sport

Mancini: We'll cut title gap

Roberto Mancini has put aside his obvious sorrow at losing Mario Balotelli to prepare Manchester City for a pivotal month in the title race.

The champions enter February trailing rivals Manchester United by seven points at the top of the Premier League but Mancini believes the deficit can be wiped out in the coming weeks.

City have had a difficult week after being held to a goalless draw at QPR and accepting that after two-and-a-half years of trying to coax the best out of Balotelli, selling the fiery striker was in everyone's interests.

But now Mancini only wants to look forward and haul his side back into contention for more title success.

The Italian, whose side host Liverpool on Sunday, said of the United's lead: "This doesn't change (anything).

"I think when we arrive at the end of February, the gap will be very, very small.

"In every championship, never one team won a title in January. We should fight until April.

"If they have seven, eight, nine points (lead) in April, it could be difficult, maybe. But in this moment we have a big chance."

Mancini, speaking at a press conference, also devoted considerable time to a discussion about Balotelli, who joined AC Milan in a reported 19million deal earlier this week.

The City boss claimed the club were not happy to see the fiery and unpredictable striker, in whom they had invested so much faith, move on and that the decision to sell was not easy.

There was a feeling among some observers that Balotelli's extraordinary headline-grabbing capacity was a distraction that far outweighed his value on the field.

But Mancini, who was both the 22-year-old's fiercest critic and staunchest ally, felt the parting of the ways was a reluctant one.

He said: "We are not happy because I think he did well.

"Maybe not in the last three or four months because he had a big problem with injuries, but he did well because he helped the team win the Premier League and the FA Cup.

"We are sad for this but this is football.

"It was difficult, it was only my decision.

"I am here, (for) the club and Mario. Also for Mario to go back to Italy to play for Milan was important.

"I believe in him and I believe to go back to Italy after two years in England is important."

Balotelli's future had been the subject of speculation throughout the January transfer window but City, and particularly Mancini, consistently denied there was any prospect of a sale.

Mancini even said he would give the player "another 100 chances" after a training-ground bust-up early last month but his denials did little to quell rumours linking him with boyhood club Milan.

Mancini said: "Until one week ago it was impossible, because we never received any offers.

"Instead in the last three days Milan started to talk with the club and did an offer.

"We thought it was good for everyone, probably, for Mario to have the chance to go back to Italy and play in a top club like Milan.

"We hope it will be important for him and for the club that we can get back some money."

City paid Inter Milan 24million for Balotelli but never saw the best of the player on a regular basis.

Despite that, Mancini's faith in his talent has not wavered.

He said: "He has everything, always. He has quality. It is important he can understand this."

City now have just three senior frontline strikers in Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko. Other options include reserve team youngsters Marcos Lopes and John Guidetti.

Yet given Balotelli's recent form - he had been a peripheral figure this season, scoring only three goals - Mancini does not feel he is short of options.

Mancini, who also revealed he made no attempt to strengthen his front line before the transfer deadline, said: "Now we have three strikers.

"We have only Premier League and FA Cup, I think that could be enough."

One top-line striker City will have to combat this weekend is Luis Suarez, who has scored 22 goals for Liverpool this term and was linked with 40million switch to the champions earlier in the season.

Mancini said: "Suarez for me is a top player. I like him because he is strong, he works. For me he is one of the best in England."

City are again without captain and defender Vincent Kompany due to a calf strain.