Title-chasing Manchester City, poised to sell striker Mario Balotelli, could not crack resilient Queens Park Rangers (QPR) and in-form goalkeeper Julio Cesar in a 0-0 draw at the Premier League’s basement club on Tuesday.
City closed the gap on leaders Manchester United to four points, but a frustrating night for Roberto Mancini’s side in a wet and windy capital handed United the chance to increase their advantage to seven when they hosted Southampton yesterday.
“Julio Cesar saved everything and we made some mistakes — on another day maybe we could have scored four goals,” Mancini, who signed Brazilian Cesar back in 2005 when Inter manager, told City’s Web site.
United have 56 points from 23 games, with City on 52 from 24.
Aston Villa’s season continued to lurch from bad to worse after a 2-1 defeat against fellow strugglers Newcastle United dropped the freefalling Midlands club into the relegation zone.
Goals from Papiss Cisse and Yohan Cabaye fired Newcastle into a first-half lead, with Christian Benteke’s penalty soon after the restart not enough to save Villa from a fourth successive home league defeat.
Villa got a standing ovation for their second-half efforts and beleaguered manager Paul Lambert, backed this week by the club’s American owner Randy Lerner, promised to “fight our way out of it.”
Wigan Athletic moved above Villa and out of the drop zone on goal-difference after coming from two goals down to draw 2-2 at Stoke City.
QPR, still five points from safety despite a four-match unbeaten run, have become a well-organized defensive unit under Harry Redknapp, as City discovered at Loftus Road.
Mancini, who left Balotelli out of his squad with the Italy striker set to move back home to Serie A with AC Milan, went for broke in the second half with his remaining three frontline strikers Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and substitute Edin Dzeko all on the pitch.
However, they were thwarted by sturdy defending and the irrepressible Cesar. A strong penalty shout when Scott Sinclair appeared to be upended was also waved away.
“We did everything to win this game, but we didn’t score,” Mancini added. “The pitch was wet, it was windy, it was difficult — we deserved to win, but we have another 14 games to go.”
Mancini said it would be difficult for City to replace Balotelli before the transfer window closes today.
“I don’t know, we have three strikers, we will see. We have only two days. It’s difficult to get a good player now,” Mancini said.
City’s Pablo Zabaleta headed against the crossbar in the first half, while Cesar made superb saves to deny Gareth Barry and David Silva.
Newcastle relied on their French connection to secure their first away league win of the season, heaping further pressure on Lambert.
Villa have picked up just one league win in their last 10, and last week were knocked out of the Capital One (League) Cup and FA Cup in the space of four days by lower-league opponents.
France midfielder Moussa Sissoko had an immediate impact on his debut for Newcastle after joining last week from Toulouse, setting up Cisse to score after 19 minutes.
Another Frenchman, Cabaye, doubled the lead with a sizzling half-volley on 31 and, although Villa tore into their opponents after the break, Newcastle survived to move up one place to 15th.
Lambert vowed to battle on.
“There will be a few teams down there and we will have to fight our way out of it,” he said.
“Money dictates everything and the situation hasn’t changed. I don’t know if we will be able to bring anyone in, let’s see what the next two days brings. You have to survive in the league and sometimes you need a bit of help,” Lambert added.
Wigan got a boost in their survival fight thanks to a fine fightback at Stoke, who had led through Ryan Shawcross and Peter Crouch.
James McArthur got Wigan back in the match soon after Crouch’s early second-half goal and they secured a point with Franco di Santo’s volley just after the hour.
In the night’s other match, Sunderland and Capital One Cup finalists Swansea City drew 0-0.
SEE MANCINI ON PAGE 18