Mancini's turn to face Ferguson mind games

United manager starts the psychological warfare in effort to derail City's title push

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The Independent Football

His weekly press conference was delayed by half an hour yesterday – an uncommon occurrence – and if extra preparation time had been required, then it helped. Sir Alex Ferguson made his point.

The Manchester United manager was five minutes into a discussion of his side's quest for a 20th title and had meandered through such Friday morning perennials as his young players, winning every game and Michael Owen's fitness, when it was put to him that Patrick Vieira, a particularly inveterate adversary before donning a suit to become Manchester City's football development executive, had recently suggested that recalling a 37-year-old Paul Scholes to the ranks had "smacked of desperation".

Vieira had actually called it "a little bit of weakness" in United, though that is fairly inconsequential against the backdrop of how Ferguson's eyes immediately narrowed as he cast aside a phoney war during which he has been reluctant to impugn Manchester City and at one stage banned almost every national newspaper from this event for what he felt was an exaggeration of his comments about them.

"If it was desperation bringing back the best midfield player in Britain over the last 20 years then I think we can accept that," he replied, then suggested that Vieira's comments belonged to an orchestrated City campaign. "I think he was programmed for that. I think Roberto had a little wee dig a couple of weeks back and we're all going to play our hand that way. I've got plenty of ammunition for that."

Vieira's involvement in the discussion of the title race is important to City, who feel they do not have the same legendary galaxy of former players to articulate their cause, in the way that Bryan Robson did by sitting down to dinner with The Independent and several other newspapers on Wednesday evening.

But Ferguson, warming to his task, needed no such assistance. "If you're talking about desperation..." he continued, a three-second pause providing impressive dramatic effect. "If you are talking about desperation, they were playing a player the other night who refused to go on the pitch and the manager said he'll never play again. He takes a five-month holiday in Argentina. What is that? Could that come under the description of desperation? I've got plenty of ammunition, don't worry. They can try."

Nervous laughter echoed across the sun-dappled press room in United's academy building at the mention of Carlos Tevez, but let there be no mistake. This was the moment when Ferguson brought his psychological armoury into a title race which, as far as the city of Manchester is concerned, makes any other since 1968 a minor trifle.

At rarefied moments like this – with United a point ahead and four strikes behind on goal difference – Ferguson can be prone to see shadows where they don't exist. That "little wee dig" he was talking about was Mancini saying – after his side had overwhelmed Bolton Wanderers, on 3 March, the day before United travelled to Tottenham Hotspur – "I think United will win because they are strong."

To Ferguson's mind, that was Mancini turning the screw. "Yeah, I think so," he said. "Nothing wrong with that." Such are the strategies that have informed his football life, ever since his mentor, Jock Stein, said as Celtic manager in 1968 that with four league games to go Rangers could "only throw it away". "And we did!" said Ferguson, grinning at that thought yesterday. "I shall never forget those headlines Jock instigated," he said in his biography. "The trick was instantly lodged in my memory."

There can be no doubt that Ferguson, a manager for whom his former charge Tevez would have been history long since, has been given a serious piece of psychological capital to work with by the Argentine. Responding to the question of whether he would have employed him again in such circumstances, Ferguson again used the pregnant pause to strong effect. "Do I need to answer that?" he said "No. I don't need to answer that. I don't know what it means [that he played]. I don't know where it's coming from, to be honest. You never know whose decision that is. I'm really not exactly in full knowledge about what happens at City."

As purposeful as Ferguson's implication that Abu Dhabi, rather than Mancini, might have insisted Tevez play – it was actually the Italian's decision alone – was his disclosure that he had not felt the need to watch City's 2-1 midweek recovery act against Chelsea.

"I couldn't tell you exactly what [the comeback] means," he said, before disclosing that clinching this title would take him back to the days when knocking Liverpool off their perch was the only task he cared about. "I think we said early in the season the borders have been changed a bit," he said. "If you look at our main competitors , they have always been Liverpool and now it's City. So either way, if it was Liverpool or City, you would desperately want to beat them. Whatever it is – at tiddlywinks or ludo, anything."

Vieira certainly touched a raw nerve when he also spoke of how United should "be really worried" about losing the prodigious Ravel Morrison to West Ham United and possibly Frenchman Paul Pogba to Juventus. Ferguson's paean of praise for Pogba and the three run-outs he gave him last week reveal a desire to hold off the Italians, who have prepared a contract. "It's getting a bit more positive," he said of that battle. "Hopefully something will happen soon."

He wrapped things up with a jocular "hasta la vista!" – yet this felt like a managerial rivalry matching that with Rafael Benitez, who on a sunny Friday afternoon three years ago embarked on his legendary "rant" against Ferguson. Liverpool's title challenge began to crumble the next day, at Stoke City. Manchester City travel today to Stoke, where the pressure is on to regain the title ascendancy before United entertain Fulham on Monday evening.

"It happens," concluded Ferguson when it was suggested that he was too long in the tooth to be spooked by Vieira. "We can all play our hand at these kind of things. It doesn't bother me. You'll always get that kind of thing to try and unnerve the team, if not the manager – I think that's more to the point." Yes. That was precisely the point.  

It's all in the head: Ferguson's past victims

Ferguson on Kevin Keegan

"I can't understand the Leeds players. I'm absolutely in support of their manager. He doesn't deserve his players. If they had played like that all season they'd be near the top. They raised their game because they were playing against Manchester United. It was pathetic. I think we can accept any club coming here and trying their hardest, so long as they do it every week."

Speaking on 17 April 1996 after Leeds forced Manchester United to work hard for a 1-0 win as they vied with Newcastle for the title. Newcastle won at Leeds two weeks later, when manager Kevin Keegan gave a memorable television interview. United won the title

Ferguson on Jose Mourinho

"Jose Mourinho seems to be on some sort of personal crusade about regulations. I don't think it is strain, he's a very clever man and it is calculated. I'm surprised no action has been taken against him, he has been let off lightly. He is saying our game is suspicious, and that is wrong."

Speaking on 27 April 2007 as Chelsea and United competed for the title. United won, but Chelsea went on to beat United in the FA Cup final at Wembley.

Ferguson on Carlo Ancelotti

"It gives Chelsea a major chance now. They got great decisions [against Tottenham] and they seem to get these decisions at the moment. They got one to win the league last season at Old Trafford. So that's a worry. You go into a game worrying about these things. But in terms of ability, a game at Old Trafford – the league at stake – our supporters will be ready for it and so will my players."

Speaking on 1 May 2011 after a Manchester United defeat at Arsenal. United went on to beat Chelsea 2-1, with the aid of a couple of fortunate decisions, and clinch the league.

Ferguson on Arsene Wenger

"In the tunnel Wenger was criticising my players, calling them cheats, so I told him to leave them alone and behave himself. He ran at me with hands raised saying, 'What do you want to do about it?' To not apologise for the behaviour of the players to another manager is unthinkable. It's a disgrace, but I don't expect Wenger to ever apologise, he's that type of person."

Speaking on 15 January 2005 about United's win over Arsenal the previous October. Both teams finished behind Chelsea in the league, although Arsenal beat United in the FA Cup final.

Ferguson on Rafael Benitez

"Everton are a big club, not a small one, which Benitez arrogantly said. But arrogance is one thing. You cannot forgive contempt, which is what he showed Sam Allardyce last weekend. When Liverpool scored their second he signalled as if the game was finished. I do not think Sam deserved that. Sam has worked so hard for the LMA and he's had a weakened team. It showed contempt. In my experience no Liverpool manager has ever done that. It was beyond the pale."

Speaking on 17 April 2009 ahead of an FA Cup semi-final with Everton as United vied with Liverpool for the title. United went on to win the title.