SUNDERLAND, United Kingdom, December 27 – Roberto Mancini refused to blame goalkeeper Joe Hart for wrecking Manchester City’s title challenge as the champions slipped to a shock 1-0 defeat at Sunderland.
England midfielder Adam Johnson claimed the only goal against his former club on Wednesday to end City’s eight-month unbeaten away league record.
Hart looked at fault as he was beaten at his near post by Johnson’s 53rd minute effort to leave City trailing seven points behind leaders Manchester United, who increased their advantage thanks to a late winner in a 4-3 victory over Newcastle.
However, Mancini’s ire was directed at referee Kevin Friend rather than the England keeper, who was nevertheless at fault for allowing Johnson’s cross to slip beneath his out-stretched left arm.
The Italian admitted his side had been “soft” in crucial areas, but also pointed the finger at the officials as City suffered a third consecutive defeat at the Stadium of Light, a venue where they are winless for almost four-and-a-half years.
Mancini insisted Friend and his assistants had enjoyed their Christmas Day celebrations rather too much, after claiming they missed Craig Gardner’s foul on Pablo Zabaleta in the build-up to the decisive goal from the winger, who ended a rollercoaster two-and-a-half-year spell at City with a £10 million return to his native North-East in pre-season.
“Johnson was really clever because we all thought he was going to cross,” Mancini said. “Instead, he shot, he did very well. I don’t think Hart was at fault.
“The City manager was rather less positive about referee Friend, and he added: “The referee ate too much for Christmas. He was not in good form. But that can happen after Christmas when they have a performance like that.”
Mancini didn’t spare his side from criticism, however, as they fell further behind United, and he added: “We didn’t score and this is our problem. We just didn’t score enough goals to win the game.
“Whenever we had chances, we were too soft. We were too soft in attack, too soft when we got chances, too soft when we shot.
“Sometimes we didn’t shoot when we should have. We wanted one touch more and that’s no good.
“When you play against a team like Sunderland, who defend with all their players behind the ball, if you get a chance, then you need to score. They are a bit of a bogey team for us here, maybe next year we won’t come.”
Although United now look firm favourites for the title, Mancini shrugged-off their seven-point advantage and added: “What happened at Old Trafford is not important to us. We know United are a fantastic team and will probably win every game but the season is long.
“United are better than us at present, but it can change. They are on the top but we have the time to recover. Seven points isn’t a problem.”
Stephane Sessegnon had chances to stretch the winning margin, but after seeing his side earn back-to-back home wins for the first time since March, Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill insisted: “We played really well against a terrific side and the confidence is coming back.”