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Fergie’s mind games work whether he means it or not

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BY JOHN GUBBA

Is it any coincidence that Manchester City’s title challenge was dealt a huge blow at Southampton, just a few hours after Sir Alex Ferguson promised TV viewers that his side would not throw away points like they did in the title run-in last year against Wigan and Everton?

When Fergie told BBC interviewer Dan Walker “That mind games thing is definitely overrated. It’s a bit of a myth” I must admit I thought the Boss meant what he said. But after City self-destructed with a defensive horror show to crash 3-1 at St Mary’s, I’m not so sure.

There was certainly no doubt Sir Alex believes the 1-0 defeat at Wigan and the 4-4 draw against Everton last April were the fatal blows to United’s quest for their 20th League title when he declared: “We didn’t anticipate the unexpected at Wigan. That was a mistake. And when we played at Everton at home, 4-2 up with seven minutes to go, we didn’t anticipate a reaction from Everton coming back at us that way. That won’t happen this year.”

And just in case anyone missed what he said Fergie repeated his promise that “It won’t happen again – trust me!”

Whether or not this was a statement designed to put pressure on the champions, City crumbled at Southampton and it is hard to believe that any player does not listen to pre-match comments.

Roberto Mancini was surely playing mind games when he confidently announced yesterday that it will be “easy” for his side to bridge the nine-point gap behind United at the top. “If we can recover eight points in six games, I think to recover nine points in 13 games will be easy,” announced the Italian. But I am sure he will feel a lot less confident should City trail by 12 points should United beat Everton on Sunday. That would mean a 12 point lead with 12 to play.

The challenge for United is complicated by the showdown with Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League tie that follows on Wednesday. Hence Fergie’s admission: “I’ve got to make sure I pick the right team. That’s the biggest challenge. We know their obvious strengths. The atmosphere will be absolutely fantastic. They don’t lose many games at the Bernabeu.”

But United have a formidable squad, arguably their strongest ever in Sir Alex’s 26 year dynasty at Old Trafford, and the painful memory of how the title slipped from their grasp in the corresponding match last season will be all the motivation needed this time round. Not to mention the manager has given his word that United will not repeat last season’s mistakes.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MANCHESTER UNITED AND ARSENAL

Asked by Dan Walker if he would feel the pressure if United went five years without winning a trophy, Sir Alex Ferguson sounded shocked at the suggestion. “It wouldn’t happen. Simple as that. No chance.” No wonder Arsenal’s most biased fan Piers Morgan announced on Twitter: “Watching Sir Alex on Football Focus. Wish he was Arsenal manager. There, I’ve said it.”             Sir Alex on Football Focus

Dan Walker's Football Focus interview with Sir Alex Ferguson

Dan Walker's Football Focus chat with Sir Alex Ferguson - click link above to listen to full interview

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Mind games: Roberto Mancini’s mistakes have put pressure on Manchester City in title race that proves it’s marathon not sprint

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Mancini promised City fans: "We WILL win the title."

After telling City fans: "We WILL win the title" the pressure is now on Roberto Mancini

BY JOHN GUBBA

When David Platt recently ridiculed suggestions that mind games would play a part in the outcome of the Premier League title race, he must have overlooked the ill-advised words by his manager Roberto Mancini that put unnecessary pressure on Manchester City.The Italian boss did his side no favours, and wound up defending champions United in the process, when he promised City fans with 10 matches remaining: ‘We will win the title.’It was a bold and provocative statement as much out of character as Kevin Keegans infamous rant when the wheels were coming off Newcastle United’s title charge that crumbled in 1996.

Mancini’s boast was a desperate attempt to inspire his expensive squad of players who have no experience in closing out a title-winning campaign. The sense of desperation in Mancini’s eyes spoke volumes. It was followed by a fortunate victory over Chelsea thanks to a lucky penalty award that turned the match late in the game. But successive draws against Stoke and Sunderland have seen City falter when  the pressure has been on to keep winning.

Title rivals United, in contrast, made it six straight wins in the Premier League when they held their nerve to beat a stubborn Fulham last Monday and now have the chance to open up a five point lead with seven to play. That is the prize if United can avenge their home defeat by Blackburn earlier in the season and claim victory at Ewood Park on Monday night.No one in the United camp will be taking anything for granted in a League where every match is a possible banana skin for the top clubs. Sir Alex Ferguson promised as much after his side rode their luck and survived a late penalty appeal in the dying minutes of their 1-0 win over Fulham.

But United have players their manager has 100 percent faith in, unlike at neighbours City, where Mancini’s destiny could rely on two players he does not trust – Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez.

The difference between Fergie and Mancini is that Sir Alex has been there and done it all before – and so have most of his players. The canny Scot would never have put pressure on his team the way Mancini has. Every word he utters to the media is measured with the precision of an expert psychologist. That is why he is the master of the mind games that do come into play at this stage of the season, whatever Platt may like to have us believe.

The old adage that this is a marathon not a sprint has never been more appropriate than this season as Manchester’s top two battle it out for the title. While cocksure City looked unbeatable earlier in the season, now it is United who are showing their class and experience as they grind out straight wins – despite being in transition with so many youngsters in the squad.

While Mancini has had to swallow his pride and bring back Carlos Tevez, which can’t have been done without some psychological effect on at least some of his players, Fergie has been blessed with the return of the peerless Paul Scholes to settle Fergie’s young team.

Mancini has been honest enough to accept the blame on more than one occasion for tactical decisions that have cost his team points. That may come back to haunt him when his bosses assess the damage at the end of the season if he fails to deliver City’s first league title since 1968. Failure to beat Sunderland this afternoon when they were held to a 3-3 draw despite a brave fightback with two late goals, left the Italian critical of his players who have wilted under the spotlight.

There are bound to be more twists before the end. But it is now United’s title to lose – and you won’t find many bookies betting against the Reds making it League title no. 20.

Master of the mind games: Sir Alex Ferguson measures every word

Master of the mind games: Sir Alex Ferguson measures every word and his players reap benefits

 

Manchester United topping Premier League at the turn of the year will be the perfect 70th birthday present for Sir Alex Ferguson

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BY JOHN GUBBA

When Manchester United  crashed out of the Champions League at the end of the first week of December and trailed rivals City by five points in the Premier League, critics were lining up to declare this was the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominance of English football.

How many times have we heard the prophets of doom circle round Old Trafford like vultures celebrating the fall of the emperor and hungry to feast on the demise of the greatest club in the world? But maybe this really was the end? With Fergie reaching his 70th birthday on New Year’s Eve, the critics said, the master had finally reached his ‘sell-by’ date and untold riches from the Middle East made it inevitable that the fat cats across the City were destined to take United’s crown.

Cocky City fans were strutting around like they owned the place in the illusion that one trophy in 35 years and a freak 6-1 win at Old Trafford suddenly made them the kings of the castle. Blues fans were queuing up to tell radio phone-ins that ‘this is their time’ and ‘United are a spent force who have reached the end of the road’.

For 25 years Sir Alex Ferguson has thrived on new challenges

For 25 years Sir Alex Ferguson has thrived on new challenges

But hang on a minute. This is no ordinary man we are talking about, and this is no ordinary football club. Over the past 25 years, every challenge has spurred Fergie’s Manchester United to fight back. Whether that means re-building or reaching another level, the Red machine has always delivered and each success has been more glorious than the one before.

Ever since Fergie’s men have emerged from the shadow of Liverpool’s incredible dynasty, United have found the answer to every challenge to their supremacy. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were the biggest threats that forced United to step up, and now it is the irresistible force of Roberto Mancini’s Arab backed City.

To achieve the seemingly impossible is the greatest incentive there is for a club like Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson is just as hungry for success as he was when he first walked into Old Trafford 25 years ago. This is why United will not roll over and die like some would like.

Anything other than defeat against Blackburn Rovers on New Year’s Eve will take United clear at the top of the Premier League, just three weeks after trailing City by five points and an avalanche of a goal difference. A win will put United three points in front and a repeat of the 5-0 scoreline in their last two wins against Fulham and Wigan will cut City’s goal advantage to zero.

United's quest to win a record 20th League title is all the motivation they need to deny City

United's quest to win a record 20th League title is all the motivation they need to deny City

The fact that City don’t travel to Sunderland until New Year’s Day and United play first on Fergie’s 70th birthday is the perfect scenario for the red half of Manchester. For Steve Kean’s battle-weary Rovers entering Old Trafford in these circumstances could be like being fed to the lions. All this in the face of a horrific catalogue of injuries that has tested United’s resources to the limit in the month of December.

Whatever happens next, just don’t make the mistake of writing off United because when the going gets tough the tough get going and Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams have shown time and time again that they know how to deliver in  the second half of the season.

Fergie admitted for the first time this week that City are favourites to win the title. And the great man knows overhauling the noisy neighbours who have grown into the biggest threat yet to his all-conquering empire represents arguably his biggest ever challenge.

But that in a nutshell is all the motivation United need to win a record breaking 20th league title.

PS: Do not be surprised if Dimitar Berbatov comes back stronger than ever and bags a hatful of goals in the second half of the season. He’s already scored more goals in six days – with four against Fulham and Wigan – than Fernando Torres has scored in the Premier League since he signed for Chelsea last season.

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Welcome to Manchester was the cheeky poster that hailed the arrival of Carlos Tevez – but now the joke is at City’s expense!

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Tevez the sulk refuses to come off the bench as City crashed 2-0 at the Allianz Arena

Tevez the sulk refuses to come off the bench as City crashed 2-0 at the Allianz Arena

BY JOHN GUBBA

There is something deliciously poetic about the way Manchester City’s love affair with the mercenary Argentine Carlos Tevez has turned into an embarrassing soap opera.

Roberto Mancini and the mega rich Arabs who have bankrolled City’s star-studded squad thought they were the kings of cool when they brazenly paraded their capture of the former United hero.

It was the start of a bright new era for the club that has toiled for so long in the shadows of the world’s most popular football institution. But anyone who has studied the career of Tevez the sulk will know by know that this is a footballer with no loyalty and no class when it comes to making sure he gets his own way.

For Tevez to refuse to come off the bench in City’s hour of need as they stumbled to a 2-0 defeat at Bayern Munich is the ultimate rejection for the club that has paid him millions and given him a platform to shine.

Goodbye to Manchester - the last laugh is on City

The last laugh is on City

The Tevez camp may privately feel this is giving City what they deserve for the way they crushed his pre-season transfer to his former club Corinthians. It was clear at the time that the Eastlands club were flexing their muscles. But no professional player can be excused for refusing to play when he is sitting on the bench.

It is reported that Tevez did not offer any reason or explanation. And at the post-match press conference, when asked if he said ‘no, I’m not playing’, Mancini replied “yes”.

The City boss added: “If I have my way he will be out of the club.”And that statement begs the question: Why did City deliberately scupper the deal to sell Tevez to Corinthians back in the summer? Did Mancini genuinely believe he could persuade Tevez to fall back in love with Manchester – or is the manager just a coach who has a limited input into who goes and who stays?

Whichever way you look at it, the whole sorry saga has made City look like a laughing stock.

UPDATE: Tevez has denied that he refused to come off the bench – but does anyone believe him?

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WHY FAT CATS CITY ARE STUCK IN MANCINI’S FANTASY LAND – AND UNITED ARE STILL MANCHESTER’S NO.1

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Another season, another trophy for Manchester United

Another season, another trophy for Man United

 

BY JOHN GUBBA

The way Manchester United handed their noisy neighbours a two-goal lead, and then snatched it away with the swashbuckling swagger of serial winners,  tells you everything you need to know about the rival managers and the difference between their respective sides.

When Sir Alex Ferguson celebrated Nani’s dramatic injury time goal that completed yet another glorious comeback to clinch a 3-2 triumph and the Community Shield in the new season’s curtain-raiser at Wembley, the watching world knew it was the just reward for playing positive, entertaining football.

Roberto Mancini has spent million assembling a squad of talented players – and appears to have unlimited riches at his disposal. But the sum of City’s expensive parts is so much less than you would expect. And the negative footballing philosophy of the Italian is more likely to bore opponents into submission than blow them away with ambition.

Fantasy land - City website claimed their side won

Fantasy land - City claimed their side won

United play football from a planet City fans can only dream about. And that is the difference. City are dreamers who think they have reached the promised land just because they have ended their 35 year wait for a trophy by winning the FA Cup and have the financial muscle of Sheikh Mansour to turn them into a title winning dynsasty. They have the money. But the philosophy and cautious negativity of their manager is their achilles heel.

At half-time the talking point was whether or not United’s boss had spent wisely on investing so heavily in  20 year-old keeper David De Gea, after the youngster was arguably at fault for both City’s goals at the end of a half dominated  by United. But a Fergie team talk and 45 minutes later, it was back to the familar chorus of ‘Glory glory Man United – and the Reds go marching on” – while City fans were left to ask themselves ‘Are they really ready to challenge United for the Premier League title?’

Much will depend on how they shape their team to accommodate their 35 million pound signing Sergio Aguero, the brilliant Argentine, and whether or not they can patch up their fall-out with want-away skipper Carlos Tevez.

Meanwhile, in the year that ends with Sir Alex celebrating his 70th birthday, the signs are that the old master has sown the seeds for yet another team for the future. Young England stars Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley all shone brightly at Wembley in a team that has youth, experience and that elusive X-factor that City are finding money just can’t buy.

 

 

 

 

BECKS SPOT ON: THERE IS ONLY ONE TEAM IN MANCHESTER AND AMERICANS AGREE AS UNITED BEAT CITY IN POPULARITY STAKES

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United fans painting the States red

United fans painting the States red

BY JOHN GUBBA

It was no surprise when David Beckham insisted there is only one team in Manchester – and his loyalty to the Reds is shared in his adopted homeland.

United and City are both  in the middle of pre-season tours across the Atlantic in their latest efforts to win over the North American market.

But it is Sir Alex Ferguson’s Premier League champions who have captured the attention of US audiences so far with bigger crowds and greater media interest.

David Beckham has helped make United a massive brand in the States

David Beckham has helped make United a massive brand in the States

A total of 128,575 fans attended United’s opening two games against New England Revolution and the Seattle Sounders.

But City only managed to pull in 35,325 for their exhibition matches with Club America and the Canadian side Vancouver Whitecaps.

Ferguson’s men have also captured the attention of the US media and The Wall Street Journal has documented United’s tour since they’ve arrived, showing little interest in Roberto Mancini’s men.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are also attempting to unlock the American market.

City's last successful era CLICK TO BUY

City's most successful era CLICK TO BUY

Tom Cannon, professor of strategic development at Liverpool University, said: . “United have undoubtedly made a bigger impact in America. They’ve been working there a lot longer as they have in most areas.

“City are making a lot more effort now though. The influence of Beckham has made United a massive brand in America.

“America is the only big gap left in the global football market, every other part of the world has been developed.”

MANCHESTER IS THE NEW MILAN: A CITY UNITED AS THE CENTRE OF THE FOOTBALLING UNIVERSE. CAN LIVERPOOL STRIKE BACK?

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A City United by a unique League and Cup double on the same day - but what a disgrace that the Premier League trophy was not presented to the Reds. Were they worried this would eclipse City's FA Cup win

A City United by a unique League and Cup double on the same day – but what a disgrace that the Premier League trophy was not presented to the Reds. Were they worried this would eclipse City’s FA Cup win

BY JOHN GUBBA

Welcome to the dawning of a new era with the City of Manchester now well and truly the centre of the footballing universe. And mark my words this is great news for United because there is nothing like a new challenge to keep you on your toes.

In case you needed a reminder the United are still the top dog, it was sweet irony that once again United eclipsed City on the day Roberto Mancini’s men claimed their first trophy in 35 years.

As City beat Stoke 1-0 at Wembley to win the FA Cup thanks to Yaya Toure’s late strike, United fans were already back in Manchester celebrating another Premier League triumph and a record-breaking 19th League title courtesy of their 1-1 draw at Blackburn secured by Wayne Rooney’s penalty.

Does anyone doubt Rooney's dedication to Man Utd now? After scoring the penalty that clinched the Reds' 19th Premier League title win, Wazza celebrated in bizarre fashion by shaving the number '19' into his chest and posting a photograph of it on Twitter.

Does anyone doubt Rooney’s dedication to Man Utd now? After scoring the penalty that clinched the Reds’ 19th Premier League title win, Wazza celebrated in bizarre fashion by shaving the number ’19’ into his chest and posting a photograph of it on Twitter.

But this was a day for Manchester to be United in celebration. Not just because the City can proudly boast the unique feat of winning two trophies on the same day. It is great for Manchester to be the undisputed Mecca of fooball. Even Milan can no longer match the glamour of England’s hotbed of football. And the odds are that the new intensity is here to stay.

I remember the end of the 60s when United and City last dominated football in this country. It was great for both clubs. And this time that great rivalry can last much longer than it did back in the days of Best, Law, Charlton and Lee, Bell, Summerbee.

With Liverpool getting their act together under the legendary Kenny Dalglish, what are the odds on the North-West giants occupying the top three positions in the Premier League next season and eclipsing the fading stars of Chelsea and Arsenal.

My bet is that Sir Alex Ferguson’s record-breakers will face a rejuvenated challenge from Liverpool next season as the Merseysiders seek to match United’s 19th League title. When Chelsea frivolously handed the Pool £50million for Fernando Torres Dalglish invested the money wisely and now has a good mix of established stars and exciting upcoming youngsters.

But the real fascination will be how much ground can neighbours City make up on Fergie’s champions after ending their 35 year wait for a trophy to add to their qualification for the Champions League.

There is no doubt City must spend another vast fortune if they want to rival the Reds at the top table. But that will be harder said than done despite their untold riches and their Champions League status.

The reason is the introduction of UEFA’s new Financial Fair Play rules.

Michel Platini has warned that the likes of big-spending Manchester City and Chelsea, and some of Europe’s biggest clubs, will have to ‘face the music’ if they do not comply with the new FFP regulations.

UEFA’s latest figures show that financial problems affecting European clubs are getting worse, with spending on player wages up almost 10 per cent – and increasing at a faster rate than income.

Under their new rules, clubs will face possible bans from European competition from the 2014/15 season if they spend more than they earn in the three years before.

Sir Alex Ferguson hugs Ryan Giggs as United celebrate record 19th title - both have won an unprecedented 12 Premier League trophies

Sir Alex Ferguson hugs Ryan Giggs as United celebrate record 19th title – both have won an unprecedented 12 Premier League trophies

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Can Liverpool strike back? Kenny Dalglish with Andy Carroll (left) and Luis Suarez

Can Liverpool strike back? Kenny Dalglish with Andy Carroll (left) and Luis Suarez

Why Jose Mourinho will wait for Sir Alex Ferguson to retire before he returns to the Premier League

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Mourinho wants to be Manchester United boss

Mourinho wants to be Manchester United boss

BY JOHN GUBBA

Jose Mourinho’s declaration that he will return to manage in the Premier League one day guarantees the self-appointed “special one” will be linked with every top job until he is “back home”.

The big question is ‘Where will Mourinho end up?’ The truth is you can make a compelling case for the current Real Madrid boss to take the helm at any of the EPL’s Big Six.  But my belief is that the Portuguese maestro will wait for the top job, and the chance to succeed his good friend Sir Alex Ferguson – for the next couple of years at least.

There is no guarantee Mourinho will even get the job. There is a question mark over whether or not he can deliver the swashbuckling football United fans and their history demand. There is no sign of Sir Alex being ready to step aside as he closes in on the possibility of his greatest ever season in his 70th year.

Yet there is an aura and intoxicating self-belief about Mourinho that makes him absolutely perfect for United. And the very doubt about whether or not he could deliver at the world’s biggest and most famous club is precisely why the man at Madrid has his eyes on Old Trafford.

I’m not convinced Mourinho will get the chance to prove himself  any time soon. Fergie has the hunger and desire to go on indefinitely. And how can anyone follow the most successful football manager in the history of the game? But I can’t think of anyone better equipped to take on the hardest job in football.

When Roman Abramovich forced Mourinho out of Chelsea, he made one of the biggest mistakes of his life. And despite his affection for his time at Stamford Bridge, the devil in Mourinho would give him immense satisfaction to come back to the Premier League and rub the Russian’s nose in the billionaire’s miserable failure to understand that some things money just can’t buy.

With Carlo Ancelotti joining the long list of Chelsea managers failing to win the Champions League, the Italian is vulnerable despite winning the Double last year, because this season will end trophy-less.  As I predicted on transfer deadline day – if Chelsea fail to finish in the top four – Ancelotti will pay the price for the crazy 50 million pound signing of Fernando Torres. He may already be a dead man walking.

Either way do not expect Mourinho to rush back to Chelsea. He has already strongly rejected suggestions he will replace Roberto Mancini at Eastlands, whether or not Manchester City fail to end their 35 year wait for a trophy and miss out on a Champions League place.

Tottenham will undoubtedly make another move for Mourinho – who has previously turned them down on at least one occasion – when Harry Redknapp becomes the next England manager.

He will also be top of the list at Liverpooland Arsenal, should Kenny Dalglish step down or Arsene Wenger finally run out of time.  Arsenal’s last trophy was the 2005 FA Cup and Liverpool have never won the Premier League.

Unless Fergie delivers another Treble next month and decides to bow out in style – and even then I think he will want to carry on – I expect Mourinho to bide his time and remain in Madrid for another season at least.

In the meantime, what are the odds now on my prophecy coming true and Fergie having to conquer Mourinho’s Madrid at Wembley to win the Champions League?

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WAYNE’S WONDER GOAL IS THE KIND OF MAGIC THAT DEFINES FOOTBALL AS THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

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FOOTBALL IS the beautiful game because every so often comes a magical moment that transcends sport and paints an unforgetable memory that will last forever.

Wayne Rooney delivered one of those indelible moments in time this afternoon with one of the greatest goals he will ever score.

With just 12 minutes remaining and the Manchester derby in the balance at 1-1, the Theatre of Dreams, so often the stage for something extra special, witnessed yet another breathtaking act of genious.

Nani’s cross from the right flank was high and behind Rooney as he lurked near the penalty spot. But he elevated an indifferent personal display to the heights by readjusting his position and sending an acrobatic, unstoppable overhead kick high past Joe Hart.

No goalkeeper on earth could have saved a goal with the technique of the legendary Denis Law and the power of a Bobby Charlton special. It was the defining act of a game brought to life by a peach of an opening goal from Nani, who showed style and poise to finish with quality when he was cut loose by Ryan Giggs.

David Silva scored a fortunate leveller he knew little about when he unwittingly deflected home substitute Edin Dzeko’s shot off his back. But City’s momentum was stopped in its tracks by Wayne’s wonder goal  that extends the Blues’ dismal sequence of only one league win in their last 27 visits to Old Trafford.

If Rooney’s Old Trafford love affair was strained by the saga of his demand to leave earlier this season, this was the moment the bond was rekindled. It was a goal worthy of winning any game and if United go on to win their record-breaking 19th title, Sir Alex Ferguson may look back on it as the pivotal strike in the race for the Premier League after bouncing back from their first defeat of the season at Wolves.

Wayne's wonder goal wins the Manchester derby

Wayne's wonder goal wins the Manchester derby

12 February 2011: Manchester United 2-1 Manchester City. Goalscorers: Nani 41 , Rooney 78; Silva 65

 

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BRIAN MUST BE KIDDING – MANCINI IS NOT FIT TO LACE FERGUSON’S BOOTS

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BY JOHN GUBBA

When Brian Kidd compared Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini to his old boss Sir Alex Ferguson nine days ago it was surely a case of the former Red making mischief.

Fergie must have pinched himself with disbelief when Kiddo the kidder claimed: “I’ve been lucky in some small way to have worked alongside Alex Ferguson and I can see so much of him in Roberto Mancini.

“His desire, his ambition, his passion, his will to win – it’s unbelievable,” gushed City’s assistant manager after City’s 3-1 win over no-hopers West Ham.

But the harsh reality that Mancini is a million miles away from showing any of the qualities that could emulate United’s longest serving manager was painfully apparent last night as City’s expensively assembled ragbag of over-rated prima donnas were crushed 2-1 in front of their own fans by Everton.

Toffees enjoy the taste of victory at Eastlands - Tim Cahill and Tim Howard celebrate Everton's 2-1 win at Manchester City

Toffees enjoy the taste of victory at Eastlands - Tim Cahill and Tim Howard celebrate Everton's 2-1 win at Manchester City

Despite being reduced to 10-men for the final half hour David Moyes’ men deservedly held on to record their first win in eight Premier League matches.

On the night Carlos Tevez withdrew his transfer request and retained the captain’s armband, the City skipper froze as Mancini’s men blew their big chance to go top at Christmas for the first time since 1929.

Tim Cahill and Leighton Baines brushed City aside with the goals that gave Everton a 2-nil lead at the break. Victor Anichebe was dismissed when he collected his second yellow card on the hour. But all City could muster was a Yaya Toure shot deflected in off Phil Jagielka.

City were also reduced to 10 when Kolo Toure was sent off in injury time and red-faced Mancini was forced to admit: “We missed a big opportunity.”

But the most telling feature of a night of disappointment for City fans was their side’s inability to mount any real pressure on Everton. Where the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea would have cranked up the pressure on a side hanging on with 10-men, Mancini and his players lacked the tactical know-how and killer instinct to turn the tables on their visitors.

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