• 'Gap will be very small' by end of February – City manager
• Number of games around Real Madrid tie could hamper United
Roberto Mancini believes Manchester United's lead in the title race will be severely cut this month thanks to their fixture pile-up. Although United will stretch their advantage to 10 points if Fulham are beaten on Saturday as Manchester City host Liverpool the following day, Mancini is unfazed.
"It could also be 12 [at some stage] but this doesn't change [anything]. When we arrive at the end of February, the gap will be very, very small," he said. "In every championship, never has one team won a title in January. We should fight until April. If they have seven, eight, nine points in April it could be difficult. But in this moment we have a big chance."
Asked why he is so confident, Mancini said: "Because every team during the season has two or three weeks when they don't play well, when their performances go down and they don't score. Even if you have fantastic strikers, like the situation we had last year, there were some moments when we scored three or four goals a game but then didn't score for three or four games and we didn't know why. It could be the same for them now."
The Italian believes the cluster of games around the Champions League tie against Real Madrid could hamper United. Three days before they take on José Mourinho's side in the opening leg of the last 16 on 13 February, Everton are the visitors to Old Trafford. Before the return match on 5 March, United play Reading in the FA Cup and have league encounters with Queens Park Rangers and Norwich City.
"They are two important games for United so I think that February and March could be the time when it's possible to decide this championship," Mancini said.
With Mario Balotelli's departure to Milan in an initial €20m (£17m) deal, City have only three front-line strikers and as City have managed 14 fewer league goals than United's 59, scoring is a problem. "We maybe should have seven to nine more," said Mancini, though he denied Balotelli's departure is an issue. "Now we have three strikers, we have only the Premier League and FA Cup – I think that could be enough."
Regarding the reasons why Balotelli's career at City was not a complete success, Mancini said: "It's my opinion that it went well for the first two years. The last six months, maybe because he had big problems with injuries. Maybe also because he wanted to go back to Italy. For him to stay with his family would be better. He knows Italy, he knows football in Italy. I'm happy about the quality he showed here. But he can do better because Mario has everything to become one of the best strikers in Europe."
He added: "It was difficult, it was only my decision. I am here, [for] the club and Mario. Also for Mario to play for Milan was important. I believe in him and I believe to go back to Italy after two years in England is important."
Mancini's opposite number on Sunday, Brendan Rodgers, came close to being his assistant at City three years ago. "I talked with him but for me it was easier to take David [Platt] because I played with him, I knew him very well and David spoke Italian," he said.
"I was impressed with Brendan. I met him in Milan. I spoke about him with our chief scout [the former technical director Mike Rigg] and also with Garry Cook [the former chief executive].
"He impressed me because he knows his football very well, he showed he is a good manager in the last two years. I'm not surprised he went to Liverpool because he's a good manager."
Vincent Kompany, the City captain, may not return from a calf injury, suffered in last Saturday's FA Cup tie against Stoke City, for another fortnight.