Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini declared yesterday that Manchester United remain "five yards" ahead of his own club and nine players better off, as the two sides head into a Community Shield at Wembley tomorrow where possibly their most absorbing struggle for supremacy will get under way.
Mancini, who is impatient to see his board cede more power to him in the transfer market, repeatedly stated that without two or three more players for the new campaign, City can forget the title. "Look at United: they have 29 senior players; we have about 20," he declared.
Mancini was actually exaggerating United's advantage – City in fact have 24 players when those he wants to offload are factored out. But City's struggle to move on the unwelcome members of Mancini's inheritance has left them with a frantic 25 days until the transfer window closes – and other clubs' awareness of their eagerness to get rid means many prospective buyers will bide their time. The manager is also lobbying his board to cast aside doubts and allow him to swap Carlos Tevez for Internazionale's Samuel Eto'o.
Mancini insisted that he was "not frustrated" that Sir Alex Ferguson had been able to spend £50m on three internationals, Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea, while he has brought in a left-back (the £7m Gaël Clichy) and a £6m unproven central defender (Stefan Savic) as well as £38m Sergio Aguero. But the City manager, who warned back in May that he wanted all the club's transfer business tied up in 40 days, looks the more unsettled of tomorrow's two managers.
United, with Danny Welbeck displaying a threat on tour which makes him as good as a new signing, certainly appear like the reshaped club, heading towards the new campaign. "At the moment they are on the top because they're a strong team," Mancini said. "They won the last Premier League and bought four or five good players. And at the moment they are over us. We are very close but United have maybe five yards more than us."
Mancini will find his board far more amenable to the idea of buying Arsenal's Samir Nasri than the £38m Eto'o-Tevez swap, though despite reports in the French press yesterday that Arsène Wenger may be softening on the idea of letting the 24-year-old go, the likelihood is that he will only sanction his release if Cesc Fabregas stays at the Emirates. The City manager last night secured a replacement reserve goalkeeper, following Shay Given's departure to Aston Villa, when the Romania international Costel Pantilimon arrived from Timisoara. In addition, with Shaun Wright-Phillips likely to leave, he will continue to push for Fiorentina's Alessio Cerci – another combustible Italian – to join the ranks.
The pressure is about to ratchet up considerably higher for Mancini in a fourth season under Abu Dhabi ownership – the season which City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak said, in a significant disclosure on 19 May, had always been pinpointed as the one in which City would fly. "Sheikh Mansour always felt that it was going to be year four as the year we were going to go for it," Mubarak said back then. "Being fourth is a big accomplishment [but] this is one step further. We want to win the league."
Mubarak also told City's website in that interview that they had enough players then. "Hold your horses, I believe we have quantity now," were his words – though it is Mancini's desire to sell so many – Emmanuel Adebayor, Craig Bellamy, Wayne Bridge, Nedum Onuoha, Roque Santa Cruz and Vladimir Weiss – which creates a radically different picture. "We're missing other players. We don't have many players for the whole season and it's a problem at the moment," Mancini insisted yesterday. "To win the title, as I've told you, we need other players. But this year we will be better because we have played together for a season and we've got largely the same team."
Mancini's concern since City qualified for the Champions League has been that the club will fall into Tottenham Hotspur's trap of competing in elite domestic and European campaigns with an inadequate squad and find themselves back out of the Champions League altogether, within a season.
"This is why we need a good list of players because when you are playing in the Champions League for the first time it is very hard," he reiterated. "It is totally different from the Europa League. You need to change five, six or even seven players after a Champions League game. Tottenham struggled [with] this problem last season and we don't want to have the same problem. We have another 10 days or so to close deals on other players."
Mancini's job may well rest on City's ability to take the title next May and his credit will not have been extended by twice declaring his entitlement to more executive control this summer. But the manager was making no promises. "We'll try to win the Premier League – or at least stay at the top until the end of the season," he said. "It's difficult to say who can win the title: United, Arsenal, us, Chelsea, Liverpool. Last year we were up there until the end of February. This time it's important that we stay up there for a long time. And afterwards anything can happen. Football is strange. I'm not a magician. I don't know what can happen this season but I'm sure we can do a better job than last year."
Mancini held out no prospect of his side being more ambitious in games against fellow title-chasing sides – "You can draw some, lose some [against bigger sides] but if you win all the other games you can still win the title," he said – but he does feel his side need to score 10 or 15 goals more than the last campaign, in which Ferguson's side netted 18 times more than his own. Aguero will certainly help. As The Independent reported on Tuesday, he will be on the bench at Wembley. A midweek stomach bug has affected his preparations.
Mancini's many riddles, which it would take a particularly fine magician to resolve, include Carlos Tevez's future and Mario Balotelli's state of mind. Mancini attributed Balotelli's professed unhappiness with the environment of Manchester to homesickness, even though the player's family attest that he has long overcome that.
The manager himself likes it up north. "I stay here very well with my family. I don't think [Manchester] is terrible – in my opinion it's good here," he said. Testing times ahead will dictate how long he is around to savour it.
Roberto Mancini's assertion that his squad have just 20 senior pros sold his side a bit short, to say nothing of the six players he has ostracised...
United / City
De Gea / Hart
Kuszczak / Taylor
Lindegaard / Pantilimon
Jones / Lescott
Evra / Clichy
Ferdinand / Savic
Smalling / Richards
Vidic / Kompany
Fabio / Zabaleta
Rafael / K Touré
Evans / Kolarov
Giggs / Boyata
Young / Silva
Anderson / Y Touré
Park / A Johnson
Carrick / De Jong
Nani / Wright-Phillips
Fletcher / Guidetti
Valencia / Milner
Gibson / Barry
Cleverley / Balotelli
Obertan / Aguero
Diouf / Dzeko
Owen / Tevez
Surplus to requirements