Hughes set to push Mancini over the edge
MANCHESTER CITY 0
BIRMINGHAM CITY 0
AFTER a goalless Manchester derby in which he was accused of lacking ambition, comes another stalemate in which he substitutes the only player he would back to score a goal.
It was not a good week for Roberto Mancini. Indeed, it might turn out to be a nasty month for him; and a testing one for City's owners.
It was around this time last year that Sheikh Mansour and advisers made up their minds Mark Hughes was not the man to meet their targets. He departed 17 games into the season. After 13 games, Mancini's team has the same points as Hughes at the same stage, but nine fewer goals.
If the City hierarchy are not aware of this comparison now, they will be by next Sunday when City go to Fulham, where Hughes is moulding a team with familiar qualities, one that draws too often but doesn't easily lose.
Fulham are one of two banana skins lying in the Italian's path as he waits to see whether the Sheikh was rattled by the booing that greeted Saturday's tepid performance.
After Fulham, City travel to Stoke, full of vigour again after beating Liverpool and eager to claim another big scalp.
Stoke will play two wingers, two strikers and two in central midfield. But if they unhinge City it will not be because of the system but because manager Tony Pulis has found the players to make it work, particularly Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant in the wide positions.
Mancini, on the other hand, has a system but not the players, despite the mind-boggling sums spent. Carlos Tevez works incessantly and looks perpetually likely to score -- but there is little inspiration from anywhere else. James Milner's qualities are more industrious than creative, Adam Johnson promises much but as yet delivers inconsistently and David Silva's role as free spirit seems to involve long spells of invisibility. In Nigel de Jong, Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Patrick Vieira, meanwhile, there is a log jam of holding players.
No wonder the Eastlands crowd were dismayed when, with 10 minutes or so left to beat opponents in 17th place in the division and whose star performers were all defenders, Mancini took Tevez off and sent on Barry.
Chants of "What the f*** is going on?" reverberated around the ground before the final whistle was greeted with loud boos. If Tevez was carrying an injury, as was suggested later, he had not shown much evidence. And in making reference, as he did later, to his complaint that "if Tevez does not score, no one does," Mancini only made the substitution more baffling.
It was Birmingham manager Alex McLeish who put his finger on City's failings: "Everyone plays five in midfield these days, but it depends on your personnel. Chelsea have found a solution to playing with one up in the way that they get the others forward, the way they bomb the full-backs on. You couldn't say they were doing it for defensive reasons."
But City do not have an Ashley Cole or a Jose Bosingwa. More to the point, they have no real spark of creative brilliance in midfield.
If Mancini gets longer than Hughes -- and with Guus Hiddink claiming to have been sounded out, that seems by no means certain -- you wonder if the next deluge of Mansour millions at his disposal should be spent not on a Fernando Torres but on a Wesley Schneider or a Rafael van der Vaart.
Five points from as many league matches is not a healthy return and that City have scored only three goals in that time -- and not found the net at home in the top flight for six weeks -- provides further evidence for the case against the manager.
Yet, City are fourth and, if the season finished now, Mancini would have achieved the target stipulated. But the kind of mediocrity served up against Birmingham will not be tolerated indefinitely. (© Independent News Service)