the chance to beat the England goalkeeper from distance again.
The pair went on to score five of City's six goals that afternoon. It was easy but most of all it was fun, encapsulated by the way Tevez celebrated his hat-trick when he revealed the golf swing he had so meticulously honed during his self-imposed exile.
The title might have gone, or so it seemed, but Roberto Mancini had stumbled upon his golden formula. As it transpired, Manchester United’s implosion and a desperately late flourish of Aguero’s right boot ensured City’s coronation. On this season’s evidence, City used up their quota of fantasy football on that famous day in May.
Despite having made an overwhelming case to be regarded as automatic choices, Mancini’s reluctance to pair the two together this season ranks as one, and there have been plenty to choose from, of his most befuddling decisions.
The injury Aguero suffered on the opening weekend has had a small bearing, but the duo have started in attack together just eight times in the Premier League this season. That they have managed nine goals between them in that time only adds further significant weight to the notion Mancini has underemployed his trump cards.
The Italian’s constant rotation of his strikers, as much as his poorly conducted summer transfer dealings, have impacted on City’s reduced potency in front of goal this season. Indeed, the champions are currently six points and 19 goals worse off than they were this time last year.
“The strikers are feeling overburdened and are starting to feel the pressure,” a source close to the club told Goal.com. “They are feeding off scraps at the moment with City struggling to create more than three of four chances a game.
“The midfield doesn’t score enough goals – Gareth Barry’s against Reading was his first for two years – and that’s impacting on the strikers. Mancini got his summer dealings wrong but even if he would have got his top target Daniele De Rossi, that wouldn’t have eased the load on his strikers.”
Aguero’s frame of mind would hardly have been enhanced by Mancini’s ill-directed post match comments following the Boxing Day defeat at Sunderland, where he described his attack as “soft” in response to the former Atletico striker’s fluffed 70th minute chance.
True, the club’s record signing has failed to replicate the impact he made during his debut campaign, but he is far from alone there, nor is he the only high-profile member of City’s squad to suffer the ignominy of a public dressing down.
Joleon Lescott, Samir Nasri and Joe Hart have all been on the receiving end of Mancini’s caustic wit, while Mario Balotelli continues to escape the criticism that a striker with just one goal to his name all season, not to mention the additional baggage surely merits.
The source continued: “The way Mancini has spoken about some of the players recently in public hasn’t been particularly well received. He’s been sarcastic towards several of them, particularly Joe Hart and Joleon Lescott and hit hasn’t gone down particularly well.
“Some of the players are confused and mystified at how Mancini can be so critical of certain guys and yet Balotelli, who has done nothing all season, escapes the manager’s wrath. It doesn’t make for a particularly happy atmosphere.”
City know what it is like to trail their fiercest rivals by seven points and have far more room for manoeuvre than they did last time they did. Unleashing strikers against opposition who know only too well what they are capable of would be a decent first step in attempting to redress the balance.
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