No Christmas truce as City chase United and bragging rights

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The Independent Online

The noisy neighbours are on Manchester United's heels in every way.

The first Santa Run staged by Roberto Mancini's club last weekend happened to occur at precisely the same time as United's more established event. United could boast a solitary sky-blue Santa at their run; City could boast the first-team manager at theirs.

Today, Mancini can get up on Sir Alex Ferguson in a more significant way. A win at West Ham will make the city's two teams level on points and with United's next two matches against Chelsea and Arsenal it has escaped no one's attention at Eastlands that the club can head into Christmas on top of the table.

Mancini, needless to say, is attempting to put that prospect out of his players' minds ahead of a visit to the league's bottom club. "It's not important. It's more important that we play well against West Ham and win if possible. The other situation is not important. It's important to be on the top in May at the end of the season."

But the current potential to gloat shows no bound, with a win over the side that deposited United from the Carling Cup with a 4-0 deficit providing great potential for morale. Mancini, who finds West Ham's grave position "strange", preferred to dwell on the threat that cup tie showed up.

"That was a warning but they have played well for the last month," he said. "They also played very well at Sunderland, and that is why they don't deserve to be bottom. I watched that cup game on TV. United played very well in the first half and had two or three chances to score but that's football. After West Ham scored it changed the game. Upton Park is a very difficult place to play."

Mancini knows Avram Grant who, as a young manager in Israel, once visited Sampdoria to watch coach Vujadin Boskov take training whilst Mancini was a player at the club.

The Italian believes his compatriot Paolo di Canio could do a job for West Ham – "Di Canio in England? It could be, yes. He played for West Ham and he knows them very well" – though feels that the Hammers' performances warrant a mid-table position. Grant will give a fitness test to Valon Behrami before deciding whether the midfielder will play any part.

Though the focus today will again turn to Mario Balotelli – with some boots to fill with Carlos Tevez serving a suspension after his fifth booking – Yaya Touré is a player Grant arguably has most to fear in the more advanced midfield role which Mancini has found for him.

"I have had to change the way I play because I am more of a central midfielder by nature but I get forward a lot more at City and I am still adapting to the change," Touré said yesterday. With City also facing Everton, Newcastle United and Aston Villa this month – all sides in differing states of disarray – the potential for getting into the Manchester ascendancy is obvious, though Mancini has argued all along that it is against the weaker sides that his own can have the tendency to trip up.

"Maybe it's more easy to play against Chelsea or United because you think it's going to be a difficult game," he said. "Sometimes it can happen to us that we go to Wolverhampton and maybe we lose. This is football and if you don't play to 100 per cent every game it can happen. When you meet the other teams you think you can play with only one leg and that's not possible."

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