Misfiring City facing crunch time in title race

STEVE DOUGLAS AP Sports Writer Published:

LONDON (AP) -- Criticized for being "soft" by manager Roberto Mancini, Manchester City's expensively assembled strike force needs to rediscover its scoring form against Norwich on Saturday if the champions aren't to risk falling further behind Manchester United in the Premier League title race.

City has scored just one goal -- via defensive midfielder Gareth Barry -- in two disappointing performances over the Christmas period against two relegation candidates.

Barry's late winner saw off Reading -- at that time the league's bottom club -- 1-0 last weekend but there was no rescue act in a 1-0 loss at Sunderland on Wednesday, a result that left City seven points behind United after 19 games.

That was the first time this season that City had failed to win a league game that Argentina strikers Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero both started. Mario Balotelli has meanwhile fallen back out of favor with Mancini and Edin Dzeko has been unable to reproduce the exploits that marked him out as a "super-sub" earlier this campaign.

"Last year, we scored one, two or three goals every game but now when we have chances we are too soft," Mancini said.

"Too soft in attack, too soft when we shoot. Sometimes we don't shoot, we want to do one touch more and that's not good."

With 34 goals so far, City has scored 14 fewer than United and only 12 have come from the champions' nine away games.

United, which inflicted City's only other loss this season, hosts West Bromwich Albion on Saturday buoyed by Wednesday's 4-3 win over Newcastle -- a game in which Alex Ferguson's side came from behind three times.

Ferguson labeled it a "championship performance" but City -- and West Brom -- will take heart from United's continued fallibility in defense. They have already conceded more goals (28) in this campaign that they did throughout their title-winning seasons in 2007, '08 and '09, and have gone behind 16 times in all competitions.

"We are concerned," United defender Rio Ferdinand said. "This season we have let in far too many goals and we need to change that.

"We are in a good position but if we are to maintain where we are, we need to sort ourselves out."

Thankfully for United, the team has Robin van Persie in a rich vein of form, maintaining his scoring streak from Arsenal last season by netting 13 times already -- making him the joint-top scorer in the league with Swansea forward Michu.

"I have no hesitation in saying that he (Van Persie) has made a vital difference to our chances of making our mark in this season's title race," said Ferguson, who will be without striker Wayne Rooney for up to three weeks because of a knee injury.

By losing two of its last four games, City has let Chelsea creep back into the picture and wins against Aston Villa (8-0) and Norwich (1-0) over the Christmas period puts the European champions four points back in third place with a game in hand.

Chelsea has fifth-place Everton away on Sunday, a tough game considering the Merseysiders are unbeaten in seven matches.

"The message is very clear: if we can improve and keep winning games, we will have our chance, but if United keep winning, you can do nothing," said interim Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez, who may slowly be starting to win over the club's disgruntled fans a month after taking charge.

Tottenham, which is fourth and level on points with Everton, visits Sunderland and north London rival Arsenal hosts Newcastle after enjoying a few extra days' rest because its Dec. 26 match against West Ham was postponed, due to strike action by train drivers on the London Underground.

Also Saturday, it's: Aston Villa vs. Wigan, Fulham vs. Swansea, Reading vs. West Ham and Stoke vs. Southampton.

Sunday's other match sees last-place Queens Park Rangers look for only a second win of the campaign when it plays Liverpool at Loftus Road.