By Oliver Platt
Manchester City are not ready to give up on the Premier League title yet. "Maybe, maybe," Roberto Mancini admitted when asked if the race for the championship was over after his side's victory over Chelsea. "But I think football is finished when it's finished, the last minute of the last game." Quite.
"If we arrive with four games to go and United are 12 points ahead, it's finished," he continued. "But I think that our job is to continue to work." They can call it a day if they fail to beat Aston Villa at Villa Park on Monday night. Record the routine victory most have predicted, though, and the gap is back to 12 points.
There is some history City can draw on for inspiration, but a comeback at this point would be near enough unprecedented in English football. Perhaps the closest parallel was in the 1967-68 season, when these same two teams were separated by six points with 15 games to play in the era of two points for a win.
|NOT OVER YET
|CITY'S REMAINING KEY FIXTURES
|EVERTON (A)||March 16|
|NEWCASTLE (H)||March 30|
|MAN UTD (A)
|TOTTENHAM (A)||April 20|
|SWANSEA (A)||May 5|
A similar distraction will be needed to repeat the feat. It will be interesting to see how long Sir Alex Ferguson can continue to field the majority of his key players, as he did against Norwich on Saturday, ahead of midweek Champions League fixtures if United progress past Real Madrid to reach the quarter-finals on Tuesday night.
Some food for thought: the first legs of the quarter-final ties will be played on April 2 and 3. The second legs come a week later on April 9 and 10. United are currently due to face City on April 8, a Monday night.
The derby will be pushed back to April 6 if United get that far, and it outlines the dilemmas that they will face if their European adventure continues (and that Sir Alex Ferguson will not be able to go to the Grand National). They will not always be at home to a team like Norwich when these fixtures come around. In between potential semi-final matches on April 23 or 24 and April 30 or May 1, they play Arsenal away on April 28.
Two defeats for United in those games and the gap could be cut to six points at the top. With fixtures against Chelsea and Swansea awaiting United at Old Trafford, and difficult visits to Stoke and West Brom also to be managed before the end of the campaign, the fight at the top could certainly look more interesting in April than it currently does in March.
United are on track to break the Premier League record for points in a single season, set by Jose Mourinho's Chelsea side of 2004-05, and it would be a surprise to see them keep that momentum up between now and the end of the campaign given the multiple priorities they will need to balance.
|MANCHESTER CITY LATEST
|20/1||Carlos Tevez is 20/1 with BetVictor to net a hat-trick against Aston Villa on Monday
"We've got to keep fighting, you never know," Joe Hart said. "We have just got to keep going. It's going to be really hard, we've got a lot to do but we're going to have a damn good go at doing it." "We can't give up, even though it looks tough," added Sergio Aguero.
In Hart and Aguero, City have two players who will be desperate to show that they have more to give than they have offered so far. Both were outstanding, among the best in the world in their respective positions, last season, but have failed to replicate that form consistently during the current campaign. The same can be said for Vincent Kompany, who has struggled with injury, and Yaya Toure.
That is a spine which United cannot match at its best and if they can lead the way in inspiring a strong finish, City will be in with a shout. They raced to the top of the table by winning 12 of their opening 14 games last season, and sealed the title with six straight victories. Not long ago, they were dominant.
For the second season running, City made it until their second game in December before suffering Premier League defeat, but drawing games was what really held them back in the first half of the season. But they are back in the winning groove now and still have 33 points to play for; the road is not clear for United just yet.
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