Mancini on mission to keep his City stars smiling
Fact: Manchester City are unbeaten in seven Premier and Europa League matches, winning six. Opinion: Manchester City suddenly appear to be a happy club.
These observations are connected. Winning hides a multitude of sins and a successful club is, by and large, a happy one, on the face of it at least.
Away from the starting XI, however, the smiles are often forced.
In his seminal book on the life of a pro, 'Only a Game', Eamon Dunphy describes being on the bench for Millwall in the 1970s when the Lions score. As the manager, Benny Fenton, leaps to his feet in celebration, Dunphy's heart sinks. Another week will pass before he gets back into the team. Dunphy feigns pleasure, but it is an act.
There will be players on the bench at Eastlands tomorrow afternoon who, should City score, will feel the same. Craig Bellamy and Stephen Ireland have been shipped out but it remains a combustible dressing-room.
It is hard, however, to rock the boat and demand a place in the team when it is winning. You simply have to pick up the cheque and wait.
And City are winning. They are second in the Premier League and heading for the knock-out stages of the Europa League.
That they have achieved this without playing consistently well is both a concern and an encouragement for Roberto Mancini.
It is a worry because their exalted position largely reflects the weakness of rivals -- Chelsea aside -- rather than City's strength, and Mancini cannot expect to continue to enjoy the luck his side had with refereeing decisions against Newcastle and Blackpool.
On the plus side, City are a work in progress. The manager, and bulk of the team, have been at the club less than two years and several of the starting line-up arrived in the summer. They should improve as they become more attuned to each other's game.
Tomorrow's match, against Arsenal, the team immediately below them, will be a good indication of City's credibility as title challengers.
They have beaten Chelsea and Liverpool (though that now seems less impressive than at the time), but have otherwise faced a relatively undemanding fixture list.
Arsenal possess a cohesion City are still searching for, which is unsurprising given the core of their team has been together for much longer.
"Arsenal have played together for many years," noted Mancini yesterday. "We've only played together this year.
"We need to improve more but the season is very long and every game we can improve. We need time but we have a good chance. My feeling is good. The squad is good.
"This will be a very difficult game. When Arsenal play well they are probably the best in the Premier League."
The same qualification, Mancini knows, applies to some of his own players, notably Emmanuel Adebayor (below), about whom he has a tricky decision to make.
The Togolese striker scored a hat-trick against Lech Poznan on Thursday, breaking his duck for the season, and will be eager to play against his former club.
Last season he infamously scored, then ran the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans, which cost him a £25,000 fine and suspended two-match ban. He also picked up a three-match suspension for stamping on Robin van Persie.
"If Ade wants to, he wins us the game," said goalkeeper Joe Hart. "It's as simple as that. It's all about getting his head right and his head was spot on against Poznan. He won us the game and pulled us through. When we needed goals, he got us goals. If he repeats that on Sunday, it would be great.
"I am sure he will play some part. Even if he doesn't start, I am sure he will come on When he played last time it was his best game of the season. Hopefully he can do well for us again."
Adebayor's treble came in the absence of the rested Carlos Tevez. Mancini said he could play the pair in tandem tomorrow, noting he had done so last weekend, but he studiously failed to add that Adebayor had been terrible at Bloomfield Road and City only functioned in attack when David Silva replaced him.
The odds are that Adebayor will be on the bench. Mancini tends to opt for a defensive formation against strong opposition and the expectation is he will field the same front three (Silva, Tevez, James Milner) as against Chelsea, backed by the usual trio of holding midfielders.
The risk is that Adebayor will be so revved up if he comes on he will get himself into trouble again.
"If he scores it's better to stay calm," said Mancini. Alternatively he could sink back into self-pity.
Team-mate Micah Richards revealed Adebayor had been depressed before his treble. "Emmanuel has been quite down for the last couple of weeks . I can understand his frustration. He is a quality player and when you don't get in the first XI it is frustrating."
As events across Manchester have underlined this week, it is extremely difficult to keep a group of young millionaire footballers happy.
City's other former Gunner, Patrick Vieira, compared Mancini to Arsene Wenger in his approach to the task.
"They like to talk to the players and manage the players rather than being far away," he said. "They are quite similar in that aspect. For the players, it's really good."
Vieira added that both men were "winners".
Only one can be tomorrow, but maybe neither will. With City's home advantage counterbalanced by the extra two days' rest the visitors have had, the happiest manager post-match could be Carlo Ancelotti. (© Independent News Service)
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