By Oliver Platt
Roberto Mancini was prepared to risk offending Brendan Rodgers and Martin O'Neill in his continued pursuit of a press conference policy that seems to be working for Manchester City.
There is no doubting that City are now in pole position in the race for the Premier League title but you will not hear Mancini admit it. The importance of having been there and done it all before, as Manchester United have, may be beginning to sound tired and overemphasised but it is clear that City find it easier to chase than to defend a lead at the top of the table.
City would not be back in the title race if were not for United's slip-ups but their performances improved noticeably once they were 'eliminated' from contention having lost 1-0 to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. That result left them trailing Sir Alex Ferguson's defending champions by eight points.
They proceeded to crash home 12 goals in three games against West Brom, Norwich City and Wolves before beating United in one of the most significant Premier League matches since the division's inception in 1992.
"United are the favourites," Mancini insisted after the 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium. "They have easy games. They play against Swansea and Sunderland."
City fans have every reason to be as excited as they have ever been – they are on the verge of their first top-flight league title since the 1967-68 season. For many, it will be the first of their lives.
|TWO GAMES TO GO...
1. Manchester City
2. Manchester United
The players and staff, though, have given off the impression that they are almost unaware of what they are so close to achieving. They are the self-styled valiant underdogs.
Vincent Kompany revealed how the City chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, had delivered a classically parental "we're proud of you no matter what" speech before the United match while the defender himself described the win as "just a bonus".
In reality, they are a financial powerhouse with an expensively-assembled, world-class squad, but Mancini's management of the pressure surrounding the club is working all the same.
It is also true, however, that City played three ordinary teams after losing to Arsenal. United, indeed, were not much better, serving up a demoralising performance on Monday evening.
That will not be the case at the Sports Direct Arena on Sunday, when they come up against a Newcastle United side similarly reinvigorated by a loss away to Arsenal.
Alan Pardew has orchestrated an astonishing run of form since that game in March – the anomaly that was the 4-0 defeat to Wigan aside, Newcastle have won seven games out of seven, scoring 15 goals and conceding just once.
They are reaching for a momentous goal themselves. Newcastle trail Tottenham, who occupy fourth place and the final Champions League qualification spot (things could, of course, be ruined if Chelsea win in Munich) only on goal difference and can be certain of fifth place by beating City.
Mancini's description of the match against Newcastle as harder than the crucial game against Manchester United is another extension of his downplaying of City's chances but it is also probably accurate. Led by Yohan Cabaye and Cheikh Tiote in midfield, with Papiss Cisse irresistible in attack and Fabricio Coloccini consistently superb at centre-back, Newcastle have been the best team in the Premier League in recent weeks.
They have benefited from the knowledge that expectations have already been succeeded but nevertheless the amount of fluency and verve in their play has been staggering given what is at stake.
Tiredness has simply not been a factor thanks to the impact of the likes of Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa, Davide Santon and James Perch, who either were not at the club or did not feature as regularly before the turn of the year.
Newcastle played a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation and were without Tiote (and, of course, Cisse) when they lost to City 3-1 at Eastlands in November. Jonas Gutierrez is now employed in a narrower shuttling role in midfield and that, along with Tiote's presence, should help them stem the flow of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Carlos Tevez, who all naturally try to play through the centre of the pitch.
QPR should not be written off completely – they have a lot to play for at the bottom of the table – but it would represent one of the shocks of the season to see them beat City away from home on the final day of the campaign. Sunday, in terms of the quality of football that will be on show and the prizes at stake, is as big as they come.
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