Roberto Mancini has attacked the rest of the Premier League and attempted to undermine Manchester United's impending title triumph by accusing teams of cowering with fear before Sir Alex Ferguson's team.
United take a 15-point lead over their neighbours and reigning champions into tonight's Manchester derby at Old Trafford, a margin the Manchester City manager believes is unjust and would not have materialised had his transfer targets been achieved last summer. While criticism of his team's limp title defence has been circumspect, with Mancini highlighting a lack of goals as the main difference between last season and this, the Italian was unsparing in his condemnation of the rest of the Premier League.
The City manager believes United's commanding lead is a product of the aura that Ferguson has created, with teams consistently facing the league leaders with an inferiority complex.
"No one plays well against United because they only play with fear," said Mancini when asked his opinion of Sunderland's performance in what proved Martin O'Neill's final game as manager the Saturday before last.
"United are strong now because of their importance as a team, their importance as a club. Every team that plays against United plays very soft because they think the game is difficult, that they can't beat them. It is not true.
"If they play strong against United, they can beat them like they can beat us. This is normal, this is football, because United have been a strong team for a long time. For the other teams they play against it is difficult. I'm not saying they don't play 100% but their mentality is poor in that game. They think they can do nothing but ... I don't think that is true. If you play with a good mentality, in football you can beat every team."
Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich City may take exception to Mancini's analysis as the only three teams to have beaten United in the league this season while many would argue that City as champions should have instilled the same fear in their opponents. "We are young as a team and we don't have the same importance like United in this moment," their manager countered. "Maybe in 10 years it will be the same. The history is very important. We need to improve as a team, as a club, but for this we need more years. We can't do this in two years. For 10 years, if we improve, if we win every year, probably it will also be the same for us."
Ferguson, unsurprisingly, believes the title race was transformed by United, a club stung by the way the championship went to City on goal difference on the final day of last season. "The way we lost it resonates with a lot of people in the club," the United manager admitted. "The players focused, their team spirit was terrific and there was a definite purpose in terms of getting the title back. We have improved. That's the difficulty for them [City]. Even if their points tally was as good as it was this time last season, it wouldn't have matched ours. So you have to give us credit for that – 25 wins out of 30 shows the [players'] conviction."
United, Ferguson says, are "never going away. The last 20 years tells you that and we're not going away next season either." That confidence is partly based on the development of the club's younger players. Ferguson said he pins the improvement on the maturity of the players: "Rafa da Silva has shown fantastic improvement. Michael Carrick has developed into a mature and intelligent footballer, which we always knew he could. Before he didn't have the consistency of Scholes but he has now, he's been fantastic this year. You hear the fans singing about Michael all the time. It has taken a while but Scholes had that for years. Michael has taken up the baton.
"[David] De Gea has improved as the season has gone on and next year he'll be even better. Our goals for record is much better, goal difference is much better. The improvement is not just through Robin [Van Persie] who has been fantastic. Even when he doesn't score he's a fantastic footballer. [Shinji] Kagawa will be a far better player next year. I expect improvement from [Danny] Welbeck and [Tom] Cleverly as they get older, so we're in a pretty good position."
Ferguson gave short shrift to speculation about how the title race might have developed had Van Persie signed for City last summer. "He was never going to go to City, so it's hypothetical," he said. By contrast Mancini does ponder what might have been had the Dutch international, and others, been lured to the Etihad Stadium, a problem the manager hopes will be rectified by the arrival of Ferran Soriano as chief executive and Txiki Begiristain as director of football.
"One hundred per cent sure," said Mancini when asked if City would be in the title race had they signed the players he wanted. "Probably we would be on the top and could win the second title and probably we would be in the Champions League quarter-final. We had a chance to get three or four players who could improve our team but we didn't in the end. They were important players that this year have made a difference to their teams. Now it is finished. This is football but I am sure we can do well this year, that we can do a good job in the market."
Mancini could not find solace even in his last visit to Old Trafford, City's remarkable 6-1 rout of United in October 2011: "Six-one is in the history now," he said.
Ferguson agreed: "I've never watched that game again. Why would I? I'm not into self-flagellation."
Probable teams: Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Carrick, Giggs; Valencia, Rooney, Nani; Van Persie.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic, Clichy; Y Touré, Barry; Nasri, Tevez, Silva; Agüero.
TV: Sky Sports 1, 7pm
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