Television replays might have shown that Sunderland's Ji Dong-won was standing in an offside position before plundering the 93rd-minute goal that beat Manchester City on Wearside yesterday but Roberto Mancini directed his post-match ire at his own players rather than the officials.
The City manager was so stung by the late sucker punch, which came on the counter-attack with the bulk of his players camped out around the home penalty area, pressing for a winner, he turned on his heels and disappeared down the tunnel before waiting for the final whistle.
The 1-0 loss to a Sunderland side severely depleted by injury and illness blew City's chance to go clear on points at the top of the Premier League table. They remain ahead of Manchester United only on goal difference, after failing to capitalise on their rivals' shock 3-2 home defeat by Blackburn. "I hope the players understand they can't defend like that," Mancini said. "I hope they understand that we've lost a big chance.
"I am disappointed to concede the goal, like that, on the counter-attack. The last 10 minutes I was shouting at the players not to lose their places. Sometimes we wanted to attack with 10 players. You cannot do this."
For the second match in succession, after the 0-0 draw at West Bromwich on Boxing Day, Mancini's men drew a blank on goals. "You cannot score four goals every game," he said. "We had many chances in the second half but sometimes this happens. That does not worry me. It worries me that we do not have players on the pitch who understand the situation at the end. We are a top team and we cannot concede goals like this. Yes, the player was offside but I did not speak to the referee. I have told the players that I am disappointed. It is not good enough for a top team."
Mario Balotelli was missing after taking a slight ankle knock in training on Saturday but Mancini said: "I hope he will be OK for Liverpool [tomorrow]."
As for Sunderland, they go to Wigan tomorrow in 13th place, having won three and drawn one of the five matches they have played since Martin O'Neill replaced Steve Bruce. The inspiration and influence of the new manager were clear throughout a dogged Sunderland performance.
"The roar for the goal was deafening," O'Neill said. "I was even more delighted to hear the roar for the final whistle. It was just a remarkable performance by the team. We had a couple of illnesses and a few injuries to contend with and for us to win the game was just extraordinary. I accept that Manchester City were camped outside our penalty area for the last 20 minutes but for us to get six players up in support on the break in the 93rd minute was tremendous.
"It was offside – marginally. But we ended up winning the game. We're delighted with the three points. It was a fantastic effort, epitomised by the captain. I thought Lee Cattermole was brilliant today."
Cattermole deservedly picked up the man-of-the-match award but central defender John O'Shea applauded O'Neill too. "Fantastic credit has to go to the manager for giving us that bit of belief," the former Manchester United defender said. "He made sure of that at half-time.
"It's a huge result. United had a disappointing result yesterday. This will have cheered them up."
O'Neill added: "I do have sympathy for Manchester City. They play Liverpool tomorrow and Liverpool have had two days extra to recover."