After his side lost the leadership of the Premier League for the first time in five months, Roberto Mancini argued the title will be decided by next month's Manchester derby. Manchester City's 1-0 defeat at Swansea, combined with United's 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion, meant the lead changed properly for the first time since 15 October, when United drew 1-1 at Liverpool and City crushed Aston Villa 4-1 to go top.
Since Manchester City do not play again until a week from Wednesday, when they face Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium, they could go into that game four points behind United, if Sir Alex Ferguson's side overcomes Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday.
One of the repercussions of yesterday's games is that if results go to form, which Ferguson argues is unlikely at this stage of the season, United will go into the derby on 30 April, needing only to draw to stay clear of City.
Nevertheless, Mancini, who flew his squad directly to Wales from Portugal after their Europa League defeat by Sporting Lisbon, was defiant. "Whatever has happened is not important," he said. "We will fight against them to the end. There are another 10 games to go, the season is a long one and the situation changes every week.
"Now it is very important we are very confident and together. It would have been better to have stayed on top but it will not change our target. The result is not critical. The Championship will be decided three games from the end [the Manchester derby]."
Manchester United, as they have done so often under Ferguson, have timed their run perfectly. Their European form may have been erratic but, since losing 3-0 at Newcastle on 4 January, they have won seven out of eight in the Premier League. Their wins over Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham, not to mention the recovery from three goals down at Chelsea, must have rattled some at Eastlands, who would have thought at least one of those matches would have been lost.
"Being top is an extra bonus for us," Ferguson said. "At this time of the season points will be dropped. But we have reached the point where, if we keep on winning, games will start to whittle away and they will run out of time."
For all his reputation as a master of mind games, Ferguson played down the significance of the change of lead. "It is a surprising day for us," he said. "I suppose I am happy to be where we are because only a few weeks ago we were five points behind and at one stage it was seven points.
"We have turned around eight points and it is a credit to the resilience of the squad because everybody knows we have had a lot of injuries." Nani and Chris Smalling both missed the Albion game, although Antonio Valencia, one of Manchester United's most effective performers, is due to return to training today, having been out of action for nearly a month.
One of Ferguson's more surprising decisions was to employ his 18-year-old midfielder, Paul Pogba, who has infuriated him by refusing a new deal and being linked with a move to Juventus. "He knows where he should be," his manager said. "He has shown today the potential he has got. He is a first-team player, there is no doubt about that."
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