City hold aces in title battle
Favourable fixtures and a strong squad should see Mancini in a position to snatch prize from United
1 -- INJURIES AND SUSPENSIONS
Unusually, Manchester City have suffered more from losing men through suspension and the Africa Cup of Nations than sustaining significant injuries.
Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure have been the costliest absentees, while Mario Balotelli's current suspension can be covered much more easily.
But what if David Silva got injured and was out for a month or more? On the few occasions Silva has been missing, the team hasn't looked quite the same. The Spaniard's eye for a pass, his creative juices are very difficult to replace.
It's the same across town, though for slightly different reasons. United without Wayne Rooney can lack a bit of drive. The side needs his will to win, not to mention his ability in the final third.
Elsewhere, though, United just about managed to get by when injuries hit hard. The back four, in particular, has suffered all sorts of changes, lacking the continuity of Roberto Mancini's rearguard.
From here on in, then, luck plays such a key part. If one side is more fortunate in keeping their best players on the pitch, that side will find themselves with a big advantage.
2 -- STRENGTH OF SQUAD
This factor, quite naturally, goes hand in hand with the above. Which club is best equipped to handle the challenge by shrewdly using the full breadth of its squad?
Injuries and suspensions aside, there will be times over the final 16 games when changes need to be made, be it through a drop in form or giving someone a rest, especially when the Europa League kicks in next month.
Despite Nemanja Vidic's long-term absence United, as things stand, aren't too badly off at the back. As long as Patrice Evra doesn't get injured at left-back, Alex Ferguson should have enough to see him through till May.
Midfield, however, is a little more fragile when you are leaning on two veterans in Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. It's the last place their manager can afford injuries.
For City, that place would appear to be central defence, judging by the recent displays of young Stefan Savic. Yaya and Kolo Toure cannot return from Africa quickly enough.
That area apart, Mancini has enough quality to keep things fresh -- not entirely surprising after spending so much.
3 -- HOLDING THEIR NERVE
This applies to the managers as well as the players and it's an area where United may hold the advantage.
Ferguson, of course, has seen it all before. He knows what to say and when. He knows who to trust when the pressure cranks up. It helps that so many of his charges have already experienced this situation. Multiple title winners litter the place.
In contrast, most of Mancini's men are new to this game, in England at least. That might induce a few nerves when push comes to shove. When the end is in sight, some could tighten up to fall short of their usual standards.
Yet this is where Mancini plays a huge part. With three Serie A titles under his managerial belt, the Italian should know what is required on the home straight. Conveying the right attitude, in public and private, forms part of that. The last thing players want to see is their boss showing the strain. It never does much for dressing-room confidence.
4 -- REMAINING GAMES
As we all know, football isn't played on paper. If it was, City could probably be handed the Premier League trophy right now, seeing as their hardest away game appears to be Arsenal. Granted, Chelsea and United must still visit the Etihad, but if City stay even close to their flawless home record, they won't be far away from getting the job done.
April 28, in fact, has already been earmarked by many City supporters as D-Day, when victory over their local rivals could clinch the deal.
Some of that optimism is based on the fact those rivals must travel to Chelsea this Sunday and to Tottenham a month later, weekends when City entertain Fulham and Bolton. But what about tonight? For all Everton's troubles this season, you wouldn't be surprised to see them push City hard at Goodison Park. Stoke, on the other hand, might not be so durable at Old Trafford. City's three-point lead could easily narrow.
At the end of the day, we really don't know. For certain, though, City wouldn't swap their fixtures with United.
At the end of the season, when you're sipping champagne from that big shiny cup, you tend to look back at decisive moments; matches that made all the difference to your title success. It might be a lucky bounce, a referee's decision or a moment of magic from one of your mates.
As it happens, City have just enjoyed one of those moments -- the last-gasp win over Spurs that had the Etihad rocking. Having let a two-goal lead slip but come back to triumph, it was the kind of stirring win that makes people believe this is going to be their year.
Infused with that belief, the City players must now grasp the nettle. I think they will, with two games to spare. (© Daily Telegraph, London)