By Jack Gaughan at DW Stadium
In the immediate aftermath of Manchester City’s 2-0 win at Wigan Athletic, Roberto Mancini was asked for his assessment on the title race. Is it now, thanks largely to the Rafael Benitez disaffect at Chelsea and continued indifference at Arsenal, a straight shootout between the two Manchester clubs once again for the Premier League crown?
“The season is very long,” he straight-batted. “Chelsea will fight for the title.”
Even if he does not truly believe those words Mancini is diplomatic. He has to be. That is a state his opposite number at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson, has always maintained.
But the Manchester City manager seems, to all intents and purposes, to be wrong. Chelsea will not fight for the title – they are already seven points adrift of the top and have gone six matches without tasting victory.
It might sound foolish to be talking so bullishly about the chances of a team who are third and have won the league three times in the last eight years, given we are yet to reach December.
However, the revolt against Benitez and the lacklustre pace in which they have attacked since his arrival have put paid to the usual bounce created by a change in management mid-season. Owner Roman Abramovich may just have rolled the interim manager dice one too many times.
Up in the north-west, on the other hand, sit two happy camps. The supporters are happy with their managers – it is hard to imagine any hastily-made A4 pieces of paper sprouting up at the Etihad or Old Trafford – and there is a settled plan at boardroom level of both clubs.
The sacking of Roberto Di Matteo, on the other hand, was about as rash as the ink shoved into the printers for those A4 sheets.
And there is good reason for Manchester City fans, in particularly, to be extremely happy with their boss, particularly after the win at Wigan.
The game had been a dreary affair at the DW Stadium with the champions simply not playing at all well. With 68 minutes gone and the game still goalless, Mancini decided to haul Sergio Aguero off and bring Aleksandar Kolarov on to match Wigan’s formation.
It worked immediately – the substitution was correct and Mario Balotelli scored within a minute. In the end they won the game at a relative canter, with another substitute, James Milner, notching a second from range, his manager’s decisions vindicated.
Balotelli’s first goal of the campaign will be a huge relief, and his passionate celebration somewhat encouraging as well. City, just like anybody else, need at least one of their match winners firing at all times.
“I’m very happy for him because he has scored his first goal of the season. We have four top strikers,” Mancini said afterwards.
“At the moment we’ve got some difficulty scoring as many goals as last year, but I think if we work we can change this.”
This was no walk in the park, though, and City had to grind out the eventual result. For almost 70 minutes, it was a turgid affair.
“We knew before the game that it would be difficult. We don’t win easy against Wigan,” Mancini added. “In the end we deserved to win.”
Deserved, maybe. Ugly, certainly. Those uncomfortably won three points may just be the ones City look back on with great fondness.
During the last four months the champions have come good despite playing poorly against Southampton, Fulham, West Brom and Swansea City. They have not yet started to play to anywhere near their maximum, which must be frightening for anyone associated with Chelsea who maintains ambitions of catching City.
Manchester United, one point better off than their rivals, are also yet to hit their stride. Before last night’s 1-0 win against West Ham United, they had conceded the opening goal in their last three games.
Crucially, they won two of those games despite having to come from behind which is why, when the phase “grinding out victories” was put to Sir Alex Ferguson, it was met with a grin. He knows what it is about. So, too, does Mancini. Resolve and endeavour are so important in a division littered with quality from first to 20th, and something the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham lack on a consistent basis.
So when the top two meet in the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium on December 9, it could well be individual brilliance that settles it.
The probability that the match will be a classic is unlikely, but victory for either will serve as a further reminder that United and City can beat the best without playing particularly brilliantly. Of course it may even be a draw – which will probably suit both sides, because after all, this is a two-horse race.