City feeling pressure at top of Premier League
Updated: December 28, 2011, 12:06
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LONDON(AP) After seeing its Premier League lead wiped out by archrival Manchester United, Manchester City's title credentials face a severe test when it plays revitalized Sunderland and then Liverpool in a three-day span to kick off a hectic month for the big-spending northern club.
City still tops the standings as it goes in search of a first English title since 1968, but has squandered a five-point advantage in the space of a month to lead the reigning champions only on goal difference.
The pressure will be ramped up on Roberto Mancini's men in January, when they also play United in the third round of the FA Cup and Liverpool over two legs in the semifinals of the League Cup.
"There is all sorts of pressure and we're feeling it,'' City goalkeeper Joe Hart said.
With United hosting bottom team Blackburn on Saturday and bidding for a sixth straight league win, City is likely to go into the new year second in the table - an unusual position for Mancini's team this season.
City has still only lost once in the league - at Chelsea on Dec. 12 - but the fixtures come thick and fast next month as the club aims for silverware in numerous competitions to reward the continued heavy spending by its billionaire Abu Dhabi owners.
Sunday's trip to Sunderland has a tougher look to it after Martin O'Neill inspired the hosts to seven points from a possible 12 since taking over as manager on Dec. 3. City then hosts sixth-place Liverpool two days later, the first of three matches against Kenny Dalglish's team in January.
"To play twice in 48 hours will make a difference at this moment but we have good concentration and in January that is important,'' Mancini said.
"I'm confident we can do a good job by the end ... United have a strong team but we are strong enough to do this.''
United manager Alex Ferguson hopes to celebrate his 70th birthday in style with a win over Blackburn on New Year's Eve, although the visitors showed they have the stomach for a relegation fight by battling to a 1-1 draw at Liverpool on Monday.
However, stopping United at Old Trafford - where it has won seven of its nine league matches this season - is a different matter, especially with the home side having scored 16 goals in four straight wins since its shock exit from the Champions League.
"We reached the (Champions League) final last year and it hurts to go out so early,'' United winger Antonio Valencia said. "But we are using that hurt.
"The group now tries even harder in training and we are going into games with a determined attitude because we've got to win something, whether it is the Premier League, Europa League or FA Cup.''
United's impressive recent run comes despite its squad being crippled by a series of injuries that has robbed the team of all four of its center halves and three of its first-choice central midfielders.
In the 5-0 home win over Wigan on Monday, midfielder Michael Carrick and left back Patrice Evra played as center backs, Valencia filled in at right back and striker Wayne Rooney operated in central midfield.
"It is starting to get annoying,'' Evra said of United's growing list of injuries.
With Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all dropping points in their latest fixtures, Tottenham took advantage by beating Norwich 2-0 away to tighten its grip on third place, seven points behind the Manchester clubs with a game in hand.
Spurs are four points clear of Chelsea ahead of Saturday's trip to Swansea and they are arguably playing the best football in the league, inspired by impressive performances from left winger Gareth Bale.
The Wales winger scored both goals against Norwich, reviving memories of his devastating displays in Spurs' run to the Champions League quarterfinals last season.
"It would only be a Barcelona, a Man City or Real Madrid who would be able to pay for him,'' Redknapp said.
"But he isn't for sale. If we sell him, we've had it haven't we? If you're looking to go somewhere, you don't go and sell a player like him.''
Chelsea hosts Aston Villa and fifth-place Arsenal is at home to Queens Park Rangers, with striker Robin van Persie needing two goals to equal the record of 36 in a calendar year, set by Alan Shearer in 1995.
Sixth-place Liverpool will be without suspended striker Luis Suarez for its home match against Newcastle on Friday.
In other games on Saturday, next-to-last Bolton hosts Wolverhampton, third-bottom Wigan visits Stoke and Fulham is at Norwich.
West Bromwich Albion is at home to Everton in a mid-table battle on Sunday.