The turmoil engulfing Manchester City has intensified after it emerged that controversial striker Mario Balotelli was involved in a dressing-room confrontation with Yaya Toure after Saturday's dramatic draw with Sunderland.
On another damaging weekend for the club, Roberto Mancini admitted that City's title bid could be "finished" within a week.
Manchester United could stretch their current two-point lead to eight in the coming days, a gap which Mancini fears would be too great to make up.
If that is one headache for the Italian, another is the increasingly erratic Balotelli, whose behaviour is threatening to rip apart his squad.
Balotelli, subjected to strong criticism by Mancini following Saturday's game, despite scoring twice, is understood to have been involved in a stand-up row with Toure before being ushered away by the Ivorian midfielder's brother, Kolo.
The Italian forward also clashed with Yaya following the defeat at Swansea last month and has previously been involved in training-ground fights with Jerome Boateng and Micah Richards.
Balotelli is unlikely to be long for Eastlands. Mancini preferred not to dwell on the 21-year-old's goals but the wretchedness of the rest of his performance that climaxed with a row with Aleksandar Kolarov over who should take a free-kick.
Given the menace with which the Serbian defender approached the striker, it may be safe to assume there are some at the club who actively loathe Balotelli, and that their chief complaint is that he is given far too much latitude by his manager.
"Mario played like I said about him before the game," Mancini said. "He can do nothing, like he did today for 70 minutes, but then score two goals.
"I don't like it when he plays like this. Mario has everything to do his job well but he doesn't understand very well his situation. In a game like this, the striker should be the difference. Not in the last two or three minutes, but before.
"Mario and (Edin) Dzeko should have scored two or three goals in a game like this."
When asked if he had considered substituting Balotelli, Mancini said: "We had only Carlos (Tevez) on the bench. I thought about this after five minutes."
With City having have won just two of their last six games in all competitions, the initiative now lies firmly with United, who now have the chance to move eight points clear of their 'noisy neighbours'.
Alex Ferguson's team play Blackburn Rovers tonight and then face Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford on Sunday lunchtime, three hours before City play Arsenal at the Emirates.
Since City have not secured a league victory at Arsenal since October 1975, whittling down that lead would appear beyond a side that looks exhausted and riven by ill-fortune and dressing-room feuding.
"If we go eight points behind, then it is finished," admitted Mancini, who then qualified those remarks by adding that he would bet that United would draw at Blackburn tonight.
But this is a man who, despite a salary of more than £5m, still has a flutter on the National Lottery. And there is no record of him having won anything.
As Newcastle's lead over United evaporated in the epic spring of 1996, Kevin Keegan began talking of how the club had not finished second in almost 70 years and that doing so now would be an achievement.
After a thrilling, draining encounter with Sunderland, Mancini began using similar language.
"We are Manchester City, we have 71 points, 13 ahead of Arsenal and 15 points more than Chelsea," he said.
"I think we have improved from last season. It is clear we want to win the title and we will fight until the derby with United because I think that will decide our season."
Of the team he has assembled, David Silva and Samir Nasri have looked shot and exhausted. Dzeko is badly out of form and the loss of Sergio Aguero to what Mancini called a "stupid, stupid injury" -- believed to be a reaction to a chemical spray -- must have seemed the final, brittle straw.
Mancini hinted at his annoyance with the club's medical staff when asked whether he retained full faith in them.
"I trust only my personal doctor," he said. "We lost Aguero to a stupid situation. It is incredible that we should lose our best striker for two games at such a crucial stage of the season."
When City began a comeback against Sunderland that saw them score twice in a minute to salvage a wholly improbable point, Mancini's assistant Brian Kidd gave a leap in the air.
It was slightly more geriatric than the one that saw him collapse on his knees when Steve Bruce scored two late goals against Sheffield Wednesday to swing the 1993 title race decisively United's way.
However, when Mario Balotelli scored spectacularly, his manager remained impassive.
"I don't know what the team is lacking but we were really flat in the first half," said Mancini.
His opposite number on Saturday, Martin O'Neill, who had overseen a sparkling performance from Sunderland that might have been better reserved for their FA Cup quarter-final against Everton in midweek, added that United still had to come to Sunderland on the final afternoon of the season. They were brave words but they might already be too late.
Sunderland certainly took advantage of City's failings, twice taking the lead in the first-half through Sebastian Larsson and Nicklas Bendtner, with that second goal prompting a heated exchange between Mancini and James Milner at half-time.
The mood soured further when Sunderland extended their lead to 3-1 with Larsson's second. City, who had levelled through Balotelli's first-half penalty, appeared dead and buried as the clock approached 85 minutes, but Balotelli's second and Kolarov's 30-yard effort one minute later secured a draw and maintained their unbeaten home record.
As Milner and Mancini passed each other without even a glance when the England midfielder was replaced by David Pizarro late in the game, it summed up the problems facing the Italian.
Falling out with Balotelli is one thing, but being shunned by a player widely regarded as a model professional is something else. (© Daily Telegraph, London)