Updated: Monday, 10th December 2018 @ 4:16pm

Tuesday Team Talk: Manchester City are better placed to defend title chasing United rather than topping table

Tuesday Team Talk: Manchester City are better placed to defend title chasing United rather than topping table

By Jeremy Culley

Whisper it quietly, because it is an assertion that will attract ridicule.

Robin van Persie’s deflected late derby winner felt like a defining moment in the title race – yet it could end up turning it in Manchester City’s favour.

Their fans’ pain will not wear off for some time, with the image of United’s gleeful celebrations at a smash-and-grab win still vivid.

But at Newcastle on Saturday City’s players showed signs they are moving on, and that their agony could reignite the title race.

Before United breached City’s seemingly impregnable home defences, Roberto Mancini’s troops had been stumbling into battle all season.

Their famed attacking artillery – underlined by Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Carlos Tevez – had all too often misfired, culminating in another Champions League group-stage exit.

Yet in the North East – fresh from a first home league loss in almost two years – City’s expensive stars looked free once again.

Free from the pressure that goes with being the best.

Van Persie – the man whose late goal caused such anguish – was a City target last summer, yet he opted for runners-up United instead.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have charged from the starting blocks this term, with 14 wins from 17 Premier League games, and the pressure on champions City to keep pace has seemingly stifled them.

Now they have slipped six points adrift of United – and no longer have the distraction of proving to Europe they are a credible force – the shackles seem to have come loose.

On Saturday at St James’ Park, Silva was back at the fore, while Tevez and Aguero produced their most convincing performance to date in combination up front.

Mancini lost Samir Nasri to injury but the flowing, threatening football City produced – invoking memories of their care-free approach last year – was a joy to behold.

They have almost returned to their position of 12 months ago.

A great side – man-for-man still probably the best the country boasts – but not one people believe in.

In the last few years, City have revelled in their status as upstarts – ‘noisy neighbours’ to the biggest football club in the world.

Their meteoric rise heaped pressure on United as the Reds cannot abide the thought of any club replacing them at the forefront of English football – let alone one from within their own city.

Last season, with only a month left people still thought they could not win the title.

Until United threw away a two-goal lead against Everton and lost to City at the Etihad, they had control and Mancini’s charges still nearly contrived to lose the league on the final day.

Since that infamous day in May – infamously brought to life by Martin Tyler’s strangled response to Aguero’s title-winning goal – the focus has switched to City.

Following up that success was always going to be harder than winning it in the first place.

United became the wounded animal, suddenly free of the pressure caused by holding off the surge from their rich neighbours.

Last week’s win at the Etihad, however, has changed the dynamic once again.

Now United are clear favourites, despite their evident inability to keep a clean sheet, with only one shut-out in their last 15 matches.

But, City can revert to the mind-set that proved so profitable last year – of being a chaser rather than the side being pursued.

Come February, they may also benefit from their European absence, with United facing the potential distraction of a second round Champions League clash with the likes of Real Madrid or Porto.

The only problem is, of course, that United are used to dealing with the pressure associated with being front-runners.

Admittedly, in April they led City by eight points with six matches left in the season.

We know what happened there.

If City now relax and continue to show the attacking verve they paraded at Newcastle, they will have a chance of hauling themselves back to the summit.

Then the distress of Van Persie’s cruel winning goal will be a thing of the past.

Picture courtesy of BBC, with thanks

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