Even in a victory that swung the destiny of this season's Premier League title squarely into Manchester City's hands, Roberto Mancini held fast to the mantra. Who are favourites to win the title? "United."
Now, though, the reasoning was more tenuous. After completing away-and-home League defeats of Manchester United, after drawing Sir Alex Ferguson into a tellingly red-faced touchline confrontation, after establishing an eight-goal advantage over the champions, Mancini's argument was about the difficulty of their remaining fixtures.
"They have easy games," the City manager said.
"They play against Swansea and Sunderland. Not because these two teams aren't strong teams but at this moment I think for United it will be easy. Instead we have two strong games, Newcastle and QPR, one play for Champions League and one for relegation. I think it is important that we are on the top now, but it's more important to be on the top after 38 games."
The rest of Mancini's post-match analysis was hard to query. The critical factor in City winning by Vincent Kompany's first-half added-time header was "that we wanted to win; instead they wanted to take a draw".
His team's ability to turn around the eight-point deficit they nursed after losing to Arsenal three weeks previously was "because football is crazy" and a refusal of his players to lose belief.
Mancini could even smile to his audience as he described Ferguson's finger jabbing, expletive laden assault as United struggled to reassert themselves in the second half. "I was talking with the fourth official and he told me some kind words," said Mancini. "I don't why. I answered him and afterwards it was finished. But I can understand because in this moment the tension is high."
Ferguson's assertion was that Mancini had been "badgering the referee the whole game - the fourth official and the linesman". On this the United manager was not far wrong - Mancini was an almost constant presence in the technical area, his ire directed at officials more often than his players. Yet it was a fight you could not imagine the Scot picking if his team had not been so ineffective.
Too many United players were hesitant in possession, too many chose the easy option of a percentage clearance when there was time to bring the ball down and build play. On a night when few in a red shirt matched their own high standards, Wayne Rooney was particularly disappointing, successively losing control in areas where he is usually decisive.
According to one statistical analysis United did not draw a single save from Joe Hart; the first time in three years they had failed to test the goalkeeper in a League match.
While Ferguson's tactic of playing Park Ji-sung behind his leading scorer to tie down Yaya Toure worked well in the opening stages, once City had established a lead United were surprisingly impotent.
"We didn't test their keeper enough really, we started brightly and for the first 15 minutes we dominated, but the longer the half went on we were looking for half-time and the goal came at a bad time for us," said Ferguson. "If you lose a goal from a set-piece at this level, you only have yourself to blame for that.
"I can't complain about the result, they were more of a threat from counter-attacks. It was a damaging result, they are in the driving seat and we are up against it. They only need to win to two more games and they win the league, simple as that."
City have to travel to an in-form Newcastle United pursuing a Champions League place, then face Queens Park Rangers in a match that may determine both the destination of the title and who descends to the Championship. Yet they look a team that has rediscovered an early-season conviction at precisely the right moment.
Toure was the night's outstanding central midfielder, while Samir Nasri demonstrated why United would have taken him last summer had they not been financially outmuscled by City. Pablo Zabaleta was relentless on the right side of a defence that proved both impenetrable and destructive.
"I remember someone texting me today and saying 'You're going to score the goal' and I thought he was a lunatic," said Kompany. "We've been waiting for this moment. To give our fans two wins over Manchester United, now we need to finish it off.
"The chairman [Khaldoon Al Mubarak] came in today and he had a word with the players. He said 'No matter what result you had today we're proud of you guys, you've done incredibly great and we feel that we're building for the future'. We want it so bad, everyone in the team, we want it so bad."
Them and a City support ecstatically sensing that 44 years of waiting is about to be rewarded with the sweetest of successes. An hour after the whistle celebrity follower Liam Gallagher embraced Kompany as the pop star delivered a celebratory press conference.
"Vive le Belgium," declared Gallagher. "And I love Mancini. He's almost as cool as me."
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& Duncan Castles
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