Sir Alex Ferguson will be delighted to hear that Roberto Mancini is sticking up for Manchester United when they take on Real Madrid in the Champions League this month. The Manchester City manager has been expressing the hope for several weeks now that United might stumble in the Premier League once they resume fighting on the European front and the logical extension of that theory is that the further United progress in the competition the better it will be for City.
"Of course I will be supporting United when they take on Real Madrid," Mancini said. "I might even go along to watch with a little red and white flag.
"I don't know if we can make up the gap on United but I do think they will find it a little bit harder in February and March and that is when the title might be decided. When you have 14 games left you still have a chance, because it is a long season and anything can still happen. When we played Real Madrid it took a lot out of us and I think United are going to find it difficult as well, because along with Barcelona [Real] are the best in the world right now."
With Mario Balotelli back in his native Italy and City finding goals increasingly hard to come by, Mancini has little option but to clutch at straws. To have any chance of the title City need United to slip up and, for that to happen, Mancini's side will have to apply pressure more convincingly than they managed in a goalless draw at Queens Park Rangers in midweek.
"We created a lot of chances but didn't take them," he said. "There are some games where you can attack for 100 minutes and not score. We have managed to improve our defence quite a lot and have started to keep clean sheets but we do need a few more goals. That has been a problem this season and one of the reasons is Mario. Last season he scored 15 for us, this time he has managed only one and I think we have missed his contribution. If we had scored another seven or eight goals this season we might have four or five more points."
There will be no City goals from that source for the foreseeable future, though Mancini does not rule out Balotelli returning to play in England at a later date. "He's 22, he can do anything," he said. "I think he has been wanting to go back to Italy for a while, and maybe that is why we did not see the best of him this season, but he liked it here too. I only wish him to be happy and though I was sad to see him go I hope everything works out well in Italy. But I know the sort of attention he will be getting from the paparazzi and I would not be surprised if Mario finds himself missing England before long. So you never know. He's young, with most of his career still ahead of him."
Though Balotelli's departure was hardly a surprise, Mancini has decided against reinforcing his attack, believing summer is the time to recruit players of real quality. "We are beginning work on replacing Mario now," he said. "It is impossible to wait until May to find someone, all the deals have been done by then and the best players gone. So it is important that we start now on identifying our targets for summer."
One player Mancini admires enormously will be right under his nose when Liverpool visit on Sunday afternoon and, despite Luis Suárez's pledge to supporters that his Anfield future does not depend on qualification for the Champions League, there is no doubt the Uruguayan is the type of player City would be looking for. Mancini might have been linked more regularly with Napoli's £50m-rated Edinson Cavani, another Uruguayan, but both have proved to be strong characters who can cope with the various demands of living in a foreign culture.
After admitting defeat with Balotelli the season after he had all his well-publicised problems with Carlos Tevez, Mancini is clearly impressed with the application Suárez has shown during difficult times in England. "Suárez is not just a top-quality player, he is strong as well," he said. "He is one of the best in England and I should not say any more because he is a Liverpool player. But when you sign players from other countries you don't just have to be sure they will improve your team, you have to be certain they will fit in and feel at home."