Jim White

This is just the start for City

Jim White

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You don't have to see life through Niall Quinn's sky-blue-tinted disco specs to appreciate this truth about last night's Premier League showdown: the better team won. And, as a result, the best team in the country is heading for the title.

Forget Roberto Mancini's comical insistence that Manchester United are still the favourites. After the performance the men in red gave at the Etihad stadium, the idea they are favourites for anything beyond a dash to the knackers' yard is fanciful. It is not hard, watching the conviction and confidence stream through the veins of the City players in the immediate aftermath of victory last night to envisage them winning both their remaining fixtures. Whatever Mancini might suggest, Queen's Park Rangers at home is not a significant barrier to his club's success.

For City supporters winning the title will be all the better because of who will finish up second. For those who have laboured for decades in the long shadow of the neighbours, red discomfort will make ultimate triumph taste so much sweeter. Nothing could be more delicious for those who have followed the team since the third tier days away at Wrexham (judging by the fans on phone-ins and forums insisting they stuck with City through the dark days, roughly 300,000 attended that match).

But for Mancini and the hierarchy at the club, none of whom have toiled in United's wash, none of whom share their customers' United complex, the identity of the vanquished will be of little account beyond the signal it gives of their intent. If they concern themselves with United at all it is only because they wish to better Old Trafford's achievements. And last night was but the start of their ambition.

For Mancini in particular it was a significant moment. What he proved in victory was that he has forged a proper team at City. This was not a collection of primadonnas hanging about for their next pay cheque of popular disparagement. It was a rigorous, thorough, well-drilled bunch ravenous for honours. Sure, Kompany, Zabaleta and Barry — the three best players in blue — were all brought to the club by his predecessor Mark Hughes. But it is Mancini who has forged them into a team which he has carried through the season.

His real skill has been to navigate them out of a late dip back to form and coherence. If last night it had been the City who turned out at Everton last month, full of whingeing and foot-dragging, then they would have been carpeted. Instead they bristled with competitiveness and determination. And that comes from Mancini: nothing will have given his players a lift like the sight of their manager demonstrating quite how much it meant to him by squaring up on the touchline to the old warhorse from down the road.

And Sir Alex will have understood what last night meant. City may not be quite there yet as a team. They lack pace on the wings, they could do with someone to share the creative burden with the clearly knackered David Silva. But with the resources at their disposal, Ferguson knows he could soon be reaching for his racing binoculars to catch sight of them as they disappear over the horizon. To improve an already deep squad, Mancini will now be able to attract who he wants — from Eden Hazard to Robin van Persie. Plus a few he doesn't really need but will take on anyway simply to follow the old managerial adage of strengthening yourself while weakening your rivals. This, for City, is but the start.

With United, last night felt like the other end of the cycle. Four years ago, Ferguson's men won the European Cup in Moscow with a team at its absolute apex. Since then, five of the better players have — for various reasons — moved on. Their replacements are simply not as good: Nani is no Ronaldo, Park no Hargreaves, Welbeck no Tevez, De Gea no Van der Sar (the latter pair may get there, but not yet). On last night's showing, Phil Jones is not even a Wes Brown.

And the remaining six are all four years older, four years slower, four years closer to the end. In short, the team has been on a steady, inexorable decline, which reached its statistical nadir with not a single shot on target recorded during their most crucial game of the season. Long term United watchers could not have been surprised by what happened last night: the potential for embarrassment had been there in performances against Basel, Athletic Bilbao (twice), Newcastle and Crystal Palace. Not to mention a certain home derby. Frankly, it has been there for the last two or three years.

That they were even in touching distance at the end of April was due to their rivals' nervy reluctance to exploit mid-season superiority. And the reds utter failure to take advantage of an inviting eight point gap was their undoing. Whatever Sky's insistence that this was in essence a title play-off, United arrived at the Etihad having already undermined their chances by losing at Wigan and throwing away two points against Everton. This defeat was merely confirmation they are not good enough.

Even if City stumble like Liam Gallagher tumbling off the blue moon bandwagon, even if United are somehow gifted a title few beyond the most red-livered would claim they deserve, a fundamental re-fit will still be required. City, meanwhile, need only a couple of additions to storm away with everything. That is the difference between the two clubs this morning: City face a bright new dawn, while United look forward only with a gulp of trepidation.

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Jim White -  @jimw1

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