Once a traumatic defeat at the Emirates Stadium on 8 April had prompted Roberto Mancini to declare Manchester City's season officially dead and to concede the title to their local rivals, his squad began to perform with a careless rapture that took them to successive victories over West Bromwich and Norwich City, scoring 10 goals in the process. But after Manchester United had so dramatically slipped up against Everton in the early kick-off on Sunday, the question was whether City's players, back in with a chance of a title they seemed to have let slip, could sustain the relaxed approach they had so profitably adopted when the pressure was off.
It was back on on Sunday, with a vengeance, and the answer is that, facing the Premier League's most demoralised team, they more or less sustained their recent form. Wolverhampton Wanderers needed a win to be in with a chance of retaining their place in the top tier and did their best to achieve the result they required by playing respectable attacking football, but they were never going to be good enough, and City knew it, too.
Mancini fielded the four forwards who have functioned so effectively as a unit since Carlos Tevez returned from his self‑imposed exile. As predicted, the Argentinian has resharpened the team's edge, giving point to the intricate work of Samir Nasri, David Silva and Sergio Agüero, who had looked collectively overburdened and creatively bankrupt in the weeks before the reappearance of the delinquent striker.
The City manager's repeated insistence that their title challenge was "finished", delivered with an expression of total resignation, may or may not have represented his real feelings. He is certainly worldly wise enough to have been sending out a completely different message inside the dressing room. If the seeming concession of the championship was intended for the ears of Manchester United's players and supporters, it seems to have done the trick. Given Sir Alex Ferguson's oft-expressed pride in the ability of his players to find an extra gear for the final stages of the run-in, it is hard to believe that a fully focused United would have fallen to that astonishing defeat at Wigan 12 days ago or given up a 4-2 lead at Old Trafford against an Everton with only pride to play for.
Tevez set the tone inside the first 10 seconds, advancing up the inside‑right channel and sending a drive narrowly over the crossbar from 20 yards out. Within five minutes Agüero was following his example, dribbling around Sébastien Bassong and sending a shot across Dorus de Vries and past the far post.
Nasri was the next to misdirect a similar effort, while Agüero fluffed a flicked attempt after Richard Stearman had misjudged a backheader and sent another cross-shot wide of De Vries's post. In the 27th minute City's approach work finally bore fruit when Gaël Clichy curled a pass around Bassong for Agüero to prod the ball home from close range.
Although Tevez had no part to play in the goal, it is easy to imagine that without his presence City would not have established the persistent momentum that enabled them to take the lead. Whatever one thinks of his relationship with traditional concepts of loyalty and responsibility, there has seldom been a moment in his career when he has not been the most committed player on the pitch, a figure whose refusal to accept a lost cause has made him the perfect catalyst for the late revival of City's attempt to win their first title in 44 years. Since his return to the side, his partnership with Agüero has flowered like spring blossom, each man capable of alternating the functions of leading the line and providing the final pass. In the four games they have started together this season, they have scored 12 goals, and Agüero came close to doubling City's lead just after the hour when he just failed to reach a ball rolled across the face of an untended goal by Tevez.
The chance came a couple of minutes after Mancini had replaced an apparently uninjured Silva with the defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong, the sort of decision that appears to have its origins in a Serie A-bred mindset, and which was echoed later when Nasri gave way to Kolo Touré. But City continued to plough forward and Tevez would prove pivotal to the second goal, accepting Clichy's quick free‑kick and making ground before angling a pass to meet Nasri's run.
For Wolves, who had shown good spirit, that represented the end of their latest adventure in the top flight. "Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be/We're going to Barns-e-ley, que sera, sera," their hardcore sang at the end, warmly applauded by City's fans, whose own team will continue to travel hopefully, knowing that three wins in their remaining three fixtures – at home to Manchester United and Queens Park Rangers and away to Newcastle United – should be enough to realise their ambition. Just as long, that is, as Mancini keeps telling the world it is out of the question.