Without even stepping out onto a football pitch, in the eyes of some the destination of the Premier League title has already been wrapped up and presented to Manchester United.
Manchester City’s 3-3 draw with Sunderland on Saturday which bought to an end a run of 20 successive victories at the Etihad Stadium seemed to encapsulate their recent stumble from one of the finest footballing sides in the league to a shadow of their former selves.
With their five point advantage gone and United’s recent form relentless, all the skeletons in City’s cupboard were in plain view for all to see.
Mario Balotelli’s petulance reared its ugly head as he first argued with Aleksandar Kolarov for the right to take a free-kick before reportedly scrapping with Yaya Toure after the game.
David Silva, once the creative hub and pace setter of his side, has faltered badly of late and now cuts the figure of a man who has played more games for City than any other outfield player at the club.
Ponderous, probably undeserving of a point and with a furious manager, that fact they were able to wrestle something from Sunderland when they deserved very is at least testament to the quality Mancini possesses within his squad.
All the while Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have looked to win games on the trot with as little fuss as possible.
Games against Norwich, Tottenham and Fulham in particular stand out as matches they perhaps could count themselves lucky to have taken away points from, but, as ever they found a way to win wen lesser teams would have faltered.
There is little doubt that United have upped their game at the business end of the season.
While they are often the subject of praise when they have done little to deserve it – Ferguson’s record for winning mind game battles is outstanding for example, all he has to do is respond to criticism and he emerges the victor it would seem – all the evidence suggests they are coming good at the right time.
Since the back-to-back defeats against Blackburn and Newcastle over the festive period they have dropped just two points, and even that would have felt like a victory as they fought back from 3-0 down to claim a 3-3 draw with Chelsea in February.
Fuelling their magnificent run of 28 points from a possible 30 has been the form of Wayne Rooney and to a lesser extend Antonio Valencia.
Since those two shock defeats, which left them three points behind their rivals in the league, Rooney has found the back of the net eight times in as many league appearances while Valencia has contributed five assists, three man of the match awards and two goals.
By this weekend, United could be eight points clear at the top if they navigate their way safely past Queens Park Rangers in their weekend fixture, which comes just before City’s tough fixture against Arsenal.
The beauty of United’s ‘mind games’ and pressure that they put on their rivals is that they let their opponents do all the work for them.
Their form has been exceptional for some time and they have hunted down their cross-city rivals, rendering what looked like being the tightest title battle which could have hinges on their meeting at the Etihad Stadium later this month into what should be a fairly easy canter over the line.
And while they were simply winning games with minimal fuss, Mancini and his men have come undone.
“United will draw," a worked up Mancini said desperatly before two typically late United goals sealed the deal at Ewood Park. "Do you want to bet with me? Even if they win, there are another seven games." The desperation in his voice as he clung to false hope told more than a thousand words could.
The Italian had every right to be irate and terse in his assessment of his side’s performance and the gift they had handed United with their second draw in as many games.
It is perhaps a sign of the pressure that he is under that at just the moment his side looks like faltering, Mancini turned to mitigating circumstances and tried to contextualise using his side’s rise to becoming title challengers.
"We have 71 points, 13 points ahead of Arsenal and 18 points more than Chelsea," Mancini said. "I think we have improved from last season, it is clear we want to win the title and we will fight until the derby because I think that game will decide our season.
He added: "We have also been unlucky, like losing three or four key players at an important moment. But when you are a strong team you should be able to pass these difficult moments.”
Despite all of Mancini’s frustrations at his players, at himself, and at the bizarre circumstances that robbed him of Sergio Aguero for example, he may well find that he is the latest to get caught up and come undone at the mind games of United and Ferguson. Or a better way of putting it, winning game after game and letting your opponent unravel on their own.
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