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Is Mancini practicing mind games?

Mission Impossible
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and City counterpart Roberto Mancini.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

The 6th installment in James Horncastle's month-long series documenting the Battle for Manchester.

Leafing through their club programs at the Etihad on Wednesday evening, Manchester City supporters noticed a glimmer of hope in Roberto Mancini’s pre-game notes.

 

“I won one title with Inter Milan when we were five points behind, five games from the end,” he wrote before West Brom’s visit to the Etihad. “Everything can happen but clearly we need to start to win.”

It’s a nice story — but it’s not true.

In 2006 Inter were nine points behind Juventus with five games. They indeed passed them — but it was because of a corruption scandal, “Calciopoli,” that revised the final standings in their favour. In each of his final two campaigns at Inter, he was in fact ahead of Roma at this stage by 16 and four points respectively.”

All of which of course isn’t to say that Mancini doesn’t have experience of chasing down a leader and then overtaking them at the last moment. He was probably thinking of his final full season as a player with Lazio in 1999-2000 when they dramatically leapfrogged Juventus on the final day after trailing by five points with seven games still to play in Serie A. And stories have power — perhaps that was what Mancini was hoping for.

That belief was rekindled after City torched West Brom 4-0 on Wednesday. Far from being eclipsed the Blue Moon appears to be full and rising again. City’s best performance in weeks means they're back in Manchester United’s orbit. By capitalizing on their rivals’ shock 1-0 defeat to Wigan at the DW Stadium, the gap at the top has come down to five points again and it seems the title race might not yet be a foregone conclusion after all.

Publicly Mancini isn’t convinced. His insistence that “it’s still over” and “it’s too late” have been perceived as pessimism or part of a strategy to take the pressure off City, something he denies. “This is not mind games,” Mancini said. Yet before taking his leave, he added: “In football, it is very strange. When you think one thing, the opposite happens.”

That might be more superstition than genuine Orwellian doublethink. Either way, Mancini appears realistic about City’s chances of reeling in United. “I don’t think they can lose five points,” he mused. Unlikely though it seems given the vast championship-winning experience of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad — United do remain favorites to win the Premier League for a fifth time in six years — there are reasons for Mancini and his players to be cautiously optimistic of a change in fortunes.

Making his first start since September 21, Carlos Tévez left everyone wondering what might have been had he not refused to come on as a substitute against Bayern Munich earlier in the season and subsequently become embroiled in a six-month stand-off with Mancini and the club. Although still short of fitness, he was excellent Wednesday, belatedly opening his account for the year and creating chance after chance for his teammates before making way for Adam Johnson.

With time running out for City, Tévez might be the one to make them tick again. He likes to leave things late and made his name in the Premier League as a last action hero by scoring the goal that kept West Ham up on the final day of the 2006-07 season. That strike of course came against United. Imagine the reaction then if, come the derby on April 30, City have edged even closer to the league leaders and Tévez, rediscovering his form, finds a winner that spurs them on to their first championship for 44 years?

PL TITLE RACE:

 
REMAINING FIXTURES
United City
Everton (h) Wolves (a)
City (a) United (h)
Swansea (h) Newcastle (a)
Sunderland (a) QPR (h)
More: Premier League |Standings
 

Admittedly that’s provocative, indulgent and ignores the actuality that a great deal has to go their way for that game still to hold a decisive bearing on the destination of the title. But there’s a renewed sense of confidence about City. That much was evident in the stands on Wednesday night. “So happy to see the Poznan back,” tweeted Patrick Vieira. “Fans were fantastic tonight.”

United might still be very much in the driving seat, but the luck they supposedly rode in recent encounters with Fulham and QPR finally ran out at Wigan. True, Shaun Maloney’s sweetly hit goal came from a corner that should never have been given, and they had a couple of strong penalty shouts turned down by referee Phil Dowd. Even so, there’s no escaping the fact that Wigan also had a perfectly good Victor Moses header ruled out and they were simply better than an uncharacteristically complacent United side.

Without the rested Paul Scholes, the control they have exerted in the Premier League since his return from retirement was conspicuous by its absence. United concede a goal every 183 minutes when he is on the field. By contrast, it’s every 54 minutes when he is on the bench.

But beware the temptation of predicting a sudden and unexpected United collapse. While disgruntled, Ferguson will no doubt use the Wigan loss for the psychological value it can provide as a warning to his players that any further drops in concentration and commitment from now until the end of the season will be punished. Rather than unsettle United, it will probably have the opposite effect and galvanize them further.

Mancini has vowed to fight on. Between now and the derby City travel to in-form Norwich, who they thrashed 5-1 in December, and then seemingly doomed Wolves. There’s a chance to build up some real momentum and bring some discomfort to United by breathing a bit heavier down their necks, though their stumbling away form has perhaps done more to cost them the title than a variety of other factors in 2012.

How this season will end remains unclear. Whatever happens Mancini still feels it’s “the best since 1968” when City last won the old First Division. But for that to really be the case they need to replicate the achievement of being crowned champions. Otherwise it will “only” be their finest since 1977 when they last finished runners-up.

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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