Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has warned his Premier League leaders that they cannot afford to offer up unexpected gifts on their travels over the festive season.
City start their final game of the year at West Bromwich Albion today two points clear of nearest rivals Manchester United and on course for their first top-flight title for 44 years, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s reigning champions will end the calendar year at the summit if they follow up victory over struggling Wigan Athletic today with another three points against bottom club Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.
That is because City do not play again after Monday until Sunday, when they travel to Sunderland.
The Italian boss’ expensively assembled side have led the table for most of the season and remain favorites to finish the impressive job they have started.
They appear to have an easier second half to the campaign on paper — United still have to travel to Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and City, while Mancini’s men, invincible at home this year, host Tottenham, Chelsea and United.
However, Mancini is taking nothing for granted and wants maximum points at West Brom and Sunderland after drawing 1-1 at Liverpool and then losing 2-1 at Chelsea in their past two away league games.
“We still have Chelsea, United, Tottenham and Liverpool to come to the Etihad Stadium, but we need to win away games as well and we have only one point from our last two,” the Italian said. “I have a lot of respect for West Bromwich and for [manager] Roy Hodgson — he is one of the best managers in Europe. It will be very hard because they play good football. They have had some problems, but won their last two away games and seem to be in good form.”
Free-scoring City have doubts concerning defender Micah Richards (leg) and striker Edin Dzeko (knock), while Serbian defender Aleksander Kolarov is troubled by a groin injury.
West Brom start the game in mid-table after back-to-back away wins at Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United, but their home form has been less impressive, although defender Gareth McAuley insists confidence is high after recent results.
“City are top of the league and scoring goals for fun, but it’s a challenge for us to stop that,” McAuley said. “The changing room is confident at the moment, but we know it’s going to be a tough game, and we’ve got to do the basics right and all the hard work. Then, when we get the ball, we have to play like we can do.”
Albion moved seven points clear of the relegation zone and up to 10th courtesy of Wednesday’s 3-2 win over Newcastle, but McAuley admits he and his teammates face an unenviable task in attempting to shackle Sergio Aguero.
City’s Argentina international scored twice in Wednesday’s 3-0 victory over Stoke City to take his Premier League tally for the campaign to 13 goals.
“I watched a bit of City’s game against Arsenal on TV and his movement was second to none,” the Northern Ireland international said. “His movement in and around the box is different class, and it’s going to be a big task and a big job in terms of concentration for whoever plays against him.”
West Brom hope James Morrison will recover from the hamstring injury which ruled him out in midweek. Steven Reid (ankle), Youssouf Mulumbu (groin) and Jerome Thomas (ankle) are all major doubts.