Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has left more than one interviewer a little puzzled after his post-match debriefs.
A few months back, with rivals Manchester United firmly in their wing mirrors, Mancini and City were in the driving seat, cruising towards a historic Premier League title.
Even so, the Italian's insistence that United would win their matches reflected an uneasiness about City that belied their pole position. Of course, Mancini was proved right, and United stormed back, but that uneasiness was still transmitted from manager to players.
Premier League defeats to Everton, Arsenal and Swansea, and draws against Stoke and Sunderland allowed Ferugson's United to leapfrog City at just the wrong time. It was the same old Manchester United, at their best when the pressure is really on.
In contrast, City picked up just eight points from a possible 18 from March 3 to April 8. A critical collapse that should have cost them the league and may still do so. However, United slipped up, losing to Wigan and drawing at home to Everton, opening the door for City to steal in at the death.
This about-turn in their fortunes has coincided with a change of tac from Mancini. Following defeat to Arsenal the title race was declared over, even by the manager himself. Mancini refused to entertain questions relating to catching Manchester United, preferring instead to insist that City no longer had a chance.
Even after victory over Wolves last weekend, Mancini insisted that only United could win the title, despite the fact that victory over their rivals at the Etihad would put them top with two games to go.
"Only one team can win this title," said Mancini at Molineux. "It's not in our hands. In any case. We have three points less."
With the derby just around the corner and Sir Alex Ferguson pumping the game up to epic proportions, Mancini has chosen instead to downplay the occasion.
"For us it will just be one more game, not because we fight for this or for that and after it there are another two games, very tough games," said the City boss.
Recent fixtures between the two Manchester clubs have been classics. In 2009, Michael Owen notched a dramatic stoppage-time winner to snatch a 4-3 victory, while the two clubs played out a 3-2 FA Cup third round tie in United's favour in January.
But for City fans the most recent Premier League match-up was also the most memorable, as Mancini's men left Old Trafford 6-1 victors. Much has changed since that October day, but the Italian boss may have finally found the right tone in his off-field battles with Ferguson.
Having said that, Mancini has largely refrained from mind-games for much of the season. United's old foe Patrick Viera caused the biggest stir by suggesting Paul Scholes' return was a sign of desperation. United suitably responded with questions over City's handling of the Carlos Tevez affair.
Mancini and City may have handled the Tevez affair poorly initially, but they have handled his return into the side expertly. Key roles in victories over Chelsea, Norwich and West Brom are testament to that.
Ferguson remains the old master of mind-games, but Mancini's refusal to entertain the notion of a title chase has been a clever move. By doing so, Mancini has removed himself and his team from the debate.
There can be no sound bites for the media to latch on to if he refuses to discuss a title challenge. Instead his team can just focus on the task in hand, for too often they looked nervously over their shoulders when leading the league.
Prior to the Arsenal result, City and Mancini felt the pressure of leading the pack and it didn't sit well on their shoulders. A build-up of Premier League pressure and limited title-winning experience in the side made them vulnerable to mistakes, and, prone to lapses in concentration.
For a period, it looked like Ferguson would take advantage in typical Fergie style, however the uncharacteristic slip against Everton hints at a nervy United camp. Their team is no vintage Old Trafford side but it does possess experience in abundance, a crucial ingredient to title success.
Ferguson insisted he had "plenty of ammunition" for mind-games if Mancini wanted to play that game but, if he's used any, it does not seem to have had an effect.
City will come into their match with United off the back of three straight wins, having scored 12 and conceded just one. In the same three games United have scored eight and conceded five, picking up just 4 points.
Mancini has achieved this by successfully extracting his City side from the title race discussion, taking the pressure of his players and allowing them to get back to their free-flowing early-season form, just in time for the derby match.
The game at the Etihad promises to be a classic, but you can be sure that should United win, Mancini will continue to downplay his side's chances.
He has steadied the City ship, and after struggling with Ferguson's mind-games for the past few months, Mancini may yet have the final say.
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