We will win the league, claims calm Mancini
City manager confident in title race but will miss Kompany tonight against Chelsea
The world has moved on for both Roberto Mancini and Carlos Tevez since the tense – and evidently very brief – encounter at the Manchester City manager's Alderley Edge house in October, during which their conversation did not gravitate beyond Mancini demanding an apology and Tevez making it clear there would not be one.
Tevez is, to borrow the word City's South Americans tend to use, tranquilo as he rebuilds his reputation and a transfer market value which Mancini will need to be back at its peak if he is to sell him for a substantial enough sum this summer to move for Arsenal's Robin van Persie. Mancini, who will give Tevez no more than "25 to 30 minutes" from the bench against Chelsea tonight, knows his side must trade rather than just buy these days.
Mancini made a pretty good fist of suggesting that he too is tranquilo, despite the four-point gap between them and Premier League leaders Manchester United.
"We will win the title – or we will do everything we can to win the title," the manager said. "Ten games is nothing. We can't think about this, we need to always think positively. Until now we have had a fantastic Premier League campaign, and we need to continue like this."
However, Mancini has a defensive problem that is bordering on a crisis. Joleon Lescott has not recovered from a hip injury to face resurgent Chelsea, themselves hell-bent on drawing level on 52 points with fourth-placed Arsenal. And Vincent Kompany's chances of shaking off a calf injury in time to play are growing more distant by the hour. Forget the circus that will surround a substitute's appearance which Tevez is, ironically, coveting tonight. The lack of a reliable back-up centre half, with Stefan Savic's struggles against QPR, Wigan and Swansea posing the question of what damage Didier Drogba could do him, is far more significant. Micah Richards may move into central defence and though there is a man for all seasons, Pablo Zabaleta, ready to operate at right back, it is not as Mancini would have wanted it for the moment the pips squeaked. He is about to learn a lot more about whether that "five-yard" edge he has attributed to United still exists.
It was clear enough yesterday that he will not draw himself closer to his players now that they stand at the barricades. He is the type of manager who always maintains a distance, who is not averse to speaking his mind on his players' vagaries and whose strategies do not, you always suspect, make his players feel inclined to spill blood for him.
If he had wanted to drain a few more drops of inspiration out of Gareth Barry – and the midfielder has certainly served him well this season, then he was going an odd way about it. Barry was plainly unhappy to have been substituted half an hour into City's defeat at Swansea last weekend but Mancini maintained "if one player plays bad, he can leave the pitch after 30 minutes like Gareth Barry. Gareth played two bad games [this] month because he had a problem with his back. If they don't [pull in the same direction], they are not professional players."
The distance between Mancini and Tevez has been immeasurably greater, of course, and the once ridiculous prospect of the Argentine taking to the field in a City shirt tonight is testament to the remarkable powers of self-preservation instilled in both of these men. Tevez enjoyed the golf and the sandy beaches in Argentinian exile for about a month before reality kicked in and he listened to those who asked him what he actually proposed to do when his footballing value had dwindled to nothing. His apparently rigorous fitness regime – some of it conducted on days off for the first team squad – has been carried out in the drive to reach Milan, rather than the scrapheap, sooner or later.
The self-interest which dictates so much of what Tevez does would be intolerable to most managers, though Mancini rarely allows emotion to come before pragmatism. He knows that this dispute will be a mere footnote to his club's history if Tevez secures the goals which secure a legendary title.
So there was certainly no smile on Mancini's face when he tackled the question yesterday of whether he was excited to have Tevez back. "Yes," he said, diplomatically. "Because I have also thought that Carlos is a top player – even when we had a problem. What happened with Carlos six months ago was in the past. For the last month he has been part of our plans and for the next two months he will be a City player. I can say that in training, he has been perfect and better than last year."
The real motivating factor was buried beneath all these platitudes. "We were top of the league until one week ago," Mancini said. "I am confident because the players are very strong and they know we have a big chance to win this title. I also think we deserve this after being top for seven months. We don't want to lose this chance to win."
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