After the recent revival that numbered eight wins from nine matches, this appeared to be a return to the Manchester City that caused supporters to curse in frustration throughout the campaign. That was until the 83rd minute when Aleksandar Kolarov fed Carlos Tevez whose finish from 20 yards came as a right-foot bullet which the visiting goalkeeper, Joel Robles, found impossible to stop.
That signalled the end of this phase of Wigan Athletic's relegation-dodging escape act that had previously yielded seven points from three games. As Manchester United drew at Upton Park, Tevez's winner made it a productive night for City – Roberto Mancini having previously stated their mission is to confirm second place and reduce the deficit to United.
City are now 13 points behind with a game in hand. For Mancini, this prompted a joke about Robin van Persie's contested late equaliser at West Ham. "If they didn't score an offside probably we were nine [points behind if they win their extra game]," he said.
There was a more mixed message for the returning Micah Richards whose serious knee injury had kept him out since 27 October. "I'm happy because he came back to play but I thought that he was in better form because he trained and because we know true Richards," Mancini said. "For this reason I think that he needs to work a lot. He played for 10 minutes, after [that] he went down because it's normal after six months. It's impossible he can play well for 70 minutes."
Wigan are now three points adrift of Aston Villa, Stoke City and Sunderland though they have also played one fewer match. "I see it going down to the final game, we are playing Aston Villa," Roberto Martínez said. "We talk about six pointers and it does not get bigger than that. That is something we would be happy about from where we came from but we have a lot of games before that."
City's recent displays in beating United and knocking Chelsea out of the FA Cup to reach the final had been evidence of a late-season return to form. Here, they took a while to wake from a soporific opening until the scoreboard flashed up that United had gone 1-0 down.
Suddenly Yaya Touré could be spied marauding through the middle, then Richards surged into space down the right but had strayed offside.
Next up, Sergio Agüero, playing to the left of the City trident behind the lone striker Tevez, made life awkward for Emmerson Boyce and Paul Scharner and flipped over a cross that was unlucky not to be met by a team-mate.
City, though, had to bless their fortune as Wigan, in their most convincing passage of play, pinned them back and in front of Joe Hart's goal Kolarov had to be alert to make a skied clearance that could have gone anywhere.
Next Arouna Koné's touch failed him when he had only Hart to beat – and the keeper then had to throw out his arms and legs in a star jump to save from Franco Di Santo after some slick footwork created an opening. Moments later Richards was forced to upend the same player as Di Santo looked to split the defence and the right-back was booked. To the relief of the home fans Wigan's free-kick was hit over the wall by the impressive Shaun Maloney and straight into Hart's hands.
Agüero, who scored the clinching goal in the 2-1 win over Chelsea at Wembley, did not emerge for the second half and was replaced by Edin Dzeko in a City reshuffle that switched to a three-man defence. If Mancini was hoping this new formation would galvanise his team he had to watch when, with hart beaten, Joleon Lescott positioned himself superbly to clear off the line from Maloney.
Just before the hour the Italian changed his personnel again. Javi García came off for James Milner as his manager reverted to his original back four, with Samir Nasri switching to the left wing and the England amidfielder taking his place on the right.
Sensing someone should wrest the initiative, Tevez blazed wide with only Robles to beat. There were further chances for each side but no goals until the striker's pivotal intervention.
Mancini, who rested Gaël Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and Matija Nastasic, believes Wigan will survive. "They don't deserve to be relegated," he said. "For 60 minutes they played better than us."
He and Martínez had perhaps been correct to suggest that no implications could be drawn from the contest regarding the Cup final. But, if it is as entertaining as this one, 11 May should be an invigorating occasion.