Roberto Mancini has delivered an indignant riposte to those who claim his side have a negative mentality, declaring on the eve of today's Old Trafford derby that fear of the force Manchester City are about to become is creating a national bias against them.
"Maybe City don't have big support," Mancini said. "I think everyone is so afraid because City in the next two years will be one of the top teams in Europe and it will be a problem for the other teams." The general lack of criticism Chelsea have faced for spending £71.5m in the final half-day of last month's transfer window was "one example" of the bias, Mancini said. "Whenever we spend everyone is saying 'Oh, City are spending all this money again'. But Chelsea spent €90m in half a day... I agree that if one team has a lot of money and wants to spend it, it's correct. But afterwards all the people who [talk] about it [should] have the same [approach to Chelsea as to City]."
Mancini, for whom Nigel de Jong seems unlikely to have recovered from an ankle injury to play against Manchester United, came under severe criticism after the goalless draw in the derby at Eastlands in November and complaints that his side lack ambition resurfaced when their visit to Arsenal last month produced an equally desultory stalemate. The City manager initially brushed off the criticism. "It's not important for me. What's important for me is that, at the end of the season, we've something," he said. But the allegation clearly stings him. "I do think it is unfair. We are a positive team. We try to play good football, we are trying to change our whole mentality."
Mancini said he has told his players to expect this criticism which, to his mind, comes because fans of other clubs do not want City muscling in on any silverware. "It's easier for other supporters if there are only the usual three or four teams," he said. "If we are a strong team, it's another problem, but it's normal and I understand that."
The City manager is resigned to striker Mario Balotelli's return to action coming a week tomorrow in the FA Cup replay against Notts County. Though United did look like the only side with attacking ambitions at Eastlands in November, the claims that Mancini's tactics conform to a defence-minded Italian stereotype are open to question. Though City have scored 13 goals fewer than Sir Alex Ferguson's side this season and, with Chelsea, have conceded the joint fewest Premier League goals, United's encounter with Arsenal at Old Trafford in December was equally lacklustre. The Eastlands derby, in particular, was the subject of some huge pre-match hype, compounding the disappointment when it provided few points of interest. When City then drew 0-0 with Birmingham they had scored only seven times in seven home games and there were boos from the stands.
Mancini's frustration with the critics is understood to have been compounded by the fact that he has delivered City to third place and had them at the top of the table for a day last month, yet still does not seem to get much credit. "We play always to win," he said. "If we play with one striker or without strikers, it doesn't change because it is important for the team, it is important for the balance. We won 3-0 against Liverpool with only Carlos [Tevez] up front."
Indignant Mancini might be, but intimidated by his detractors he is not. The manager's determination to win at all costs means that he will not be cowed into starting today's game both with Tevez and his new £27m striker Edin Dzeko. The manager is understood to feel that the City defence is simply not resolute enough to head into an Old Trafford fixture with the two and despite Dzeko having been kept back from international duty in Israel, following an agreement with the Bosnian FA, he is likely to be on the bench. In search of balance, Mancini is likely to billet Tevez alone up front, in front of the same five-man midfield that started against West Bromwich last Saturday. "Defend and be damned" seems to be how Mancini feels. He knows that a ground-out 1-0, minus the plaudits, is of far greater value to City than an ostentatious draw or defeat. It might be a far cry from last season's thrilling 4-3 defeat at Old Trafford; more proof that Mancini is the yin to Mark Hughes' yang.
With De Jong probably unavailable, despite a considerable reduction in the swelling to his ankle, James Milner may come into central midfield. That would be a blow to Mancini, who described De Jong's unique qualities for City only yesterday.
Despite United's concession to set-pieces against Blackpool (twice) and Wolves (twice), Mancini claimed he did not believe there was a particular vulnerability. "[But] every team is beatable," he added.
The Italian is fond of declaring that the depth of City's strike force – which he considers the best in Europe – mean they will win 90 per cent of the times they do not concede and he said that a clean sheet today would "probably" bring victory to avenge the last-gasp defeat . "If you don't concede a goal and you have players like Carlos, Dzeko, [David] Silva and Yaya [Touré, you will probably win]" Mancini said. "We were on the top for one month because we didn't concede goals. When we started to concede goals we went second, then third. We are trying to work for clean sheets every game because if you win the title it's usually if you have the team who concedes the least goals."
Ferguson replied gruffly when quizzed if he would be happy with a draw so Mancini was walking into a trap when asked if 0-0 would make him happy. "I'm happy with 0-1," he replied.
Meetings between the top four in the Premier League this season have been short on goals, with just 11 from the seven fixtures so far. Moreover, three of those came with Manchester City down to 10 men against Arsenal at Eastlands in October after Dedryck Boyata's fifth-minute sending off.
This season's results
Man City 1-0 Chelsea: 25 Sept
Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal: 3 Oct
Man City 0-3 Arsenal: 24 Oct
Man City 0-0 Man Utd: 10 Nov
Man Utd 1-0 Arsenal: 13 Dec
Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: 27 Dec
Arsenal 0-0 Man City: 5 Jan
- More about:
- French Football
- Manchester City
- Mario Balotelli
- Premier League
- Roberto Mancini
- West Bromwich Albion