SOCCER:ROBERTO MANCINI was not willing to accept Manchester City now have one hand on the Premier League trophy – but Alex Ferguson was. "Probably two," the Manchester United manager lamented on a day that brought the team he once derided to within one game of winning a first championship since 1968.
All City have to do now is avoid a “Devon Loch” moment by beating the fifth-from-bottom Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad Stadium next Sunday and, barring an avalanche of goals from United at Sunderland, it will be blue ribbons replacing red on the trophy the Abu Dhabi United Group regard as the next part of its ambition for a power shift at the top of English football.
Mancini’s team are now in a clear position of strength at the top of the table, by virtue of their superior goal difference, after a 2-0 win at Newcastle United, followed by United beating Swansea City by the same scoreline. The champions have eight goals to make up and, on that basis, will almost certainly have to rely on QPR springing one of the surprise results of the season by denying City victory on a ground where they have dropped only two points all season.
To put it into context, the west London club have one of the worst away records in the top division, with 13 defeats in 18 games, and if there is any encouragement for United it is that City’s opponents need points to stave off the threat of relegation. To add to the intrigue, they are managed by Mark Hughes, the former Old Trafford striker who went on to manage City and now considers Mancini, the man who took his job, a sworn enemy.
Ferguson’s immediate reaction was to accept the team he once described, early in the Abu Dhabi years, as “all talk” and “noisy neighbours” would almost certainly now complete the job. For the first time, Mancini also accepted that City are now favourites. “If we beat QPR, we are champions,” he said. “It doesn’t depend on what Manchester United do any more, it depends on us.
“I am excited because we are on the top, but it’s not enough. One week more and if we play like we did today, we have a lot of chance to win.”
A month ago, his team had been eight points behind and he was talking about the league being “finished”. Since then his team have won five successive matches, beating United in the process. Ferguson’s team have also lost to Wigan Athletic and surrendered a 4-2 lead at home to Everton. It has left Ferguson hoping for an upset that would rival the 1956 Grand National, when Devon Loch famously stumbled in the final furlong.
“We’ll go to Sunderland to win, it’s our duty and responsibility,” he said. “It could be like Devon Loch – stranger things have happened in football. We’ve won the title on three occasions on the last day and we don’t mind doing it again. They’re red-hot favourites and will make sure they win the match, but QPR need a point and they’re fighting for survival.”
The pessimism is understandable when City have not lost a home match since December 2010. Yet Mancini took great care not to say anything that could be construed as overly triumphal.
“It’s not finished yet. If we think we have won the Championship, it will be a big mistake. It was an important game, without this victory it wasn’t important we beat Manchester United last week. This was always going to be difficult. Newcastle United are a good team, they’ve had a fantastic season. To win here you have to play very well.
“It doesn’t depend on Man United any more, it depends on us. It won’t be easy because QPR are fighting against relegation. The players need to relax after this game, we have six days and then we have another game. It’s not finished yet.”
Of City’s win at Newcastle, in which Yaya Toure scored twice, the United manager added: “I think they deserved to win the game, Newcastle had some moments and shots at goal but nothing really in the sense that you thought they were going to win it.”
Ferguson pointed out that Hughes will not only be motivated by survival but also revenge. “Mark knows his job all right. He was sacked by City in a very unethical way and he’ll remember that. Mark Hughes’s teams always fight, but QPR players are fighting for survival.
“QPR need a point and they’re fighting for survival. The whole future of the club could be resting on the game and I only wish Sparky was playing.”
Ferguson said he expected both Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling to shrug off groin injuries for next weekend’s trip to the Stadium of Light.