Schadenfreude is a dangerous sport, not least when it comes to the ebb and flow of a Premier League title race. But there was undoubtedly a collective chuckle from the Red half of Manchester on Sunday at the delicious sight of a Manchester City fan breaking down in tears. Was it a death in the family that caused such public, and humiliating distress, mooted writer Daniel Harris? Perhaps the outbreak of war, or a death in the family. None of the above your honour; simply the trauma of City falling a goal behind to Swansea in the 11th-to-last match of the campaign.
Thousands of Manchester United fans joined in the fun, readily mocking John Millington, the City supporter, and joyously celebrating the Reds’ return to the top of the Premier League table. It was, or at least seemed to be, a turning point in the campaign. For all City’s wealth, and United’s catastrophic winter injury crisis, here was United taking top spot after beating West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, while the Blues lost again on the road, this time at Swansea City.
Winning the title isn’t that simple of course, and while the momentum is squarely with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, the single point gap is hardly a royal flush waiting to be called. Indeed, just as City had not won the title in October, despite the Robert Mancini-led outfit storming to a seven point lead, the Reds will be wary to prematurely claim a 20th domestic title with 10 games to go.
Yet, there is undeniably a sense of panic enveloping Eastlands, with Mancini sporting a rabbit-in-the-headlights expression when questioned about his side’s chances of victory come May. United will drop points, surmised the Italian; the unconvincing aside coming barely a day after Mancini called on his players to win all of their remaining Premier League matches.
Worse may come for the Blues, with Mancini’s side facing another five games on the road before the season concludes. After all, the Abu Dhabi-owned outfit has recorded just eight points from a similar number of games away from Eastlands. Banana-skin fixtures against Chelsea in Manchester, Stoke City away and Martin O’Neil’s vibrant Sunderland come before March is out.
By contrast United faces no team inside the top 10 before travelling to meet City in a potentially decisive fixture in east Manchester on 30 April. Decisive, that is, if City is still within touching distances by that point. Indeed, the business-like manner in which United is now racking up the points, despite all the injuries, lack of squad depth, and a calamitous European campaign, says much for the mood at Old Trafford.
“It was a great performance,” said Sir Alex of United’s comfortable victory over West Brom.
“We took a bit of time to get the rhythm of the game right but once we got that we played some exciting stuff and some really good football. We could have scored a lot of goals today. If there is a criticism then that is it. But we produced a stern performance; it was determined and there was a great will to win.
“We created a lot of chances and missed them. Fortunately we got the second goal and we still missed chances after that, but we kept our drive for the whole game, which was good. The players didn’t stop; they tried to score from every attacking situation.”
Profligacy could still cost the Reds, as could complacency of the kind displayed at Norwich City a fortnight ago. Change comes in a heartbeat, and United’s weekend fixture against Wolverhampton Wanderers, and then City’s three days later versus Chelsea, could bring yet another swing.
Such is momentum’s importance that Ferguson is unlikely to disrupt United’s domestic flow on Thursday when the Reds meet Athletic Club in Bilbao. United’s tie at Wolves ensures that supporters can expect a fringe and reserve squad to face the excellent Basque outfit, despite any claims that Ferguson’s side can turn the tie around.
At this point the consequences of fielding a full-strength side and still potentially losing, outweigh any benefits victory brings. After all, elimination from the Champions League, and defeats to Athletic and Ajax in UEFA’s second string competition, have brought no discernible negative reaction domestically.
Meanwhile, City face Sporting in Manchester followed by the home clash with managerless Chelsea. City’s home form is imperious; Chelsea’s record on the road has brought four defeats. The odds on two home victories are high, but such is the battering City’s confidence has taken that a reversal in either game will no bring surprise.
Mancini’s rhetoric is adding little more than doubt to the equation. It is as if the Italian believes no longer in his side, or his ability to turn it around. The excuses are flowing quickly now, in stark contrast to Ferguson’s confidence. Despite two Serie A titles, Mancini is a relative novice in England, and this time there is no Calciopoli to aid the former Sampdoria striker’s managerial progress.
“There are 10 games to go, and it’s important we start to score and win again,” said Mancini after City’s 1-0 loss in Wales.
“Some players may be tired after seven months of the season, but I think we have a lot of energy to get back to the top. It all depends on us; we have 10 games and anything could happen. We have to be strong, when you’re at the top it’s easy, when you’re not you have to be strong. I don’t think we deserved another result like this, but now we can do nothing.”
By contrast Ferguson exuded experienced calm after United’s routine win at Old Trafford; a man, more than 25 years into United job, who lives for these moments. While much of the Scot’s side exhibits the callow enthusiasm of youth, a core of Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney are sure to start United’s biggest games from here on in. It is a quintet in which Ferguson trusts.
United’s focus and City’s troubles is a truism that will resonate strongly at Eastlands, where pressure has been building since Christmas.
“We felt if we came through those tough away fixtures [during the winter] we would be setting ourselves up for the rest of the season,” added winger Ashley Young.
“We have managed to do that and now our home form is key. A lot of people might not have thought we would be in front of City but we have that belief. As long as we are winning our games, the pressure is on them.”
So much that the returning carpetbagger Carlos Tevez will be welcomed back into the first team with open arms when the 28-year-old is match fit. After Mancini so publicly defenestrated the Argentinian any move to welcome Tevez back is little more than an act of desperation, critics will correctly add.
Meanwhile, Ferguson is brimming with confidence; a man who has once again confounded the critics and supporters by taking a thin United squad further, domestically at least, than many has predicted.
“We have that experience and it does help,” concluded the United boss.
“We won’t get nervous. Against West Brom we kept playing our football even at 1-0 when the fans were thinking ‘just get us a second’. It didn’t concern the players one bit. It is good to see that kind of temperament.”
Over at Eastlands the crying supporter has rapidly become a poster boy for the moment. Millington denied his public distress - he could do little else. But the fan, much like Mancini, will have woken this morning with a significant dent to both pride and confidence.