By Jamie Jackson
Sir Alex Ferguson has claimed that Roberto Mancini’s mind games will not affect his Manchester United players because they are too experienced as the two managers engaged in a phoney psychological war with five games in the title race remaining.
Manchester City are at Norwich City for Saturday’s early kick-off conscious that victory would close the gap to two points as United do not host Aston Villa until 24 hours later. Mancini sought to ease the pressure on his squad with a mock acceptance of a claim by René Meulensteen, United’s first-team coach, that City “play for themselves” and are “unbalanced”, while admitting this is not the message he gives his players.
Meulensteen said: “At Manchester United everybody is used to the pressure for playing [for] the title. For the first in a long time City can become champions. That’s what’s breaking them. I’ve always thought that City wouldn’t hold the race. Their squad is out of balance, they’ve got too many individuals playing for themselves. Against Sunderland [in the 3-3 draw a fortnight ago] you could see that they don’t have team spirit.”
In response, Mancini said: “I agree. That’s the reason we can’t win. They have experience, they are a fantastic team and we have nothing. Sometimes it’s not about balance. Football is strange. They are perfect and we are the opposite. But I enjoy being with my players, I am proud of them. We make mistakes. We are not on the moon – we are normal.”
City host United in the Manchester derby on 30 April and Mancini was asked why he said Ferguson’s team would not lose any of their other four games, to put the title back in the balance. “I don’t think this. I think they are a perfect team, they have fantastic experience. They are not like us who have players who only think about themselves,” he said, again mocking Meulensteen.
Pressed, though, how his players respond when informed that they are egotistical, Mancini admitted: “When I speak with my players I say other things. I can’t say to you what I say to my players.”
After City beat West Bromwich Albion 4-0 and United lost at 1-0 at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday evening Mancini made a similar claim, saying that Ferguson’s side had “fantastic spirit” while his did not, and that the title race was over.
But of these comments Ferguson said: “That didn’t matter to us at all. We all have opportunities to talk about it. If you want to use it as mind games, you can do that but it didn’t mean anything to us. I think he maybe picked the wrong time to say it. There’s five games still to go.”
Ferguson, who may start Paul Scholes after resting him at Wigan, is clear that his squad are too experienced to be affected by Mancini’s comments. “There is no doubt about that, it is not a problem for us, that,” he said, before brushing off the claim that only United have fantastic spirit. “It is a nice compliment. It is back on the title race – they have a chance, haven’t they? They haven’t been playing well but while I haven’t seen the West Brom game, four-nil is a good result at this time of season.”
City’s Joe Hart believes that victory from all five remaining matches could win the championship for the Blues. “In the same way that United never gave up chasing us, we’ll never give up either. Never,” the City keeper said. “If we can get 89 points it would take some beating.”
Carlos Tevez should be in the first XI again at Norwich after his first start for more than six months in the win over West Brom, in which he scored. “We have some quality forwards and it feels like one in, one out with Carlos coming in and Mario suspended,” Hart added. “The one thing about Carlos, say what you want about him, but if you play him you know what you are going to get. You don’t get any attitude. On the field he’s going to give you all he’s got, try to score goals and it’s lucky we’ve got someone like that.”
Hart had been pictured appearing unhappy at Balotelli after he was sent off in the 1-0 defeat at Arsenal. “I was just frustrated. You get wrapped up in what happened. It’s frustrating when you lose a player like that,” he said.Yaya Touré also has a “chance” to face Norwich following a knee problem, Mancini confirmed.