Cautious Mancini still happy to play the underdog
SOCCER-ENGLAND:Cautious Mancini still happy to play the underdog
LONDON (Reuters) - With the dust settled on a frantic midweek Manchester derby that handed the title initiative to City with just 180 minutes left of a fascinating Premier League season, the mind games remain in full swing between Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini.
A 1-0 win at home to their neighbours on Monday put the destiny of the silverware in City's hands as they seek to end a 44-year wait to be crowned champions of England.
City and United are level on 83 points with Roberto Mancini's side having a superior goal difference of eight going into games at high-flying Newcastle United (1230) on Sunday and relegation-threatened Queen Park Rangers a week later.
United welcome Swansea City to Old Trafford on Sunday (1500) before completing their campaign at Sunderland.
Mancini had barely sat down at his post-match news conference after Vincent Kompany's goal had settled a tense, attritional match, when he declared United, seeking a fifth Premier League title in six seasons, were still favourites because they had "easier" games left.
Ferguson, a past master in psychological warfare to unsettle his rivals when the pressure is ratcheted up, said City were in the driving seat but defiantly stated that "it was not over".
"They only need to win two games of football. It's not over. As long as there are games of football to play, it's not over of course," he said.
In an eerie similarity to 1968, City won that year's first division title on the final day of the season at St James' Park, beating Newcastle 4-3 and denying Matt Busby's United, who lost 2-1 at home to Sunderland.
While a victory over Newcastle would merely put the champagne on ice for City, influential Spanish playmaker David Silva said Sunday's clash was "like a final for us now".
"We knew we had to win on Monday," he said. "Mentally we were ready to win it. We did that and now we have to continue concentrating on the job," he said.
"If we end up winning the title, Monday's win could be the most important win of my club career. But we have to win the championship for that win to mean something."
Away from the title battle, the final two rounds of fixtures will also determine who can plan for Champions League football and which two sides join Wolverhampton Wanderers through the relegation trap door.
Newcastle's 2-0 win at Chelsea on Wednesday courtesy of a stunning double from Papiss Cisse and Tottenham Hotspur's 4-1 victory at Bolton Wanderers left them level on 65 points, one point behind third-placed Arsenal.
Tottenham, who are above Newcastle on goal difference, look slight favourites to finish in the top four as they face Aston Villa on Sunday (1300) before finishing the season at home to Fulham. After hosting City, Newcastle end at Everton.
Arsenal, desperate to hold on to third spot to guarantee yet another Champions League qualification, are at home to mid-table Norwich City on Saturday (1145).
An added complication this season is that whoever finishes fourth could still be deprived a place in the Champions League final qualifying round should Chelsea, who are four points behind Newcastle and Tottenham in sixth, beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
That would ensure the Blues a place in the competition as holders and send the fourth-placed finishes (presuming it is Tottenham or Newcastle) into the Europa League instead.
"Anything can happen still, it is all to play for," Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp said.
"We have got to try to win the last two games and see where it takes us. We have still got to get fourth, never mind third."
At the other end of the table Blackburn Rovers, Bolton, Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic and Villa are all scrapping for survival.
Queens Park Rangers, who are above the relegation zone on goal difference, face Stoke City on Sunday (1300) when Bolton, who are level with them on 34 points, host new England boss Roy Hodgson's West Bromwich Albion.
Blackburn Rovers (31 points) are favourites to join Wolves in the Championship and will have to beat Wigan, who are level on 37 points with Villa, on Monday (1900) to give themselves a realistic chance of staying up.
(Writing by Justin Palmer and Martyn Herman; Editing by John O'Brien)