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The Manchester City right-back admires Manchester United for the way they will never accept defeat

The valet business that is based permanently in the car park of Manchester City's training ground is getting to work on all the different Ferraris and Porsches. At the front gate, there are men in smart blazers, with walkie-talkies and little earpieces. The lawns and conifers are trimmed immaculately. "Abu Dhabi Travellers Welcome", it says on the sky-blue facade.

Micah Richards takes his seat, pulls down his hood and shakes off the wet. Outside, in a clattering downpour, photographers have scaled stepladders and precarious looking branches to get a shot of the training pitches. Carlos Tevez has just left in a car the size of a tank. Richards will talk about the Argentinian later and, in doing so, he firms up the sense that if Tevez had not gone walkabout for most of the season, City might already have been confirmed as champions.

There is only one place to start, though. Richards is thinking about Manchester United's game at the Etihad Stadium, trying to put into words the enormity of the occasion. City versus United, blue versus red, under the floodlights with a title at stake. In the end, he just blows out his cheeks and smiles.

Three weeks ago, Richards and his colleagues sat in silence in the away dressing room at Arsenal. A five-point lead had turned into an eight-point deficit in little more than a month, Roberto Mancini was outside telling the world's press that Mario Balotelli would probably never play for the club again, and the team had walked off the pitch thinking they had blown it. "Everyone thought the same," Richards says. "It gets to eight points and you know it's rare that United will give you another chance."

He is "delighted" one has come along. Which translates as "surprised". One bookmaker paid out on United's 20th title win on 4 April. The first "Champ20ns" T-shirts had appeared on Internet sites around the same time.

"I don't think anyone thought Wigan would then go and beat them," Richards says. "And again, I don't think anyone could have seen Everton fighting back from 4-2 down at Old Trafford to draw. At 4-2, I was just thinking: 'Here we go again.' Five minutes later, two goals and you know, once again, you've got a chance."

City, he says, have "played the best football in the league". Richards grew up as an Arsenal supporter: "I just love watching them play but I think we've been even better." And United? "I wouldn't say they have been that good. Look at the Champions League, them not going through. You see them conceding four goals at home [against Everton] and six against us. If you give them a fight you can get results against them."

Do not misinterpret this as an attack on City's neighbours. On the contrary, one of the things that stands out with Richards is his grudging admiration about the way they have recovered from October's 6-1 mauling at Old Trafford. "Any other season we would have enough points to win the league," he says. "But they always find a way. When you play United you always know it's drilled into them: 'We have to win.' Even when I was playing against them in the under-14s they would always go right to the last minute. They just never wanted to lose.

"Just look at their game at Chelsea when they went 3-0 down. I was watching that and, seriously, if we go down 3-0 down, we're not coming back. I think only Man United could have done that. It shows what they're about. Once we get a little bit of that …"

It will not come overnight. "No, it could be years," Richards says. "United have that togetherness. Look at someone like Park [Ji-sung]. When he doesn't play, he doesn't moan, does he? At City we've got 20 to 25 internationals, we all want to play and, when you don't, you get upset and it's hard to deal with sometimes.

"You don't see players at United complaining to their manager when they are taken off. They have been doing it [rotation] for years and it's Sir Alex Ferguson's way or no way: 'If you don't like it, we'll get someone else.' It's different here. It's all new to us. If we are going to be a strong team, the players are going to have to accept we can't play every week."

Richards, at 23, is talking like a future captain of the club. There are things at City he believes can be improved. "Just look out there," he says at one point, gesturing towards the training pitches. "Anyone can come down to our training ground and take pictures." It wouldn't happen, he says, at United, and he is right. There was a tree the photographers used to climb outside United's training ground. The club had it cut down. Problem solved.

Richards has matured a lot these last couple of years. He is not afraid to say City can learn from their closest rivals, even though he knows it is not what some supporters want to hear. He rates Ferguson as the "best manager of all time" and he has no appetite, either, to prolong the debate about whether United are top because they have had a favourable deal when it comes to refereeing decisions, a line perpetuated through various levels of the club, from Mancini down, and eagerly grasped by supporters.

"It looks bad sometimes – like Ashley Young and the diving – and it seems to happen a lot but I'm not going to moan about it. I won't be looking back at decisions if we don't win the league. United deserve to be where they are, we deserve to be where we are. That's it. I'm not completely biased to City. I love the club and would do anything for the club but United are there because they deserve to be there. It's not because of decisions."

Would it have been different if Tevez had stuck around? "Maybe," he says, nodding. "It would definitely have helped. United always seem to find a way but we would certainly have had a better chance if he'd been here all season.

"It's not only that he scores goals. If you watch the game closely he presses the opposition players and he makes the people around him press them, too. If they're not doing their jobs, he will tell them. Before, Agüero might not want to tell Silva. Carlos, though, he's is a real leader on the field."

Increasingly, the same could be said of Richards. He has already worn the captain's armband at times this season and his improvement under Mancini has been so marked it remains perplexing how Fabio Capello almost steadfastly ignored him for the England team.

The right-back's respect for Mancini is clear. "There's a great deal of pressure that comes with Manchester City and I think he's dealt with it superbly." His face changes, though, when it comes to Capello. Richards spoke recently about the former England manager preferring to use Phil Jagielka in one game "even though he hadn't played right-back for about six years". Tom Cleverley, he noted, had "played half a good game at Wembley [in the Community Shield] and was in the next England squad". Now he uses another example. "Phil Jones. At Blackburn, he didn't have a sniff. Goes to United and then he's in. These are my mates. I really like Phil and he'll probably be England captain in five or six years. But it [Capello's snubs] did get to me. I guess there's no point moaning about it because not everyone is going to like me."

He discovered as much on Twitter, closing down his account because of the abuse (some of it racist) that was sent his direction. "It's such an easy way for people to attack you. You might have an important game, you want to be focused totally on it and then you read your tweets the night before and it's someone giving you shit. It would get to me. I had to stop looking at my messages and, if we lost, I wouldn't go on for a week. It's not right but the world's not right."

Here, though, Richards is strikingly relaxed – a legacy, perhaps, of the mood that day at Arsenal, and the sense that the pressure is now on United. "We deserve this chance. We've been in the top two all season. We've played some outstanding football this season. We knew that unless United had some bad results it was all over. But we kept fighting. We could have rolled over but we kept fighting."

Micah Richards was speaking on behalf of Barclays Ticket Office, which gives fans the chance to win tickets to Premier League matches at the bank's ATMs, or by visiting www.barclaysticketoffice.com Read More

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