Mancini plays down talk of a sky-blue Christmas
The noisy neighbours are on Manchester United's heels in every way.
The first Santa Run staged by Roberto Mancini's club last weekend happened to occur at precisely the same time as United's more established event. United could boast a solitary sky-blue Santa at their run; City could boast the first team manager at theirs.
Today, Mancini can get one up on Alex Ferguson in a more significant way. A win at West Ham will make the city's two teams level on points and, with United's next consecutive matches against Chelsea and Arsenal, it has escaped no one's mind at Eastlands that the club can head into Christmas on top of the table.
Mancini, needless to say, is attempting to put that prospect out of his players' minds ahead of a visit to the league's bottom club.
"It's not important," he insisted. "It's more important that we play well against West Ham and win if possible. The other situation is not important. It's important to be on the top in May at the end of the season."
But the current potential to gloat shows no bounds, with a win over the side that deposited United from the Carling Cup with a 4-0 deficit providing great potential for morale.
Mancini, who finds West Ham's grave position "strange," preferred to dwell on the threat that cup tie showed up.
"That was a warning, but they have played well for the last month," he said. "They also played very well at Sunderland, and that is why they don't deserve to be bottom. I watched that cup game on TV.
"United played very well in the first half and had two or three chances to score, but that's football. After West Ham scored it changed the game. Upton Park is a very difficult place to play."
Mancini knows Avram Grant who, as a young manager in Israel, once visited Sampdoria to watch coach Vujadin Boskov take training, while Mancini was a player at the club.
The Italian believes his compatriot Paolo di Canio could do a job for West Ham -- "Di Canio in England? It could be, yes. He played for West Ham and he knows them very well" -- though feels the Hammers' performances warrant a mid-table position.
Though the focus today will again turn to Mario Balotelli, who will have some boots to fill with Carlos Tevez serving a suspension after this fifth booking, Yaya Toure is the player West Ham have to fear most now that he has settled into the more advanced midfield role that Mancini has found for him.
Toure arrived from Barcelona this summer with high expectations, but struggled to match his star billing with consistent performances during the first few weeks of the season.
It did not help that City were so badly affected by injuries, which forced Toure to play in a far more advanced role than he was used to at the Nou Camp. But the 27-year-old's last couple of performances, against Fulham and Bolton, have shown a marked improvement on what has gone before.
And the £25m man is feeling far happier with life. "I feel I am getting closer to my best each time I play," Toure said.
With City also facing Everton, Newcastle United and Aston Villa this month -- all sides in differing states of disarray -- the potential for getting into the Manchester ascendancy are obvious, though Mancini has argued all along that it is against the weaker sides that his own can have the tendency to trip up.
"Maybe it's more easy to play against Chelsea or United because you think it's going to be a difficult game," he said.
"Sometimes it can happen to us that we go to Wolverhampton and maybe we lose. This is football and if you don't play to 100pc every game it can happen. When you meet the other teams you think you can play with only one leg and that's not possible."
Meanwhile, speculation is mounting about the future of several City players.
Shaun Wright-Phillips, Emmanuel Adebayor and Wayne Bridge may all be heading for the exit door, with City eager to trim their vast wage bill. However, a balance must be struck between shifting players and leaving Mancini with adequate cover to sustain a trophy challenge on three fronts.
That particularly applies to Shay Given, who has grown increasingly frustrated at his lack of game time. (© Independent News Service)
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