Although neither of Manchester's Premier League title contenders play until this afternoon, it is tempting to say that the key weekend result is already in: Italian paranoia 0 Scottish sang-froid 1. Manchester City's Roberto Mancini has not only prematurely surrendered the championship, a week ahead of the derby against United, but he has done so by blaming the men he once regarded as the best referees in the world. Meanwhile Sir Alex Ferguson, more experienced than anyone in these matters, has taken advantage of a favourable run of decisions to relax and roll out the hoary old line that things even out over the course of a season.
When it suits him, of course, United's manager is perfectly capable of raging against what are perceived as bad decisions, in the hope of receiving more favourable ones in future. This time, however, it is a case of City claiming the sort of conspiracy theory that is commonplace in Italian football but sits less comfortably in the context of essentially honest British officials whose unconscious bias, if they have any at all, is towards all the bigger clubs.
A fascinating book by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriel Marcotti, about different football culture in the two countries, The Italian Job, details the lengths to which Italian clubs go to ensure that particular referees are appointed to or kept away from their games. Vialli, Sven Goran Eriksson, Marcel Desailly and Ray Wilkins comment on what huge news the weekly appointments are, whereas in England "nobody cares". Graham Poll says the difference is that Italian fans think referees are corrupt while the English believe them to be merely incompetent – and he prefers the latter accusation.
Mancini, a player and manager in Italy for almost 30 years, said ahead of today's visit to Wolves: "When I was in Italy, I felt the best referees were in England." Asked later if that was still the case, he replied with an emphatic "No" and added: "Because of our experience, I don't think this now. I'm sorry for this but I don't think this. They are big mistakes. I can understand the referees making a mistake but not always against us. You want normal decisions. You don't want the referee to give a penalty or a red card for us when it's not, we want only to be normal."
Without wishing to name United's Ashley Young regarding the exaggerated reactions that have won two penalties and an opposition red card at Old Trafford recently, Mancini said of his own striker, Mario Balotelli: "I saw some situations that if Mario had done what some players have done in the last three or four weeks, if Mario did this he would have got a four-, five- or six-game ban. I didn't like some decisions in the last two months."
Yet City's most costly results since the turn of the year have been less controversial 1-0 defeats at Everton, Swansea and Arsenal. After the Goodison loss Mancini actually took the blame, for insufficient preparation. His sense of injustice goes back further, to losses at Sunderland (an offside goal) and Chelsea (a disallowed one), plus an early red card for Vincent Kompany in an FA Cup tie against United that brought a four-match ban. The other factor he blames is having Kompany, Joleon Lescott and Sergio Aguero unavailable at the same time, but there will be little sympathy for a club of City's resources bemoaning the loss of players.
Whether Mancini is being as defeatist in the dressing room is not clear. If that is the case, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and even victory in such an apparently straightforward game as today's cannot be guaranteed. United again play first, against an Everton side who have troubled them at Goodison but rarely at Old Trafford, where they have not won since the first Premier League season. The gap at the top could be eight points by kick-off at Molineux but it should be five by close of play. Too much, said Mancini.
"We have four games that are very difficult and United have three easy games. For this reason I think that we don't have a chance."
Kidology or not, Ferguson will be happy to hear that sort of talk. On Friday he was able to dwell on happier themes like the renaissance of Paul Scholes; the excellence of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in a defence that has conceded one goal in six League games; and respect for old friends in opposition today like David Moyes, Phil Neville, Tim Howard and Darron Gibson.
The only complaint from the red quarter concerned disruption of pre-season preparations by Olympic commitments. But that is for another day. There is a championship to be won before then.
Manchester United v Everton is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 12.30pm; Wolves v Manchester City is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
How to beat United at Old Trafford...
Manchester United 2 Athletic Bilbao 3 Europa League, 8 March 2012
Players of the quality of Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain help. They tore apart a United defence lacking Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, showing how any combination of Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones can be found wanting. Athletic, living up to their name, had lively movement and short, sharp interpassing and took a positive approach from the start.
Manchester United 2 Blackburn 3 Premier League, 31 December 2011
For a side with less quality the keys are solid defence, swift counter-attacking and taking chances, while hoping David de Gea has one of his less convincing days. Here the keeper was found wanting at a late set-piece, letting Grant Hanley bring about the shock of the season. Dimitar Berbatov conceding a silly penalty helps as well.
... and how to win at home against City
Everton 1 Manchester City 0 Premier League, 31 January 2012
Roberto Mancini admitted after this defeat he and his team underestimated a vibrant Everton and did not prepare properly. Unusually he picked Gareth Barry as his only naturally defensive midfielder in a side missing the influence of Yaya Touré. Some good fortune is a requirement for victory too; Samir Nasri struck the bar twice.
Sunderland 1 Manchester City 0 Premier League, 1 January 2012
Sometimes Mancini's innate Italian conservatism can play into opposition hands, especially in away games when they are less relentlessly positive than at home. Ironically they were caught out here by being too gung-ho in the last minute, failing to track back. Sunderland were badly weakened but determined, and fought for everything.
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