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Weakness

'EASY MEAT' FOR FERGIE

HOW often do we reach this point in the season to find an opponent of Alex Ferguson hot, bothered and presiding over an internal meltdown? Step forward Roberto Mancini. It's your turn.

In four short weeks, we have seen Ferguson's fortunes flip completely and it is even possible that he will have nailed down Manchester United's 20th title by Sunday evening.

He worked hard to make Kevin Keegan's blood boil and to push Rafa Benitez closer to the edge but Mancini has been a doddle. Ferguson didn't have to lift a finger.

There have been many moments in the last ten days which left me almost cringing with embarrassment. Mario Balotelli is digging a hole for himself and is dragging Mancini down with him for some extra spadework.

The most telling moment for me came when Mancini emerged from the chaos of a 3-3 draw at home to Sunderland and his first thought was that Manchester United could go eight points clear if they won their next game.

Call me an optimist but that's not just a glass half empty approach. That's a glass drained dry outlook on the world.

Just think about it. You are five points adrift of Manchester United with eight games to play and instead of delivering a rousing 'we'll fight them on the beaches' kind of speech he tells the world that his biggest rival is all but out of sight.

Honest perhaps but surely not what Manchester City players or fans needed to hear at that precise moment? This was just another in a series of serious blunders Mancini has made.

He showed Carlos Tevez the door and then opened it for him again. He bought Balotelli when every indication was that this was an unmanageable individual.

I've heard worried citizens wondering what can be done about Balotelli and for me, it's quite simple. Mancini should never have bought him and he should get rid of him as soon as is humanly possible.

I'll leave the more complex issues of Balotelli's character and background to those qualified to deal with a young man who is clearly troubled but in purely football terms, Mancini made a terrible mistake when he signed him.

There are aspects of Manchester City's implosion and Manchester United's rise to the top of the table which Mancini had no control over.

He had no say in Ferguson's decision to make Paul Scholes an offer he couldn't refuse and although I've never been a great one for statistics, 34 points from 36 with the veteran playmaker on the pitch is a testimony to the wisdom of that move.

Before Scholes returned, the single greatest weakness in Ferguson's team was the absence of a playmaker and when our attention was on the transfer market and the possibility that Wesley Sneijder might yet be prised loose from Inter, the important work was happening on the training ground at Carrington.

I know I bang on about the value of a player like Scholes but I think this situation is the perfect illustration of how important these rare gems are in the game.

At roughly the same time as Scholes was persuaded that there was still life in his legs, David Silva, fantastic for Mancini since the start of the season, began to look tired and his form dropped away.

I don't think it is a coincidence that this remarkable back-flip in form between the two clubs happened when a creative force was added from one and partially removed from the other.

It is also significant that Wayne Rooney has emerged as the key goalscorer for Ferguson at the right moment.

It hasn't been a stellar season for Rooney but he was one of two big personnel problems Ferguson had to deal with in the last while; Tevez being the other.

Both situations were handled decisively and as a result, Old Trafford has been an oasis of calm.

Rooney has chipped in with nine Premier League goals in the last eight games and that last gasp winner against Fulham was absolutely vital. Most importantly, he has stayed away from trouble and knuckled down to the task of winning another title which now looks to be inevitable.


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