Early Doors

Only wins can save City now

Early Doors

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The symbolism was just too potent for The Sun to ignore: Roberto Mancini pedalling away on his little bike as a red juggernaut loomed ominously behind him, ready to overtake and then speed away into the distance.

As an image it summed up rather neatly the events of recent weeks, with Manchester United eating into Manchester City's lead at the top of the table and then overtaking their local rivals at the summit, where they now hold a three-point lead with eight games remaining.

Of course, given England is currently gripped by a petrol crisis that makes Newcastle's purchase of Albert Luque look like a decidedly amateur piece of panic buying - some, ED included, are calling it Dieselgeddon - the analogy is imperfect.

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After all, when the country's fuel reserves are completely depleted and English society breaks down returns to a barter economy, the man with a bike - and maybe a bunker full of tax-free pasties - will be king. At least Bobby Manc has that to look forward to, eh?

But for now, with England merely in a state of mild delirium rather than total mental implosion, Mancini's focus remains trained on winning a title race that has become ever more intense in the past week.

And total mental implosion certainly becomes a genuine fear when we reach squeaky bum time. Just ask Rafa Benitez or Kevin Keegan how panic, or the perception of it at least, can take hold.

Because, whether you subscribe to the view or not, and ED does not, the perception is that City have been drawn into a battle of minds and wits against the infinitely more experienced United - a battle it is widely expected they will lose.

With their title rivals playing away to Blackburn Rovers on Monday night, City cannot afford another slip-up this weekend when they host Sunderland at 3pm on Saturday for fear that this perception becomes a hard-nosed reality. A millstone around their necks.

ED explained yesterday how City's decision to ban the BBC's Dan Roan due to the nature of his interview with Patrick Vieira was a symptom of them becoming a petty, sensitive yet undoubtedly big club. Yet for many Vieira's comments regarding penalty decisions at Old Trafford also represented a clumsy attempt to engage in the kind of mysterious mind games that Fergie has made his stock in trade at this juncture of the season.

Nothing of the sort. Vieira gave a straight answer to a straight question, articulating a belief that many hold. City's robust response to the interview showed the sensitivity with which the club is handling supposed vocal engagements with the enemy in the wake of Vieira's previously unguarded comments about Paul Scholes, yet their over-the-top response also allowed the Frenchman's latest comments to become A Thing.

And as previous sparring partners of Fergie could attest, A Thing is a dangerous thing when it comes to title races.

Of course the most infamous of Things came in 1996 when Newcastle's Kevin Keegan had a meltdown live on TV and declared "I'd love it if we beat them, love it!" ED can distinctly remember watching the troubling scenes unfold on TV, before switching channels to catch the end of Gamesmaster and cracking open a can of Mountain Dew.

Keegan's rant became a stick with which to beat the Newcastle boss - it still is in fact - and as the club allowed United to overturn what was at one stage a 12-point lead and overtake them in the final straight, it became the defining moment of the race, somewhat obscuring the fact that United actually won 13 of their final 15 games and Newcastle lost only one of their final seven.

Benitez, too, has bad memories of A Thing. When he entered a press conference in January 2009 with a piece of paper headed by the word 'FACTS', his rather bizarre rant against United was perceived to have spectacularly backfired, despite Liverpool losing only one of their next 18 games.

Such is the cult of personality around Ferguson, he almost wins these mind games by personality alone, whether or not the other side is actually engaged in them, or whether in fact they have any appreciable impact on the title race itself. Such is the trap City now find themselves in.

Kicking back at Carrington while conducting his press conference yesterday, Ferguson seemed to revel in the fact City and Vieira found themselves under such scrutiny, despite doing little himself to engage them in psychological warfare.

He could even afford a joke at Vieira's expense, telling the assembled press: "We can bring Keane back if he wants and make it interesting ... He's more or less saying all the refs have been wrong this season and you're not supposed to discuss referees. He is a paid official isn't he?"

While the prospect of Keano rocking up at Etihad Stadium and jabbing his finger angrily at Vieira in the tunnel has ED all excited, Ferguson can handle this one himself. Indeed, there is not even anything to handle really: controversy has been generated where there is none; mind games identified where none exist.

Just like with the panicked masses who are congregating at petrol forecourts up and down the country when a proposed strike has not even come into effect yet, perception is everything. There might not be any mind games in play, yet people perceive there to be anyway.

And if City want to stop themselves being depicted as naive saps, unworthy of a mental tussle with Ferguson, they can only win on Saturday, and keep on winning to keep that big red juggernaut at bay.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I can understand if you are losing and at the bottom of the league and not playing well. I can't understand it if you are playing the opposition off the park. That is something I have never experienced before. This is a first for me. I am a little bit sick of defending myself because it is something I shouldn't have to do. There has never been a West Ham way shown to me, not by anyone that who has worked at the club, so it is a bit of a delusion. It is rubbish, isn't it? There isn't a West Ham way, apart from winning. When was the last time that happened? It didn't happen with Curbs (Alan Curbishley). It didn't happen with Avram (Grant). It didn't happen with Alan Pardew. When did it happen last? It didn't happen with Gianfranco Zola. So when did it happen?" - Sam Allardyce makes himself even more unpopular with fans of West Ham by questioning the club's claims to a legacy of attractive, passing football.

FOREIGN VIEW: If you missed it yesterday, Barcelona have made an official complaint to UEFA regarding the state of the pitch in Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final, first leg against AC Milan at San Siro.

Confirmation of this rather petty move came with a statement on Barca's website which read: "FC Barcelona has presented an official complaint to UEFA about the condition of the pitch at the Giuseppe Meazza for the Champions League match against AC Milan.

"They passed the matter over to UEFA delegate Mikalai Varabyov (Bulgaria) at the post-match meeting. Varabyov has included the complaint in his report and UEFA will demand an explanation from the Italian club."

COMING UP: We reveal the winner of our Goal of the Week poll. SPOILER ALERT: Peter Crouch's effort is doing pretty well. We have all your usual Friday favourites, with Jim White and Paul Parker filing their latest columns, The Fantasist conducting another live chat and Pitchside Europe profiling the European Match of the Weekend.

We also have the final part of our exclusive interview with Norwich City manager Paul Lambert, while Birmingham City's trip to Doncaster Rovers in the Championship tonight will be covered live, right here.

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