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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Blue Moon rising at City

The version of "Blue Moon" being played beforehand was mournful and poignant. This was Manchester City looking back, not in anger, but in sadness, the acoustic guitar providing the music to suit the mood at Eastlands.

Fast forward two hours and many of the 46,746 present were providing a very different rendition of the club anthem, singer-songwriter angst giving way to mass, raucous shouting. City were rocking as, in a different way, were Manchester United. They have a dream in their heart once again, a dream of a first title in 44 years, of staging the sort of Lazarus-like recovery that their neighbours had supposedly copyrighted.

Maybe, just maybe, Shaun Maloney's winner for Wigan will assume a similar place to Paul Dickov's 1999 strike against Gillingham in City folklore; perhaps in squeaky-bum time, the squeakier backsides will be found at Old Trafford. Probably not, but a seemingly irretrievable eight-point deficit has been reduced to five. It will be whittled down to a mere two, if only for 24 hours, should City win at Norwich on Saturday.

There are times when United have thrived on City's failures. This was a role reversal. As they ended a three-game wait for a league win, the longest in Roberto Mancini's time in England, City turned a triumph into a trouncing. Three goals in ten minutes came after news of Maloney's strike broke, Mancini's men surging forward with renewed zest. They are suddenly believing again.

Or, at least, the fans are. The manager, on the other hand, drew more downbeat conclusions from the evening's drama. "Now I think it is too late," Mancini said. "United are a fantastic team and I don't think they can lose five points. I think they have a fantastic spirit and we don't have the same spirit." It seemed a latest psychological ploy, an attempt to take the pressure off his players. News of United's setback took him by surprise, and not because Sir Alex Ferguson had boasted a 100% record against Wigan. "I thought they played tomorrow," he claimed, not entirely convincingly.

Perhaps he has been afflicted by absent-mindedness. The control freak certainly cut a relaxed figure, showing his sympathetic side to some of his errant charges. Mario Balotelli, who dined in an executive box, will be welcomed back into the fold when his suspension ends. Mancini, who had suggested the striker's season was over after his red card at Arsenal, said that was based on the assumption of a longer ban, rather than a willingness to exile the serial miscreant. "I thought six or seven games," he said. "He will be ready for Manchester United [on April 30]."

Without Balotelli, it was a restorative, rehabilitative occasion. While City's first two goals came from the predictable, prolific Sergio Aguero, the other scorers enjoyed welcome returns of different sorts. David Silva was back on the scoresheet for the first time in the Premier League in 2012, Carlos Tevez back among the starters on the teamsheet for the first time since September and granted a warm ovation when substituted. "Carlos did a mistake, like Mario, but I think that when one guy apologises, everything is finished," said a forgiving Mancini.

Tevez chugged around, putting the theory that the extra inches around the midriff can be sweated off to the test while being mocked by the West Bromwich Albion supporters, who chorused: "Carlos Tevez, he eats when he wants." A hunger for goals was sated with a first in 11 months, finished after Aguero's cutback from the byline. Tevez had almost provided one, too, with Micah Richards being denied by a goal-line block from Craig Dawson after the Argentine's incisive pass.

He played his part in a front four of short, sharp players, along with Aguero, Silva and the excellent Nasri, their football proving fast and fluent. Aguero was quick off the mark, accepting Nasri's pass, advancing and whipping in a low shot from 25 yards. He doubled the lead, angling a shot into the far corner after Silva and Nasri combined. Then, after Tevez struck, Silva chipped Ben Foster with masterly precision after Aguero had robbed Jonas Olsson to supply him.

It completed West Brom's heaviest defeat under Roy Hodgson, prompting the question if City were excellent, Albion abject or both. "That is a major blow to my pride and the team's pride," he said. "We didn't have the wherewithal to hurt Manchester City and they did plenty to hurt us."

Mancini, meanwhile, was reflecting on the damage done in recent games. "We lost two points against Sunderland, two points against Stoke, three against Arsenal," he lamented. In gaining three against West Bromwich Albion, however, they revived a title challenge that appeared over.

The manager argued otherwise, but as the buoyant fans bounced along to the Poznan, a dance used more by opponents to mock City of late, their optimism was instilled by Maloney's deeds, not Mancini's words. Once again, they have hope but hope, as any City diehard knows, can be the most dangerous thing.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Sergio Aguero – Scored two and made two in a superb display. The Argentine now has 26 goals for the season and, whether or not City win the title, if he can get 30, it will cap a superb debut campaign.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: So disappointing at Arsenal, Nasri was terrific and involved in virtually everything. The whole team played with a freedom, perhaps because they felt the pressure was off. Silva's goal may have been the most encouraging individual aspect, but Tevez, though not ready to figure for 90 minutes, deserves to keep his place against Norwich.

WEST BROM VERDICT: They are short of numbers and Hodgson held unused substitutes Peter Odemwingie and Gareth McAuley back for Saturday's more winnable game against QPR. Chris Brunt and Liam Ridgewell, both injured, may be fit for that, too. In their absence, Albion embarked on a damage-limitation exercise that did not really succeed.


• Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter: @RichJolly

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