Wigan, United Kingdom – Roberto Mancini predicts tough times ahead – but the Manchester City manager also sees a silver lining in his team's impending exit from the Champions League.
For the second successive season, City will miss out on the knockout stages of Europe's elite competition following their failure to beat Real Madrid at Eastlands.
Mancini's deputy, David Platt, is one casualty of that drawn encounter, banned from the touchline by European governing body Uefa for two matches for remarks made to the fourth official.
City's European hopes look likely to take a complete tumble, with even victory at Borussia Dortmund next week no guarantee of overtaking Ajax for the consolation prize of the Europa League.
But with English champions City hard on the heels of Premier League leaders Manchester United after a hard-won 2-0 victory at Wigan, Mancini knows that, just as last season, absence from the Champions League can be a blessing.
“I think this season is long,” Mancini said after Wednesday's win at the DW Stadium. “There are a lot of games in the next month and in February, if teams are playing in the Champions League, it can change everything.”
While some might believe the title contest to be turning into a two-horse race centred on Manchester, given the recent upheaval at Stamford Bridge, Mancini will have none of it.
The Italian added: “I think Chelsea can compete. We are at the top at the moment, we are OK.”
Mancini also expects to have Mario Balotelli at his disposal for the long haul, despite rumours linking the controversial striker with a January move back to Milan with either Inter, his former club, or AC Milan, the team he supports.
He waved away suggestions of a deal and instead chose to celebrate Balotelli finally scoring his first Premier League goal of the season at Wigan, a crucial strike in a game that see-sawed much more than the champions would have wished against a team only a few points clear of the relegation zone.
“We have on the team three or four offensive players and one striker who scored,” Mancini said. “I'm very happy for him because he scored. He is not for sale. It’s his first goal this year and I hope he can improve after that game.
“We have four top strikers and some difficulty in scoring goals like last year, but I'm hoping we can move on from this.”
Balotelli will need to up his game – his first league goal of the campaign, after Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi spilled a shot from Gareth Barry, was also his first league goal in a year – as City face a testing run of fixtures.
The trio of games next on the Eastlands agenda will, in one shape or another, help to define their season.
Saturday's visit of Everton pits them against their bogey team, who so often leave Eastlands with points and were one of only five league sides to beat Mancini's team last season.
The midweek brings that trip to Dortmund in the Champions League.
But neither of those games will match the third in supporters' eyes, with the home derby against Manchester United now about gaining the upper hand in the title race as much as winning local pride.
Wigan manager Roberto Martinez, meanwhile, must wait a while longer both for a goal against Mancini's side or a victory over the Blues since Mancini took power in September 2008.
Martinez could only groan as Arouna Kone missed the game's best chance before Balotelli and James Milner tied up the points for a City side still to reach the heights of last season. – Sapa-AFP