They had won, Manchester United had lost and suddenly hope was flickering around the Etihad Stadium. However, if they awaited a statement of defiance from Roberto Mancini, what Manchester City's supporters received on Wednesday night was another concession speech. The title race was run, said the City manager, United had players with better spirit; finishing second for the first time since 1977 would be an excellent achievement.
Naturally, it was all for public consumption. What Manchester City's manager said in the dressing room after the 4-0 rout of West Bromwich Albion had cut United's lead to five points would have been very different. These are players in no mood to form a guard of honour for the old enemy when United come calling at the end of the month. "In the same way that United never gave up chasing us, we will never give up either," said Joe Hart. "Never. If we can get to 89 points by winning our last five games, that would take some beating. We can only do what we can do now and see where it takes us."
Inside the walls of his dressing room, Mancini had never conceded the title. "His message to us was to keep playing, keep winning," said his goalkeeper. "He told us before the West Brom game that three matches without a win is not acceptable. We felt the same as players. One game without a win is not acceptable.
"It was never the case that we had given up. He [Mancini] can say it how he wants. Our underlying feeling was that we needed to win. Our supporters pay a lot of money to see us and we owe them. Even if, God forbid, we were already out of it, we would still be fighting."
Too much of Manchester City's fighting has been an internal conflict, beginning with Carlos Tevez's flight to Argentina and culminating with Hart kicking the post at Arsenal last Sunday when Mario Balotelli's dismissal appeared to signal the end of Manchester's title race.
"I was just frustrated," he said. "You get wrapped up in what happened. It is frustrating when you lose a player like that. It feels like one in and one out with Carlos coming back in and Mario suspended.
"The one thing you can say about Carlos is – say what you want about him – but if you play him you know what you are going to get. You don't get any attitude and on the pitch he is going to give you all he's got."
Tevez's lack of conditioning meant he lasted a little over an hour of his first start since September but the way he and Sergio Aguero combined gave Manchester City a menace they appeared to be lacking in recent games. "We got that early goal, which is so hard for us to get because so many teams are happy with a point against us," said Hart. "We played at West Brom earlier in the season and drew 0-0. We saw the reaction on their faces that day so we owed them big time."
Nevertheless, Manchester City's away form since the turn of the year has been indifferent. Of their last seven fixtures, just two have been won – and those seven games have produced four goals. Norwich has proved a daunting venue and United had to rely on an injury-time winner from Ryan Giggs to snatch victory there in February.
"We were never going to let the season fizzle out, regardless of what happened to United at Wigan," said Hart. "We are proud, we have achieved a lot; we were never going to let that go."