City force a smile as points slip
Stoke City 1 Manchester City 1
MANCHESTER City are trying hard -- a little too hard, you feel -- to demonstrate that they are enjoying all this. Roberto Mancini used the word last week and David Platt returned to it late on Saturday, after the man he assists had left the arena with a face like thunder.
"Well, yeah -- why not?" he said. "I mean, you have to enjoy it. Of course you can enjoy it. I think any team would like a 10-point cushion, wouldn't it? But that's what you're in the game for. You get highs, you get lows. Deep down, it's enjoyable."
This conversation was tense at times, though. "No, no, no, no. That's you saying that. I haven't said that. I've tried to answer the questions in a truthful manner and if that's the way you choose to write it," he said when it was put to him that we were observing a pressure situation playing out.
In truth, Platt's task -- facing the music over the fallout from Patrick Vieira's questionable decision to accuse United of "weakness" in bringing back Paul Scholes -- was a deeply thankless one. Platt is a very important part of Mancini's team, a bridge to those players who find the manager's distant air difficult, and his spokesman for awkward occasions -- most recently when Mario Balotelli had half-volleyed Tottenham Hotspur's Scott Parker in the stomach, answers were required and Mancini, we were told, had "lost his voice". Yet this was not a moment for the manager to find his voice. His absence, save for a pre-match claim that he could deal with Ferguson's barbs because he was in possession of "a big helmet", ceded the stage to the Manchester United manager on a weekend when his side did not even take to a football field.
Platt brushed away the barb made by Ferguson on Friday, that the redeployment of Carlos Tevez, not Scholes, was an act of desperation. "When you look at the quotes, Sir Alex hasn't necessarily said that. It seems it was a bit tongue in cheek and there was a bit of fun there," he said. "Robbie just laughed. It's not a problem to him. It's not about him and it's not about Sir Alex. It's about the two teams alone and apart." And, to a point, Platt is right, of course.
The absence of pace in the City side is the deficit which has most limited them to just two league victories -- at Wigan and Aston Villa -- on the road since November. So, too, the quality which Kevin Keegan used the German word ideen to define on Saturday: ideas.
A misplaced header by Edin Dzeko -- yet to become the player City had hoped, despite a 19-goal season -- was the only hint of a chance before Yaya Toure's deflected shot equalled out the effort which earned Stoke's goalscorer the Twitter title 'Peter LeCrouchier'.
The bandage David Silva wore on Saturday was a metaphor for a player limping to the end of the season with his troubled left ankle and the one player who seemed capable of providing the width Mancini's side lacked throughout, substitute Adam Johnson, found himself involved in a loud verbal exchange with his manager by the end. Johnson, who could be a superstar, frustrates his club hugely.
That very public exchange, no source of motivation for Johnson, raised the question of whether that intensity of Mancini's will actually aid the pursuit of the title. "He's fine. He's beyond fine -- seriously," Platt said of his boss, also insisting that what said about Mancini 12 months ago -- "he sees the game peripherally, to him what a player has just unsuccessfully tried is alien" -- no longer applied. "It's not odd (that he hasn't shown up before the media) because he is intense," Platt added, "and he is likely to get drawn on something."
Ferguson never gets drawn into any newspaper territory which doesn't suit him. He doesn't show at post-match Premier League press conferences -- ever -- because it suits him not to.
But he does not generally impugn Stoke's physicality either, accepting the challenge as part of this football competition. Mancini's unwillingness to shake the Stoke manager's hand after a match in which his side's typically physical performance was not generally illegal, did not look like grace under pressure and it handed Pulis -- who clearly doesn't care for City's accelerated growth -- some moral high ground.
"Everybody gets invited in (for a drink after the game)," he said of Mancini. "I can't force him. He's obviously very, very disappointed. The money they've spent, the players that they've got at their disposal, I think they are expecting to win (the title). I can see why he's a little bit down; because now it's pressure time. If people want to shake my hand, fine; if they don't, that's up to them."
The task until the Manchester derby of April 30 is to put United out of mind. "We try not to speak too much about them," Gareth Barry said. "The aim is to keep it to no more than three points (between us) before we play them at the Etihad. If we manage to do that, then we fancy ourselves in that game."
A caveat, though, to the suggestion that Ferguson has clinched round one of the mental battle, is that City can be sure they -- and Tevez in particular -- will be nagging away in the Glaswegian's mind, because he only goes in for psychological warfare against those sides who do.
One of the games Ferguson has discussed perhaps more than many others in recent years was the late win at Stoke, secured within days of his side returning from the rigours of the World Club Cup in Japan in 2009, which he always considered pivotal to United clinching the title that year.
The match-winner was a player who provided further fleeting hints on Saturday that his restored powers could do United some serious damage. Carlos Tevez. (© Independent News Service)