Roberto Mancini believes the failure to land Robin van Persie might cost Manchester City the title. The City manager indicated with a tiny gap between his finger and thumb just how close he was to bringing the Dutch striker to the Etihad Stadium, where he would have become the best-paid player in the Premier League.
He claimed the champions had agreed a deal with Arsenal well before Van Persie chose to "follow his heart" and move to Old Trafford. Five months later, Mancini acknowledged the 29-year-old is the man most responsible for the seven-point gap that separates the two Manchester clubs.
"It is clear he has changed their situation," said Mancini. "At the moment, he is the difference between us but we were very close to signing him. I know what the reason was but I won't say. It was not about money. We wanted Van Persie because we knew he was totally different from our other strikers. We wanted to improve our team for the Champions League. We were very close and we were sure it would have been good for us. But it didn't happen and now we can do nothing about it.
"We were very close three or four months before he came to United. I don't know if he listened to his heart. He took his decision but, three or four months before, we were there. I am happy with my strikers because last season they scored more than anyone else in the Premier League but when you can improve your team with other top players it's important to do it."
One of the chief stumbling blocks to any move Van Persie might have made to City was the club's insistence that a forward would have to be sold to make way for him. This was a view the City manager did not share and yesterday he said that "with Van Persie you can sometimes play with three strikers."
As City left 2012, the year they snatched the championship from their greatest rivals, Mancini was metaphorically battening down the club's hatches. With a squad carrying too many injuries and preparing to lose both the Touré brothers and Abdul Razak to the African Cup of Nations, nobody will be allowed to leave the Etihad in the January transfer window. This includes Joleon Lescott, who is believed to have agitated for a move, and Mario Balotelli.
"I understand that Joleon wants to play," said Mancini, rejecting suggestions that he would be allowed to leave for £8m – a third of what his predecessor, Mark Hughes, paid Everton for the centre-half in 2009. "He is an England international and he is also a serious guy and always works well. He isn't playing but we can't sell him. We don't have other players to replace him.
"Razak doesn't play a lot but he could have been important in January when we lose these players. We are the only club to lose three players to the African Cup of Nations. We don't even have them for the FA Cup game against Watford because they [Ivory Coast] have a meeting on 5 January at 12 noon. It is incredible."
Mancini acknowledged that one of the reasons City have slipped behind United has been the minimal impact of the players he did buy in the summer – Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair. Only Matija Nastasic, the Serb teenager brought in for £12m from Fiorentina, has made a significant contribution. "Scott Sinclair is my fault because I haven't given him a real chance to play," said Mancini. "When he has a chance, he plays 100 per cent. He deserves more."
Samir Nasri misses today's home game against Stoke after City decided not to appeal his sending off in the 4-3 win at Norwich.
Kick-off 3pm Referee M Oliver (Northumberland) TV Highlights, 10.25pm, BBC 1.
Odds: Manchester City 2-7 Draw 9-2 Stoke 10-1
Reliant Robin: How Van Persie has outshone City's strikers
* Robin van Persie led the scoring charts for a second successive calendar year in 2012 and has outperformed all of City's forwards this season.
Most Premier League goals 2011
35 R van Persie (Arsenal)
23 W Rooney (Man United)
21 D Ba (West Ham/Newcastle)
Most Premier League goals 2012
27 R van Persie (Arsenal/Man U)
21 W Rooney (Man United)
19 L Suarez (Liverpool)
* Manchester forwards' 2012-13 record (all competitions)
Van Persie (Man United) 17 goals in 24 games (0.71 goals per game) Sergio Aguero (Man City) 9 goals in 23 games (0.39) Edin Dzeko (Man City) 9 goals in 25 games (0.36) Carlos Tevez (Man City) 8 goals in 25 games (0.32) Mario Balotelli (Man City) 3 goals in 15 games (0.20)