Roberto Mancini apparently laughed when Alex Ferguson took a leaf out of his psychological management manual with that carefully measured barb about desperation late last week.
But it was surely the Manchester United manager who would have been sniggering to himself in his armchair on Saturday night, as the unmistakable signs of pressure were clear to see in the face of the usually urbane Italian.
The gloves are off as the title race approaches the business end and there was more than enough evidence that Ferguson’s opening round of mind games did have the desired effect.
Mancini fidgeted with barely concealed fury on the touchline for most of the match, shattered the manager’s code by refusing to shake hands with Tony Pulis, and then relinquished all media duties after the game.
There were more than enough telltale signs at the Britannia Stadium for Ferguson to believe he has scored a minor triumph in the chase for the Premier League.
Pilfering a point in the Potteries is no mean feat, admittedly, but only two victories from the last nine away games tells its own story for Mancini and will be high on the agenda of any post-mortem should the unthinkable happen and City finish second.
Yaya Toure’s equaliser salvaged a point and hoisted City back to the summit on goal difference and placed the pressure firmly back on United ahead of their clash with Fulham tonight. If City win all their remaining games they will deprive Ferguson of the title but Saturday’s performances both on and off the pitch suggested there will be plenty of twists and turns before the campaign is over.
A refusal to panic was very much the mantra after a fifth visit to Stoke without victory, but Gareth Barry only reinforced the belief that April 30 — when they meet United at the Etihad — will still be the pivotal moment of the season.
He said: “The important thing now is to keep the gap to no more than three points before we play Manchester United. That has to be our aim from now until then. It’s going to be tough, but we’re confident we can do it. If we manage to do that, then we fancy ourselves in that game.
“Have United got the advantage because of their experience? It’s a cliche which is always used so it has to have some basis to it. I’m sure it will help them. We try not to speak too much about them.
“The belief is still there. We have players who have won titles in the dressing room so there’s a lot of experience there.”
It could have been worse for the visitors here, too. Stoke were patently on a mission to exact revenge for last season’s FA Cup final defeat and this was a trademark performance from Pulis’s streetfighters.
This was a display of relentless energy and power, backed by a fervent home support, and a reminder of the bearpit that has claimed so many high-profile victims in the past.
Peter Crouch will surely walk the goal of the season award for his outrageous 25-yard volley just before the hour. The snipers who suggested it was either a fluke or that City goalkeeper Joe Hart was at fault really do need their heads examining.
Toure’s similarly spectacular strike, albeit with a substantial deflection off Ryan Shawcross, set up a dramatic finale but neither side could find a winner. Pulis, who has established a close bond with Ferguson since Stoke’s promotion, probably got a complimentary text from the United manager on Saturday night. Pulis is predicting the title race will go to the wire but fears Mancini will be considered a failure if he flops.
He said: “They have spent enormous amounts of money, and I mean enormous amounts of money for one reason — to win the title. They haven’t spent that money to finish second. You see what they’ve got on the bench and you think maybe they should be 20 points ahead of everybody else anyway with what they’ve got.
“I think there is a lot still in this and its the team that holds it’s nerve, the manager who holds his nerve and the club that holds it’s nerve.”
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