When David Platt recently ridiculed suggestions that mind games would play a part in the outcome of the Premier League title race, he must have overlooked the ill-advised words by his manager Roberto Mancini that put unnecessary pressure on Manchester City.The Italian boss did his side no favours, and wound up defending champions United in the process, when he promised City fans with 10 matches remaining: ‘We will win the title.
‘It was a bold and provocative statement as much out of character as Kevin Keegan’s infamous rant, when the wheels were coming off Newcastle United’s title charge that crumbled in 1996.
Mancini’s boast was a desperate attempt to inspire his expensive squad of players who have no experience in closing out a title-winning campaign. The sense of desperation in Mancini’s eyes spoke volumes. It was followed by a fortunate victory over Chelsea thanks to a lucky penalty award that turned the match late in the game. But successive draws against Stoke and Sunderland have seen City falter when the pressure has been on to keep winning.
Title rivals United, in contrast, made it six straight wins in the Premier League when they held their nerve to beat a stubborn Fulham last Monday and now have the chance to open up a five point lead with seven to play. That is the prize if United can avenge their home defeat by Blackburn earlier in the season and claim victory at Ewood Park on Monday night.No one in the United camp will be taking anything for granted in a League where every match is a possible banana skin for the top clubs. Sir Alex Ferguson promised as much after his side rode their luck and survived a late penalty appeal in the dying minutes of their 1-0 win over Fulham.
But United have players their manager has 100 percent faith in, unlike at neighbours City, where Mancini’s destiny could rely on two players he does not trust – Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez.
After telling City fans: “We WILL win title” pressure is now on Roberto Mancini
The difference between Fergie and Mancini is that Sir Alex has been there and done it all before – and so have most of his players. The canny Scot would never have put pressure on his team the way Mancini has. Every word he utters to the media is measured with the precision of an expert psychologist. That is why he is the master of the mind games that do come into play at this stage of the season, whatever Platt may like to have us believe.
The old adage that this is a marathon not a sprint has never been more appropriate than this season as Manchester’s top two battle it out for the title. While cocksure City looked unbeatable earlier in the season, now it is United who are showing their class and experience as they grind out straight wins – despite being in transition with so many youngsters in the squad.
While Mancini has had to swallow his pride and bring back Carlos Tevez, which can’t have been done without some psychological effect on at least some of his players, Fergie has been blessed with the return of the peerless Paul Scholes to settle Fergie’s young team.
Mancini has been honest enough to accept the blame on more than one occasion for tactical decisions that have cost his team points. That may come back to haunt him when his bosses assess the damage at the end of the season if he fails to deliver City’s first league title since 1968. Failure to beat Sunderland this afternoon when they were held to a 3-3 draw despite a brave fightback with two late goals, left the Italian critical of his players who have wilted under the spotlight.
There are bound to be more twists before the end. But it is now United’s title to lose – and you won’t find many bookies betting against the Reds making it League title no. 20.