So who's playing the mind games now as Manchester City and United head for Premier League title showdown?
Wednesday 25 April 2012
Manchester City's manager, Roberto Mancini, seems to be as determined to play down the significance of Monday's derby as his opposite number at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, is to build it up as the title decider.
For both managers, it seems a calculated decision to either hype or undermine the game, knowing that City faltered in March and the start of April when the pressure for them to be champions was at its most intense. While victory would put City top on goal difference with two games of the Premier League season to go and in pole position to win a first championship since 1968, Mancini is adamant that this match has no more than its usual significance.
"The derby is always the game of the year," he said. "For the supporters, a derby is always a different game to the others. It is important for the city.
"Manchester has two top teams who are in a position to play this important game. But for us it will just be one more game, not because we fight for this or for that, and after it there are another two games, very tough games."
It will maintain a quite remarkable sequence of fixtures involving the two clubs over the past three seasons. When Michael Owen slotted home an injury-time winner for United in 2009, it was billed as the sign-off to the best derby ever. Then there was a Carling Cup semi-final that United won thanks to a Wayne Rooney goal in stoppage time.
Last season saw Rooney convert that jaw-dropping overhead kick at Old Trafford before City gained revenge by emerging triumphant in a pulsating FA Cup semi-final. Three meetings this season have been equally memorable in their own way as United came from two goals down to win the Community Shield in August and established a three-goal lead in the FA Cup before ending up holding on at the Etihad Stadium against a team that had been reduced to 10 men.
In between, there was that awesome 6-1 win for City at Old Trafford, something Mancini does not expect to be repeated in his lifetime. "The one at Old Trafford was a fantastic derby," said Mancini. "But it was a game that can happen only once every hundred years."
If Mancini's stance needed any further explanation, it came last Sunday when City did not perform at their best against Wolves in the realisation of what was at stake following United's shock 4-4 draw with Everton.
Even the club's owner, Sheikh Mansour, seems to have got in on the act with his rare public utterance that he regards this season as a success, no matter how the final three weeks work out.
"The difference is three points and we do have a chance," he said. "But whatever happens and even if we don't win I am very happy and satisfied with the players, the team and the management. They have performed very well and have improved in their last few matches."
Mancini is happy to endorse that view. "We are happy to be where we are," he said. "We already have 10 more points than we got last year, and I am happy that we can finish the season well."
Stabilising a situation that appeared to be careering out of control as City lost at Arsenal has been a significant achievement for Mancini, who appears certain to lead the Blues into next season. But the most significant obstacle of all still lies ahead, and Mancini is determined to muster his forces.
"If Yaya Touré is on form, he is a top player," said Mancini. But we need him to be 100 per cent and on Sunday he was so-so. We also need to check on Micah Richards to see how his hamstring is. Providing he has recovered, with Mario Balotelli back from suspension, we will have everyone."
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