Phil Jones’s face has become a thermometer to take the temperature of the title race. Last May down on the pitch at the Stadium of Light, as the news was broken to him that Manchester United had not, in fact, won the title and that Manchester City had snatched it at the very last, the young utility player wore an expression that passing Hollywood directors should have recorded to use as a template for any actor looking to play a character who has just seen a ghost. Rarely has anyone looked so manifestly crestfallen. He really did look as though his world had just ended.
Then, on Monday night towards the end of a pulsating Mancunian derby, after he had contrived to bundle in an equaliser off Vincent Kompany’s back, his face was lit up in a full beam smile of relief. For a moment it seemed as if his strike had finally extinguished City’s lingering mathematical chance of securing the title once more. His grin spoke of catharsis, of finally ridding himself of the trauma of last May. Rarely in sport have I seen a performer look so happy.
Ten minutes later, however, Sergio Aguero set off on one of his gravity defying runs through the heart of the United defence. Keeping upright in circumstances a trained acrobat would be falling to the ground, the Argentine stormed through to score a superb winning goal, leaving Jones floundering in his wash. With it, he not only kept City’s unlikely championship surge alive, he planted a seed of doubt back in United minds. A seed which was all too evident in Jones’s expression. Boy, did he look crestfallen. As if that ghost he had encountered in Sunderland last spring had just made a horribly inopportune reappearance in his mental cinema.
It was a telling moment. Since the first leg against Madrid in the Champions League, United have looked flat and uninspired. They have picked up points – against Reading and Sunderland – but they have not been the authoritative force they were in January and February. They have looked, in short, a bit like they did last April, when City expertly whittled away an eight point deficit at the top of the table.
This time round City’s task is much harder. If eight points in six matches in 2012 seemed an almost impossible task, what does twelve in seven (plus a massively inferior goal difference) look like? And yet Monday’s result might just have set the jitters off in the Old Trafford dressing room. If nothing else, it will have removed any lingering complacency.
The Reds simply cannot afford to let any points slip from now until the point when the title is unequivocally theirs. Stoke this weekend must feel the full force of United’s fightback. Any less than three points and the jitters will increase. And City’s momentum will grow.
Roberto Mancini, on the other hand, is now in an utterly carefree position. Or as carefree as any manager can be when in charge of the kind of expectation generated by a club of City’s resources. If he fails to reel in United, no-one will be remotely surprised. City’s title chances were effectively written off weeks ago with those defeats at Southampton and Everton.
And the eight draws they have marked up, compared to only two by United. So if he makes even a half decent job of closing United’s lead, never mind if he actually does so, it will be seen as a remarkable turnaround, a glorious renaissance. Plus he has the FA Cup. Unlike his counterpart at Chelsea, moreover, he will be heading into Sunday’s semi-final with several days rehabilitation in his players legs, rather than a lengthy round trip to Moscow. Things are looking bright for the Italian.
Indeed, if Jones’s face gives wider definition to the championship race, so does Mancini’s body language. I thought on Monday he looked significantly less exercised than I have seen him in the recent past. He seemed less jumpy, less fidgety, less inclined to rail against his own players from the technical area. He looked, in short, relaxed. Like a poker player with all the cards in his hand.
It may be gave a wholly misleading impression. After all, never mind a full set of aces, his rival Sir Alex Ferguson surely has the Premier League trophy in his hand. He has the luxury of being able to lose four of his remaining seven matches and still win the title. He must believe those 25 wins in the 30 games before Monday will see him over the line.
But at least Mancini will have given him pause for thought. A couple of weeks back, before the Madrid game, many United fans had marked the game with City in their diaries as the moment when revenge for last May could be publicly extracted. How delicious it would have been to win the title at their neighbour’s expense on derby day.
Now they are just hoping they can see any kind of lead through to the end of the season. Revenge can wait, victory – of any kind - is now all that matters.