Roberto Mancini admitted that should Manchester United win their next two fixtures then the title race will be "finished". It was not a concession speech, more an acknowledgement that victories over Blackburn Rovers tonight and Queen's Park Rangers on Sunday lunchtime would take the champions eight points clear at the top of the table by the time Manchester City kick off at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal next Sunday afternoon.
Since City have not secured a league victory at Arsenal since October 1975, whittling down that lead would appear beyond a side that looks exhausted and riven by ill-fortune and dressing-room feuding. "If we go eight points behind, then it is finished," admitted Mancini. He qualified those remarks by adding that he would bet that United would draw at Blackburn tonight. But this is a man who, despite a salary of more than £5m, still has a flutter on the National Lottery. And there is no record of him having won anything.
As Newcastle's lead over United evaporated in the epic spring of 1996, Kevin Keegan began talking of how the club had not finished second in almost 70 years and that doing so now would be an achievement. After a thrilling, draining encounter with Sunderland, Mancini began using similar language.
"We are Manchester City, we have 71 points, 13 ahead of Arsenal and 15 points more than Chelsea," he said. "I think we have improved from last season. It is clear we want to win the title and we will fight until the derby with United because I think that will decide our season."
Of the team he has assembled, David Silva and Samir Nasri have looked shot and exhausted. Edin Dzeko is badly out of form and the loss of Sergio Aguero to what Mancini called a "stupid, stupid injury" – believed to be a reaction to a chemical spray – must have seemed the final, brittle straw.
When City began a comeback against Sunderland that saw them score twice in a minute to salvage a wholly improbable point, Mancini's assistant, Brian Kidd, gave a leap in the air.
It was slightly more geriatric than the one that saw him collapse on his knees when Steve Bruce scored two late goals against Sheffield Wednesday to swing the 1993 title race decisively United's way. However, when Mario Balotelli scored spectacularly, his manager remained impassive.
"I don't know what the team is lacking but we were really flat in the first half," said Mancini. "I don't think a strong team like us can produce a performance like we did here for 70 minutes. This was really strange but some players played really badly. Mario did nothing for 70 minutes but scored two goals. I don't like it when he plays like this.
"I don't like anything about his display because it is my opinion that a player of his quality cannot behave like this. Mario has everything he needs to do his job but he doesn't understand his situation very well."
The relationship between Mancini and Balotelli is often described as one between a father and an errant son. However, the rift between the two men looks irreparably wide.
David Beckham, who enjoyed a similar kind of relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, said he knew exactly when it had broken down. It was April 2003 and he had just scored twice against Real Madrid in a European Cup quarter-final. After the match, at home in Alderley Edge, he sat down to watch the highlights and noted Ferguson gave a blank stare when he scored. He was sold within months.
Balotelli is unlikely to be long for Eastlands. Mancini preferred not to dwell on the 21-year-old's goals but the wretchedness of the rest of his performance that climaxed with a stand-up row with Aleksandar Kolarov over who should take a free-kick.
Given the menace with which the Serbian defender approached the striker, it may be safe to assume there are some at the club who actively loathe Balotelli, and that their chief complaint is that he is given far too much latitude by his manager.
That, however, may have come to a jarring end. Far more than a pre-match visit to a Liverpool strip club, Mancini is likely to have been mortified by Balotelli's decision to fly to Milan and then gate-crash Internazionale's press conference announcing the appointment of their new manager, Andrea Stramaccioni.
Mancini, who still has deep links with Inter, recalled making up five points in five games to win Serie A. His opposite number on Saturday, Martin O'Neill, who had overseen a sparkling performance from Sunderland that might have been better reserved for their FA Cup quarter-final against Everton in midweek, added that Manchester United still had to come to Sunderland on the final afternoon of the season. They were brave words but they might already be too late.
Man City: HART 6/10, RICHARDS 5, KOMPANY 6, K TOURE 6, KOLAROV 6, SILVA 5, Y TOURE 5, DEJONG 6, MILNER 5, DZEKO 3, BALOTELLI 6
Sunderland: MIGNOLET 7, COLBACK 7, KILGALLON 7, TURNER 6, BARDSLEY 7, McCLEAN 6, GARDNER 5, CATTERMOLE 6, LARSSON 7, SESSEGNON 8, BENDTNER 7
Scorers: Man City Balotelli pen 43, 85, Kolarov 86. Sunderland Larsson 31, 55, Bendtner 45.
Substitutes: Man City Johnson 6 (Richards, h-t), Tevez 5 (Silva, 58), Pizarro (Milner, 81). Sunderland Kyrgiakos (Kilgallon, 81), Vaughan (Cattermole, 90).
Booked: Man City De Jong. Sunderland Gardner.
Man of the match Sessegnon. Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Man City 52% Sunderland 48%.
Attempts on target: Man City 10 Sunderland 4.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire). Attendance 47,007.Reuse content