Those fond of a bet or two would have been delighted to know that Manchester City had suffered defeat twice in a row against lowly Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland midfielder Adam Johnson celebrates scoring against his former club. (Image | Daily Mail)

Payback | Sunderland midfielder Adam Johnson celebrates scoring against his former club. (Image | Daily Mail)

It would have been an even more pleasant surprise to anyone brave enough to put money on the Black Cats to make it three 1-0 victories in a row yesterday to find that this was exactly what happened.

Far from playing like Premier League champions, the Citizens were sluggish and the result by no means flattered Martin O’Neill’s side, who had several chances to put the game to bed.

As for the title race, it means that Manchester United were able to extend their lead at the top of the table to seven points courtesy of a home win against Newcastle United.

However, it was far from an easy ride against the Toon, who put on a stellar counter-attacking display at Old Trafford and really ought to have emerged with something to show for their efforts.

The visitors went ahead three times, through James Perch, a Jonny Evans own goal and Papiss Cissé, but each time they were hauled back by the Red Devils before Javier Hernández netted the winner in stoppage time.

Contrasting the fortunes of the Manchester rivals, it was clear to see where the preponderance of spirit and belief lay this weekend.

Frustration | Roberto Mancini looks on as his side drop further points in the title race. (Image | The Guardian)

Frustration | Roberto Mancini looks on as his side drop further points in the title race. (Image | The Guardian)

Romantic views of the two fixtures would like to create the narrative that City are the epitome of all that is wrong with modern football and are paying the price for an approach that values instant gratification over long-term planning.

Meanwhile United are “doing it right” and being rewarded for taking a far more organic and traditional path to eventual victory – after all, good must always triumph over evil.

In fact, both hypotheses are incorrect. United are seven points ahead by virtue of a tremendous strike force that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat nine times out of 10.

City, on the other hand, appear to have lost the ruthlessness that allowed them to close the gap on the Red Devils last season, as witnessed in the north east, and even during the late show against Reading.

Last year the Citizens would have destroyed the Royals, who to all intents and purposes cannot defend and pose only a sporadic attacking threat.

While their 1-0 win was praised as being “the mark of champions” and lauded with similar clichés, it was more an indictment of a side cracking up under the pressure and struggling to relive past glories than anything else.

Failing in the UEFA Champions League is by no means acceptable, but finishing second in the Premier League would be unthinkable for Roberto Mancini, who must be feeling the pressure as his players stutter.

Sidelined | Wayne Rooney could miss up to four matches after picking up an injury. (Image | The Sun)

Sidelined | Wayne Rooney could miss up to four matches after picking up an injury. (Image | The Sun)

Wayne Rooney’s injury may be the tonic the Italian needs to go with his rather bitter usual helping of gin, as the forward is set to be out for up to three weeks.

This means he will miss the league games against West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic and Liverpool, and it could expose the limitations that have been very well disguised up until now, largely by the goals of Robin van Persie.

However, it really should not matter as United have put themselves in pole position and cannot be counted on to concede the title two years in a row.

Pundits always point to the Christmas period as being decisive in many ways: on the relegation battle, the race for the title, and in determining the January form of top flight sides.

Should this be true, then United will go into the New Year still boasting a defence that ranks not alongside Scrooge-like Stoke City, but is more comparable to that of Southampton, currently lying one point off the bottom three. Yet they still lead the way.

Ferguson was particularly gleeful in his post-match interview, calling the display a “championship performance”, but he also admitted that United could not continue defending as poorly as they have been and hope to reclaim the title.

Perhaps he may not need to worry, as while City have not quite surrendered the trophy, their grip on it is certainly beginning to loosen.

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