With Roberto Mancini's side now eight points behind United in the title race following defeat to Arsenal, their bid for league success has crumbled under numerous pressures
By Andrew Kennedy
April 30 had long been pencilled in as the day on which the title would be decided.
Yet as Manchester United travel to the Etihad Stadium in 22 days’ time, they may well exact the sweetest revenge for their 6-1 derby hammering by being crowned Premier League champions on City’s turf.
Such has been the manner in which City have surrendered their lead at the top of the table in recent weeks that their title challenge has fizzled out with the smallest of whimpers.
As Sir Alex Ferguson’s men roar to a 20th league trophy following Sunday’s 2-0 victory over QPR, their Manchester rivals looked mentally exhausted as they fell to a 1-0 away defeat to Arsenal.
With an eight-point gap to close before kick-off, once again Roberto Mancini’s side were loose in possession, lacking creativity and showing rare signs of any cutting edge in attack up front.
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Was ineffective on the left flank and was extremely fortunate to escape any kind of punishment after connecting with Alex Song's knee in a dreadful challenge. Cut a frustrated figure for much of the match, kicking the post on the 25th minute and refusing to track back. After another week in the headlines for the wrong reasons, his late red card seemed inevitable. Why oh why always him?
Yet instead of the focus being on another frustrating City performance, we were served a further reminder of the madcap antics of Mario Balotelli. Antics which supposedly allow for brilliance in the final third, but have in turn derailed and disunited the title hopefuls.
The Balotelli show – which has jostled City’s title challenge out of the prime-time slots in recent weeks – once again took the limelight, with the striker sent off late in the game for a second bookable offence which reeked of stupidity.
The Italian was fortunate to stay on the field after an atrocious challenge on Alex Song in the opening 45, and whilst the bandwagon of overreaction which follows the former Inter man was firmly in tow, Mancini’s decision not to substitute the 21-year-old at half-time shows how he has also been duped by the frenzy surrounding his compatriot.
Recently the 47-year-old’s press conferences have been dominated by talk of Balotelli, which in turn has only fanned the flames of the forward’s notoriety, while there seems to be an understanding and even affection between the pair which has blinded Mancini in the latter quarter of the season.
City have not succumbed to the mind games of Sir Alex Ferguson, nor a lack of squad depth or inexperience. They have instead been the masters of their own downfall.
The ear-piercing focus on Balotelli’s every move from publications spanning far wider than the world of football has ensured City’s eyes were no longer solely focused on the Premier League trophy in May, with scuffles amongst players becoming more frequent and even Mancini losing his cool and temperament on the touchline.
All bears in such contrast to Manchester United, who have landed on the home straight perfectly as they look to sprint to a finishing line which is becoming closer and closer by the week.
At Old Trafford on Sunday we did not see a vintage United performance, with Shaun Derry’s early sending-off nullifying the need for the Red Devils to go hell for leather – yet Sir Alex’s men still secured a vital three points - their eighth Premier League win on the bounce - to pile the pressure on City ahead of a daunting trip to the Emirates.
Yet the hopefuls could not assume the mantle laid down by a side who have mastered the art of getting ahead at the right time in the season and staying there.
Instead, Mancini’s side looked flat. Consumed by the pressure surrounding them and unable to rekindle the magic which saw them steamroll past opposition in the opening weeks of the campaign.
Back at Old Trafford in October, City were prematurely being dubbed champions elect, but now as we approach the final six games of the season their title bid has fallen apart without even as much as a snivel.