Roberto Mancini brushes aside mind games ahead of Manchester derby

(Getty)

(Getty)

“Twenty-one in the last year, isn’t it?” the Manchester United manager asked. “If we were to get that number of penalty kicks there would be an inquiry in the House of Commons. There would be a protest.”

Mancini leant back in his chair and delivered his riposte. “But I remember very well last year,” he said. “[Ashley] Young, when he went swimming …” Then the manager of the Premier League champions clasped his hands together and stooped his head in the manner of someone diving off the top board. His tone was one of exaggerated puzzlement. “I think it was four or five times in the last 10 games and he [Ferguson] didn’t say nothing.”

Perhaps, though, Ferguson may want to look a little more closely at the penalty statistics when the 21 awarded to City in the league have actually come since the start of the 2010-11 season. United can hardly feel harshly done by when they have had precisely the same number. Though, of course, it may be that Ferguson’s words were actually intended for the referee, Martin Atkinson, more than anyone else.

Ferguson, as Mancini is coming to know, tends to plan these remarks in advance and this one seemed deliberately loaded when there is only one other referee, Phil Dowd, who has awarded more penalties than Atkinson this season. A classic Ferguson ploy? “Probably,” Mancini concluded. “Fergie is clever like this.”

Note the “Fergie”. The only other manager who has referred to Ferguson like this in the past few years is Kenny Dalglish, someone else who refused to be cowed by the most successful manager in the business. The difference is Mancini knows how to get the better of his rival, starting off with the 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford in October last year, moving on to the 1-0 win in April when United barely managed a shot at goal and, finally, that seminal afternoon at home to QPR in May, two goals in stoppage-time and all the associated glories of that last, football-bloody-hell kick of Sergio Agüero’s right boot.

Ferguson pointed out that United have conceded 10 goals from set-plays, grumpily adding: “Which is a lot.” Earlier this week he described their defending as “Cartoon Cavalcade” and, unless it is another of his decoys, the game has come too quickly for Nemanja Vidic to provide the antidote. If Mancini noted United’s vulnerabilities in the 4-3 win at Reading last weekend, there must be an outstanding chance he will play his best header of the ball: Edin Dzeko.

The problem is that Dzeko is a prolific substitute but too often a cumbersome starter. Mancini is frustrated, in fact, by all his front players. Of the four only Carlos Tevez has more goals than at this stage last season, seven compared with zero, and that is skewed by the fact he was on strike somewhere in Argentina a year ago. Agüero is down from 11 to five, Dzeko from 10 to six and Mario Balotelli seven to one. City had greedily accumulated 49 goals this time last year. This season they are on 27.

“Our season depends on our strikers,” Mancini said. “We need to improve the output from our strikers. Our problem is our strikers. Usually when you have four strikers, two or three of them are not scoring but one is. At the moment we have four strikers who can’t score.”

He reinforced the point when informed that United have conceded 10 more goals in the league. “Yes, but they have also scored 10 more goals than us,” he replied. It is actually nine but everyone understood the general idea and there was the clear sense, once again, that the Italian will probably always be aggrieved about the way the club, fresh from winning the title, lost out to United in the battle for Robin van Persie last summer.

Do City need to win the league to prevent the club’s owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, recruiting another manager? “I don’t know. You need to ask him. I am happy with my job in two years here. When you build a new team sometimes you can have a difficult moment but this is normal.”

Tongue in cheek, perhaps, but football, he appeared to be saying, was too impatient a business. “If I haven’t made a mistake, Ferguson won his first [championship] trophy after seven years and his first Champions League after 14 years. I have another 12 years to win a Champions League.”

First things first, there is the small matter of protecting that 37-match unbeaten league run at the ground Ferguson once called the Temple of Doom. “Two years,” Ferguson said, nodding his head appreciatively. “It’s a long time.”

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  1. Preview: City vs United | TOKNOWTHEGAME.COM - December 8, 2012

    […] From Roberto Mancini brushes aside mind games ahead of Manchester derby […]

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