IN the end, when Joey Barton was flinging himself in to suffocate Yaya TourÃ©â€™s thumped shot and Queens Park Rangers were straining to repel the barrage of passes pumped into their box, Manchester City could cry frustration at taking a mere point from this thrilling occasion. Yet that was a deception. Those frantic final forays summed up how chaotic the champions feel at present. Their title defence is starting to feel unlikely.
A team this talented, crammed with as much pedigree as City possess, should be imposing themselves far more authoritatively on games such as this: a contest against a team scrapping in the relegation zone, but whose industry and even organisation ensured this was never a mismatch. QPR will not remain beneath the cut-off for long on this evidence. It was Sergio AgÃ¼eroâ€™s brilliance that denied them victory, with the Argentinian fast becoming Cityâ€™s equivalent to Luis SuÃ¡rez at Liverpool last year. His brace swelled his tally to nine goals in six matches, his threat omnipresent and irrepressible. â€œHeâ€™s the best player in the Premier League now SuÃ¡rez has gone,â€ said Harry Redknapp. â€œThe best.â€
Yet City are over-reliant on his form and fitness and the striker desperately needs those around him to reimpose their own qualities on the division. TourÃ© had his moments, and JesÃºs Navas offered flashes of quality down the flank, but too much of the visitorsâ€™ approach was shapeless, lacking composure in the face of QPRâ€™s bite and energy. Fernandinho was by-passed, Edin Dzeko lasted four minutes as a substitute, Fernando offered little besides one fine interception to deny Bobby Zamora a tap-in, while the defence is panic-ridden and prone without Vincent Kompany. The Belgian was watching on from the stands, nursing a sore calf. At no stage did City feel secure without him, and an eight-point deficit from Chelsea â€“ not forgetting four points from Southampton â€“ feels a daunting gap already.
QPR exploited all the vulnerability exposed by CSKA Moscow in Europe in midweek, or even by a depleted Manchester United in the culmination of last weekendâ€™s derby even if that was a game City actually won. From the moment Eduardo Vargas and Mauricio Isla sized up their opportunities down the right against a nervy back line, the hosts made inroads against jittery opponents.
Charlie Austin, watched by Roy Hodgson, might have had a first-half hat-trick only for Joe Hart to summon two fine saves and two other efforts to be ruled out, correctly, by the officials. Where the first had been a clear offside, the second non-award was courtesy of a minutia of the laws of the game.
Hart had appeared in two minds as he took the free-kick for the offside inside the penalty area, the goalkeeper still considering a pass to GaÃ«l Clichy, and his left foot touched the ball forward before his right swung through to send it squirting straight at Austin 20 yards out. The strikerâ€™s finish was belted inside the goalkeeperâ€™s near post only for Mike Dean, alerted by his assistant, to rule it out as the goalkeeperâ€™s first touch had not taken the ball directly out of the penalty area. A quirk of Law 13, that the ball is not considered to be in play until it leaves the penalty area, had come to the visitorsâ€™ rescue. Yet, even then, they were pierced before they could recover some poise as Austin, played marginally onside by Eliaquim Mangala, collected Islaâ€™s pass and rasped his sixth league goal of the term, across Hart and in.
The London side were just as impressive after the interval as an attacking force, rewarded for their effervescence when Barton and Vargas sent Austin down the right, with the forwardâ€™s cross inadvertently nodded into his own net by MartÃn Demichelis, panicked and unsighted by the diving Bobby Zamora in front of him. Yet either side of those home rewards had come the reminders of AgÃ¼eroâ€™s brilliance, as if the forward was carrying this side alone.
The first might have been ruled out for offside or, more obviously given the speed of the strikerâ€™s dart, a handball as he flicked the loose ball on to his right arm in scurrying away from Richard Dunne and towards Steven Caulker. The touch fell perfectly for him to dispatch with his left foot, with Rob Greenâ€™s protests waved away. His second equaliser was a study in strength and skill, collecting TourÃ©â€™s punt, taking two touches around Green and then calmly checking back, all low centre of gravity, to convert as defenders massed on the line.
â€œHe is a very important player for us, one of the top players in the world,â€ said Manuel Pellegrini. â€œBut he needs the whole performance of the team to grow again to how we normally play.â€
Pellegrini went on to speak of his side enduring an â€œunlucky momentâ€, which is vaguely reminiscent of Carlo Ancelottiâ€™s â€œbad momentâ€ while losing his grip at Chelsea three years ago. The City managerâ€™s criticisms of the defence did not extend beyond conceding it had â€œnot been our best performanceâ€.
If his players do not tighten up and inject a sense of solidity and structure after the international break then all thoughts of retaining their Premier League title will dwindle. A solitary win in six matches in all competitions is a grim statistic. Even with that frantic finale, they did not merit a second success here. – The Guardian