Anyone still believe this imploding Manchester City side can win a first Premier League title? Not Roberto Mancini if his pre-match warning that an eight-point deficit would be insurmountable is to be believed. Not after they comprehensively lost a match their manager pronounced would "be like a final".
Some two-and-a-half hours after Manchester United won their eighth consecutive league fixture, City conceded an 87th-minute winner to Arsenal. It was the fourth time in five matches, Mancini's tiring, discontented team had dropped points. It extended an appalling sequence of away fixtures in which they have scored just five goals in 10 outings.
For Arsenal, who struck the woodwork three times and domineered the concluding half-hour, the three points recovered third place. For the home support, there was clever taunting of Carlos Tevez ("He plays when he wants"), constant barracking of the deserter Samir Nasri, and a cheeky appropriation of City's celebratory Poznan dance.
If the inquisitional nature of modern-day news conferences can sometimes lull managers into bouts of special pleading, Mancini has begun to sound like an chronic excuse maker. There has been the questionable assertion that United's squad is superior to his own, coupled with a familiar assertion that the addition of "three or four players with strong mentality" to City's will finally deliver serious silverware.
Mancini has justifiably moaned that Sergio Aguero missed two key matches with a "stupid injury", skin burns caused by City's physio applying a painkilling spray too close to the striker's foot. He has reprimanded his club for allowing photographers an unimpeded view of training ground conflicts, and publicly critiqued the behaviour of the cameramen's principle target - an individual he entreated City to invest €22 million (Dh105.8m) in.
Mario Balotelli's deployment was the most controversial in a City team with six changes. Attempting to surprise Arsenal, Mancini stationed Nasri behind the returning Aguero, asking a forward the Italian admits he cannot trust to play left wing. There he was berated by a teammate for predictable negligent defending before engaging in a tackle that should have brought a straight red.
Balotelli's studs went high and hard into Alex Song's right knee. As neither Martin Atkinson nor his linesman appeared to see the severity of the challenge there was no immediate punishment, yet retrospective discipline from the English Football Association threatens to bring a five-match suspension.
By full-time Balotelli had gone anyway, collecting his second yellow for a petulant foul on Bacary Sagna in the aftermath of Mikel Arteta's goal. It brings his tally to four dismissals and 22 cautions in his intermittently brilliant 59 games for the club.
"I defend him always because Mario is a good guy," said Mancini. "But if he does not change in the future I think he can lose all his talent. In one, two or three years it's finished. If he does not understand this after two years [at City] I can do nothing. I hope for him he can improve, that he can understand that he can't continue playing like this."
Arsenal now have a two-point advantage on Tottenham Hotspur for the guaranteed route into the Champions League that third-place represents. That a team City regularly divests of its best talent is finishing the season mentally and physically far ahead of them only underlines Mancini's failings.
"Never say never in football," was Mancini's revised assessment of the title race. High in the stands City's chairman sported the face of a man contemplating revisions of his own.
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