Roberto Mancini is refusing to bill Monday’s Manchester derby as a title decider, insisting that Manchester City still have difficult Premier League games to follow away to Newcastle United and at home to Queens Park Rangers.
But while Mancini continues to manage expectations ahead of the match, his United counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson has insisted the opposite, asserting that a City win would most likely be decisive.
Ferguson said: “If City win the derby I don’t see them losing the title. Even though they have still got to go to Newcastle, I think they’d have a great chance if they beat us. Anything else would leave us strong favourites. There’s no doubt about that, with two games to go.”
Mancini, however, having conceded the title several times since his side fell eight points behind United, continues to play down expectations.
“We have only one chance to go back to the top of the league, but even if we take it against United we still have two tough games,” the Italian said. “The situation still favours United, because we have three difficult games to the end of the season, whereas they have one difficult match and two easy ones.”
Swansea and Sunderland may have something to say about that. Indeed, while Mancini may be slyly attempting to motivate Manchester United’s opponents, his claim that United will still be favourites for the title even if City win the derby is hardly the rallying cry supporters may have expected.
“It is not important what we say right now,” Mancini said. “It is more important what we do. I don’t know how this championship will finish, it is not easy to say. When you are eight points behind you can think your chance has gone, and now we have a second chance – but this game might not decide the title. Anything can happen in football, especially at this stage of the season when teams are tired.”
Mancini insists the tactical pressure is on United. “We are not under any pressure at the moment because we do not have anything to lose. For them, I think a draw would be a good result … but I don’t think they have this mentality.
“Like us, they find it difficult to play for a draw. We want to win always when we play against a better team than us, like in this moment, like against United.”
Mancini has one significant selection dilemma, with the return of Mario Balotelli from suspension. Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero have combined so effectively in his absence that few imagine Mancini would disrupt a proven partnership to risk the volatile Balotelli in such a big game, but the City manager is willing to at least entertain the possibility.
“I think I could trust Mario in this game, and he might be worth a goal or two,” Mancini said. When it was put to the Italian that he may be the only man in football willing to put his trust in Balotelli he could not resist a smile. “Yes,” he said. “I think that might be possible.”
Much more likely, after the past few weeks, is that Mancini will stick with what was previously unthinkable and continue to put his trust in Tevez. Ferguson is certainly expecting him to do that, and it would seem odd to break up a partnership that has yielded nine of City’s 12 goals in their past three games.
Mancini claims Tevez is still not 100% fit after his lengthy, self-imposed exile, but if there is a slight worry over the striker’s condition it is much less of a risk than Balotelli’s temperament.
“Carlos is not at maximum fitness, that would be impossible after six months without playing,” Mancini said. “But his experience and his cleverness could be important to us. Since his return he has been better than I thought he would be, but perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised because he has always been a top striker. It was a strange situation for everyone six months ago, but I am happy to have him back.”
Whatever happens in the derby, and in the remainder of the season, Mancini is confident he will be in charge next season. “We can be proud of what we have achieved. We already have a record points total.”
For Ferguson, meanwhile, everything that has gone before Monday’s game is now history. “The rest of the season is out of the window now, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “City are undefeated at home, we have the best away record. It’s the ultimate one-off game – with the greatest of prizes for the winner.”