Mancini must find Manchester City's missing spark
Roberto Mancini - as he waved Yaya Toure off to the Africa Cup of Nations - declared he was confident that Manchester City would win the Premier League if they were still top at the end of January.
Mancini's mission has been duly accomplished even without the influential Ivorian as the title race moves into February, but only just and with confidence jolted by the 1-0 defeat against Everton on a raucous night at Goodison Park.
City's season of such promise is hardly crumbling as one glance at the table will confirm and their current league position would have been accepted gratefully had it been offered to the Italian in August.
There is no doubt, however, that City are suffering their first serious uncertainties in a month that has seen them exit the FA Cup and Carling Cup and have their lead at the top of the table over Manchester United reduced to goal difference.
And the defeat at Everton was laced with irony as the match was decided by a goal from former United midfield man Darron Gibson, a moment described by Sir Alex Ferguson as "all part of the plan."
The next part of Ferguson's plan will be to play further on any anxiety City might feel as the swagger and style of the early months is mislaid, they hope temporarily.
Manchester City's defeat meant champions Manchester United were able to capitalise by levelling the points at the top of the table. Photo: AP
And Mancini himself accepted a large portion of responsibility for City's latest setback as their expensively-assembled side failed to make a mark on Everton's fierce commitment and organisation.
He said: "It is my fault because I didn't prepare for this game very well. Maybe I thought before the game it would be easier - but here it is never easier."
Mysterious words from Mancini as the warning signs for City and their manager have been posted at Goodison Park before. Played three lost three is now his record at Everton.
Mancini can at least be comforted by the knowledge that Toure will return soon to provide the raw power and natural ability that would be missed by just about any side. There is little doubt both manager and players will welcome the return of his imposing presence.
City have demonstrated the ability to react to defeat before - now they must do it again starting against Fulham at the Etihad on Saturday. Any more performances like Tuesday's at Everton - plenty of possession but a lack of punch and threat - will have the pursuing pack sensing that this season's Premier League landscape might just be shifting.
Mancini will continue to feel football's fates have also turned on his team in recent weeks as a presentable penalty claim for handball against Phil Neville was ignored in the second half, but this was evidently not the City that threatened to run away with the league in the early weeks of this season.
The concerns about City's current condition were highlighted by their failure to overcome an Everton side missing key personnel such as Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin in defence, with right-back Tony Hibbert used as an emergency central defender.
It was a task he performed magnificently as Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero were reduced to frustration long before the conclusion of a fruitless evening.
United may be moving alongside City, but Spurs will also take renewed heart after their win over Wigan and Everton's victory leaves them only five points off the lead.
Mancini's task now will be to maintain City's belief as they seek to claim domestic football's biggest prize for the first time since 1967/68.
Toure, David Silva and Aguero have title-winning class and pedigree - but Mancini now needs to coax more out of striker Dzeko, who was once again a marginal figure amid the thunderous tackling at Everton and perform the difficult trick of getting Mario Balotelli to make headlines of the right sort.
And, amid all this, a seemingly ever-present local difficulty remains in the shape of Carlos Tevez as the Argentine is still at City despite a career that came to a dead stop in the Champions League defeat against Bayern Munich in September.
The notion of Tevez playing for City again is, to all intents and purposes, a non-starter but Mancini will still have to decide how to handle his presence until a move away can be finalised.
He will not want any outside influences impacting on City's priority of claiming the title, knowing Ferguson will be ready to apply psychological pressure to the "noisy neighbours" at any signs of weakness.
For now City are masters of their own destiny, not something that constitutes any form of crisis and a message Mancini will use to his advantage - but he will also know their prime position will be in peril should they suffer too many repeats of their display at Everton.