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Mancini upbeat despite derby loss
Even though Roberto Mancini had defined Sunday's derby at the Etihad as a game "we can't lose," the Manchester City manager still insists that all was not lost following a 3-2 defeat to Manchester United in stoppage time that leaves the defending Premier League champions trailing their neighbors by six points.
His belief is no doubt founded in the still fresh memories of last season and its climax. "We won the league with the last touch of the ball. This can happen," Mancini reminded everyone.
City, as their long-suffering fans will never forget, recovered a much bigger lead in a much smaller time-frame to win their first league title in 44 years, closing an eight-point gap with only six games to play between April and May. So don't be surprised if City aren't panicking at finding themselves six points behind United in December. Because Premier League history tells us it can mean little at this stage.
United supporters know this only too well. In late January of 1996, their team had been given up for dead, as Newcastle pulled 12 points clear, but they still came back and won the league. By four points too.
Impossible is nothing in the Premier League.
"We can win the double," Mancini reiterated. "We have to work hard and not make mistakes. We have the spirit to recover six points but we must now win four or five games in a row."
That spirit was evident in an interview captain Vincent Kompany gave to City's match-day program before the derby. "Whatever happens in this game," he said, "the lesson we've learned from last season is we shouldn't let our guard down if we win and we shouldn't give up if we lose. Either way, it won't change the way we approach the rest of the season - or rather it shouldn't."
One reason why it perhaps shouldn't is because this is City's only league defeat of the season so far and their first at home for 37 games, a run stretching back almost two years when they were beaten 2-1 by Everton on December 20, 2010.
"We can't win always," Mancini said. "There is a moment when you lose at home and it happened today. But the season is a long one." In his opinion, City "didn't deserve to lose" either. "We played very well," he thought. "For 20 minutes, they didn't touch the ball and the first chance they scored a goal."
While there is an element of truth to that analysis, as City dominated possession and territory in the early stages, they did so because United were set up to play on the counter-attack and waited patiently for an opportunity to present itself, taking all of their chances.
Make no mistake about it, City do have issues. They are eight points worse off than at this stage last season and have scored 20 fewer goals. Yaya and Kolo Toure are headed to the African Cup of Nations in January; Javi Garcia has yet to prove an adequate replacement for Nigel de Jong; David Silva and Samir Nasri don't seem able to play together; and while Mario Balotelli continues "to throw [his talent] out of the window," Robin van Persie, the one that got away, set up Rooney, hit the woodwork and scored a victory clinching free-kick in the 92nd minute of Sunday's derby to leave Mancini asking what might have been had he been wearing blue, not red.
Expectations haven't been met. Whereas many felt City would push on after winning the title, the sense is that they have either seen their progress stall or maybe even taken a step back.
If not in the Premier League, that has certainly been the case in Europe, as City were knocked out at the group stage of the Champions League for the second straight season and embarrassingly for a club that has invested so heavily, finished bottom of their group with the lowest points total ever recorded by an English club in the competition's modern format - not even enough to make the cut for the Europa League.
Borussia Dortmund, a team that returned to the Champions League last season and went out at the same stage as City back then, have shown this season how far they have come on, learning the lessons of a year ago so well in fact - and on a considerably tighter budget - that they even won the group ahead of Real Madrid is perhaps the gravest indictment of Mancini's management: the biggest blemish on his time at the Etihad.
It was his blind spot at Inter and, for now, remains so at City. Some have asked whether Mancini has taken this team as far as he personally can. Others believe that, if he were in charge of Chelsea, he would have received his walking paper by now regardless of his team's prospects of hauling back United in the Premier League.
To their credit, City's owners have been patient and rational. The supporters have remained on their side too even though Mancini got involved in an angry exchange with a few of them in the draw with Everton. For the most part, they are just happy to see the club covering itself in any kind of glory again and still believe much of it is down to him.
How long he retains the favor of the board and that of the Blues' faithful, certainly when Pep Guardiola - whom the club are well-positioned to appoint - and Jose Mourinho are open to offers, promises to be one of the defining narratives of this season.
James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.
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