Sunday, April 1, 2012

Manchester City feel the heat during 'squeaky-bum time'

Squeaky-bum time, the Manchester United manager calls it.

Arsène Wenger was driven to such a loss of sangfroid during one run-in he could be seen tugging at his tie knot, as if it had been closing round his throat. The more we saw of José Mourinho before Ferguson finally got the better of him, the more he seemed to be auditioning for Monty Python's Silly party.

Then last weekend Roberto Mancini chose not to attend the press conference after a disappointing 1-1 draw at Stoke City and suddenly he, too, was cracking up.

He wasn't, of course. Mancini was simply in a bad mood, angry with his players and annoyed with the referee, and could not trust himself not to talk his way into trouble. Which, incidentally, is the precise reason Ferguson decided he could not be bothered to come to the press room after a defeat against Liverpool in November 2001 and has not been back after a single league match since.

Mancini resumed media duties on Friday and this was not a man on the point of spontaneous combustion. He had rung Tony Pulis, he explained, to apologise for not shaking the Stoke manager's hand. Occasionally, there were glimpses of a man feeling the pressure.

The moments, for example, when he could not hide his exasperation about Sergio Agüero's injury – "stupid", he said, five different times – and there was a telling response when he was asked whether he could trust Mario Balotelli to deputise. "No," he replied. "Never. I don't think anyone can trust Mario."

Which is very different to how Ferguson would have answered. United's manager would have a) pretended Agüero was fine and b) talked up Balotelli, whether he meant it or not.

Mancini also reminded us, very matter-of-factly, that it would be reckless to overstate City's recent problems. "I think we have everything to play for. We took only one point at Stoke and, after that, we need to win all our games. But I think we can do it."

Ferguson, that famous stirrer, had talked of City's "desperation" allowing Carlos Tevez back. Mancini's reply was short and to the point. "We have played without Tevez and dominated this championship for seven months."

All the same, it was difficult to leave Carrington without wondering whether there was a better atmosphere across the fields, past the stables and the electricity sub-station to where United are based a few hundred yards away. On the one hand, City could return to the top of the league by beating Sunderland on Saturday. On the other, United have opened a three-point lead and Monday's trip to Blackburn Rovers is the first of four games against bottom-six teams.

Ferguson and his players certainly do not seem to be feeling the pinch, leaving for a golfing jolly to St Andrews. At United, as Mancini conceded, there is that seen-it-all-before wisdom. "The difference is United have won 19 championships. Every year they are used to staying there. For us, it's different. It's the first time and probably we have more pressure."

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