James Lawton: City should remember it's futile to bait Fergie, a past master of the art

Ferguson accepted the gift of Vieira’s ‘mind games’ as a seasoned boxer might a deliciously exposed chin

It is time to get serious about this title race and one way to start is to agree that if you go man for man, talent for talent, there is only one winner: City, easing up.

But then we should also embrace a reality that seems to have flown completely over the head of Patrick Vieira when he engages Sir Alex Ferguson in what might be described, extremely loosely, as mind games.

The old growler yesterday accepted the gift of Vieira, who is in charge of City's "professional development", as a seasoned ring champion might a deliciously exposed chin.

Vieira said that by recalling Paul Scholes, United had made clear their desperation. Ferguson went straight for the button. Was it not true, he said, that City had just played Carlos Tevez, who not so long ago was announced by City manager Roberto Mancini as persona non grata?

If that wasn't desperation, a terrible commentary on the standing of all those City players of great value and proven ability who would never ever contemplate downing their arms in one of the season's pivotal battles, what, quite, was?

There was, too, the second half of a one-two combination. It also happened that Scholes was the best midfielder in English football for 20 years – a span which of course covered the best years of the big Frenchman.

To be fair to Vieira he was stillin Milan when Ferguson first displayed the full weight of his power to wage serious psychological warfare.

Kevin Keegan had worked brilliantly at Newcastle before his emotional declaration that he would "love it" if his team maintained a 12-point lead over United.

He was responding to Ferguson's declaration that teams would play less hard against Newcastle than his own team. It meant that every time Keegan's team went on the field their opponents were required to play pretty much out of their skins. Mostly they did, which meant that United collected their third title in four years.

Now, as Ferguson pursues his 13th, he is surely luxuriating in the fact that this time he can do his work – at least ostensibly – not as the needling provocateur but someone merely defending the honour of a great professional who at 37 continues to defy the tyranny of the clock.

The message for City should now surely be written in the sky – starting with that patch of it over Stoke's Britannia Stadium today.

If they win their first title since 1968 it won't be because the old boy across town has lost his touch in the black arts of propaganda.

It will be the result of players like Yaya Touré, Sergio Aguero, David Silva, the revived Samir Nasri and Joe Hart seizing the chance to display the authority of their predecessors all those years ago.

Then, Tottenham and Newcastle were beaten on their own grounds in City's last two matches, and just six points separated the new champions and fifth-placed Everton, with the United of Sir Matt Busby, the Liverpool of Bill Shankly and the Leeds of Don Revie filling the intervening position.

City coach Malcolm Allison liked to play mind games – when the doyen Busby welcomed the brash young man to Manchester with the hope that City would provide stiffer opposition, he was told, 'You'll get all you can handle, Baby' – but his greatest talent was to make players believe in themselves.

This now is the supreme task of Mancini. His post-game praise of Tevez this week for his opportunistic and brilliant contribution to Nasri's winning goal against Chelsea did not perhaps disguise the fact that he spent most of the night in deep turmoil, not least over the latest dismaying evidence that if Mario Balotelli has formidable qualities they are never likely to include consistent application, which is quite important in a team of champions.

Nor can Mancini have been unmindful of the degree of compromise required in his selection of the man who had so recently defied him quite egregiously.

Some suggested that Ferguson had displayed similar irresolution when Wayne Rooney demanded from United a ransom on his future but it was a comparison that wouldn't fly even if it had been accompanied by Rolls-Royce engines.

Rooney never refused to go on to the field and when he fell foul of Ferguson this last Christmas-time the reaction was not without considerable force. Ferguson dropped him, fined him and made clear that his behaviour had been unacceptable. Ever since, Rooney has underpinned United's return to the status of Premier League favourites.

When Ferguson delivered the prize last season, some said it was his finest coaching – or, if you like, motivational – achievement and the queue will be even longer if he does it again this time. Denied his best defender, Nemanja Vidic, the rock-like presence of Edwin van der Sar, a midfield that simply couldn't do without Ryan Giggs and Scholes resisting the years so improbably, Ferguson had every reason to believe that he was about to be engulfed by the superior resources of City.

This threat was of course reinforced by the 6-1 undressing at Old Trafford, which was not so much a nightmare as a terrifying portent for the rest of Ferguson's managerial life.

Yet here he is again, in the lead and displaying something that might be described as an almost competitive brutality. He was as buoyant as ever the other day at Cheltenham despite the early fall of his Gold Cup contender What a Friend. He looked like a man with at least several more races to run.

Today, City must hit that kind of indefatigable stride. They would also be wise to scrap the mind games.

Big Miss-take for Haney to pass judgement

Perhaps one day Tiger Woods' former employee Hank Haney will get round to saying what he really thinks about the man who played at least some small part in putting six major titles onto his coaching portfolio.

In the meantime we will just have to get by with descriptions like 'cheap', 'petty', 'ruthless' and 'selfish', which all appear in Haney's forthcoming 'tell-all' account of their years together before the Tiger fired him two years ago.

Dotted in the tundra of swing analysis, Haney's catalogue of Woods' misbehaviour is relentless, and depending on your tolerance of human depravity, often shocking.

Can you believe, for example, that Woods only wanted to talk to Haney about golf? That he frequently visited the fridge for a popsicle without asking if the coach would like one?

It gets worse. After Woods' clinical victory in the British Open at Hoylake, Haney handed him a yardage book and a championship programme, hoping for a signing that would include something personal and include his name – or perhaps something else that might just jack up the price on eBay.

On one occasion Woods ended a gambling session with Vegas high-rollers by tipping a waitress in mere hundreds of dollars, rather than the thousands which Haney tells us would have been "more appropriate".

Haney is a man of great golf knowledge, no doubt, but whether he is the best judge of what is appropriate is perhaps another story. The pages of The Big Miss certainly cannot be said to provide a categorical answer.

Game owes Amir another chance

Kevin Pietersen is emphatic that no mercy should be shown to Mohammad Amir after his conviction for spot-fixing at Lord's and a five-year banishment from cricket.

The fact that Amir was urged into his misdeeds, and told it might save a potentially phenomenal career that otherwise could be ruined, by the Pakistani captain Salman Butt, is apparently of no consequence to Pietersen. Nor is the fact that he was a teenager from a poor Punjabi village who had landed in a nest of corruption instead of the fantasy world he imagined.

Pietersen is of course right that Amir did wrong, but behind that fact is a background of failed care that shames the game in which the boy promised so much.

Amir has to make atonement, but then so does cricket. One way would be to help re-make the young life it helped to fall into ruins.

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