LONDON: Roberto Mancini has been in a bad mood for the past few weeks. The Manchester City manager has been snapping angrily at journalists and has delegated more and more of his press conferences to his assistant, former England midfielder David Platt.

Then, something changed. International week lifted the pressure in the City dressing room. Most of the players went away to play for their countries went away from Mancini.

Club managers usually dislike the break but it was good for the 47-year-old Italian, particularly with Real Madrid around the corner.

Last Friday journalists awaiting Mancini at his usual pre-match press conference burst out laughing when he walked in to the room wearing a David Platt face mask. Mancini, relaxed once more, enjoyed the joke . . . just as his team enjoyed themselves on Saturday against struggling Aston Villa.

City needed a mistaken penalty award, for handball against Andreas Weimann, to provide their second goal, for Sergio Aguero. Villa manager Paul Lambert was angry but could not dispute that City were by far the better side and deserved to win.

Mancini said: “We have been missing goals from our strikers so this was very important for us: a clean sheet and four goals from our strikers.”

This was an important win for various reasons, including the fact that all the other clubs in the top four lost. Leaders Manchester United lost at Norwich, third-placed Chelsea lost at fast-rising West Bromwich and fourth-placed Everton lost at Reading.

Thus those five goals – from David Silva, Aguero (two) and Carlos Tevez (also two) – fired City top of the table, one point above United and four clear of Chelsea. These, realistically, are the only three clubs which can claim, even this early in the season, to be the serious Premier League title contenders.

Putting their domestic title campaign so firmly back on track has offered City the glimmer of a hope that they can extend that improvement into the Champions League. On Wednesday they host Madrid. Mancini says he has written off City’s hopes of progress. But then, Mancini wrote off City’s hopes, last season, of winning the Premier League title.

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