There’s more than just a trip to Wembley at stake for Manchester City when they lock horns with Everton for the third time in 22 days at the Etihad on Wednesday. The whole season - and, indeed, the enduring image of the Manuel Pellegrini era - could hinge on the outcome against the Toffees.
That might sound a little melodramatic, but City had very high hopes for this season, standards that simply aren’t being lived up to. They’ve been way below their best almost continuously since August, a fleeting show of brilliance when early Champions League qualification was up for grabs away to Sevilla being the most notable exception.
It’s a far cry from racing out of the blocks in the first month, collecting maximum points from the first five matches by an aggregate score of 11-0. City were desperate to prove a point then, but once that point had been made they slipped back into second gear, expecting to cruise their way through the season just being good enough.
It hasn’t worked. Not for the first time, City have realised you can’t turn form on and off like water from a tap. The best teams have an inner desire and professionalism that City don’t match. They take every opponent and every occasion seriously. And that’s why, when push comes to shove, City never quite measure up to the elite. The standard they require isn’t habitual.
However, in this particular scenario, there’s a counter-argument that says City are within their rights to under-perform for long periods, so long as they do the business when it really matters. And if that argument carries any weight, this is their first real opportunity to prove it on the domestic stage this season. Just as they did in Seville.
If City can match the intensity they found under floodlights at the Sanchez Pizjuan, they should be too strong for Everton. The familiarity that stems from two recent meetings does Roberto Martinez no favours and the temptation on his part to repeat the tactics that earned a goalless draw in the league game two weeks ago could be disastrous, assuming City set the right tempo from the first whistle.
The Sky Blues will have learned valuable lessons from that last meeting and, if they find the breakthrough and level-up the tie early, Everton could suddenly find themselves stuck in the wrong mindset with a long night ahead. Take the 7/2 available on City to clear the -2 handicap. In 62 domestic home matches under Pellegrini, they’ve landed this bet 25 times, implying that odds of 6/4 would be more appropriate.
The first half could be key to everything, though, and City surely know they have to be at the races over those initial 45 minutes. And that leads us to our second selection: City to win both halves at 11/4. In that same 62-match sample, they’ve landed this bet 27 times, which works out at around 13/10.
And while we’re at it, let’s go the whole hog and split a point between a couple of big-priced correct scores. Back City to win 4-0 at 22/1 and City to win 4-1 at 19/1. If they get themselves ahead on aggregate, they won’t let-up lightly and Everton will suddenly be required to chase, leaving themselves open to further damage.
The fourth goal would probably the point when City take their foot off the gas and look towards an FA Cup fourth round tie at Aston Villa on Saturday. However, if this game follows an entirely different pattern, one scripted by Martinez, you wouldn’t rule out the prospect of it being the first of a double-whammy in the space of four days and a damning final judgement being passed on Pellegrini’s time in Manchester.
Click here for more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system