independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Threat to Mancini eases as scrutiny increases

Manchester City's owners have backed their manager but the storms have to abate

After a week of European disappointment, Manchester City face today's home challenge against Tottenham insisting that there is no crisis and the renewed storm over Roberto Mancini's managerial tenure is just another squall.

Speculation that the Italian's days are numbered at Eastlands has been fuelled by City's appointments of chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain, architects of the renaissance at Barcelona, whose former coach, Pep Guardiola, is still resting and so tantalisingly available.

City and Mancini's assistant David Platt -- who faced the pre-match press conference that Mancini swerved on Friday -- says this is to draw a mistaken conclusion from the arrival of the Barca alumni.

To answer the questions thrown up by near-certain Champions League elimination after Tuesday's 2-2 draw with Ajax and Mancini's tantrum at the referee, Platt pointed to Premier League facts. City go into today's tie unbeaten in 10 matches, despite falling short of purring form. City are champions and Mancini, having achieved that feat after doubts over his future last season, was entrusted with a five-year contract in the summer.

The executives working for City's owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, who has committed around £1bn to refining City into a top European club, would not have entered into such a meaty commitment if they were incubating a step-by-step plan to lure Guardiola.

Mancini was awarded his long-term deal even as City were finalising the appointment of Soriano, for whom they waited a year.

Begiristain, director of football at Barcelona from 2003 to 2010, was appointed last week, City explained, because the role Brian Marwood was fulfilling -- overseeing all football activities, from youth teams to signing international stars -- had become a job for two people. City say this as evidence of long-term planning, with Marwood becoming managing director of the £140m academy, which is to be up and recruiting by 2014.

The club has emphasised this is not a demotion for Marwood, not moving him aside after Mancini's frustration at not signing the A-listers he coveted this summer, but ultimately a selection of squad stalwarts. City have always said Mancini selects his wishlist and the club reaches a collective decision, led by the chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, and Mansour, about signings -- then Marwood was authorised to spend the money. Marwood was titled chief football administration officer to avoid the director of football title always suspected as a threat by English managers.

Begiristain has that job description, which is accepted in European football, but City say he will fulfil the same role as Marwood did. The club have stressed their appreciation of Marwood and said he chose to head the academy and leave the signings, negotiations with players, agents and Mancini to the new appointment.

In Begiristain, City have an operator who was central at Barcelona, one of the greatest flowerings of European football, and Soriano's presence and connection were important to recruiting him. City said Begiristain will be responsible for "supporting" Mancini in "first-team recruitment and operations", and they maintain that is the intention.

Platt, asked about Begiristain, sighed at the inference that the new director of football is a Guardiola stalking horse. "You have to respect [Begiristain] for what he's done," Platt said. Mancini will work with Soriano and Begiristain "committed to making Manchester City a bigger and better football club", and, he asserted: "I don't see a negative."

To understand this Mancini wobble it helps to recall the Abu Dhabi regime's loyalty last season, backing Mancini in the battle with Carlos Tevez, which blew out of Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich, and supporting the manager after the April defeat at Arsenal when the Premier League title looked surrendered. They also cut Mancini some slack, accepting City were drawn in a deathly difficult Champions League group and that a dip in form is common after winning a championship. Had City been awarded a penalty for the foul on Mario Balotelli in the last minute of the match against Ajax and converted it, the football world would be discussing a resilient comeback, not just slack defending at set-pieces, or a Mancini post-match meltdown at the referee.

Even his negotiations with Monaco while managing City last season is accepted as what grown-ups do, assessing their options, negotiating for their value in an insecure industry, rather than resented as treachery.

All true, and Mancini, as before, is under no immediate threat. But he is under greater scrutiny. In the Abu Dhabi planning, City were intended to qualify from the Champions League group stage this season. Failing to do so will be a disappointment. Mancini's anger was understood as the passion of an Italian football man wedded to winning, but no club wants to be buffeted by constant squalls. In the period City were backing Mark Hughes, the manager Mansour inherited, Mubarak explained: "We wanted Mark to succeed."

That is where they are with Mancini. They are not engineering a change, whatever it looks like. The time came, though, when they lost confidence in Hughes, and they did replace him. Now, they want Mancini to succeed and to be there for the long term. It is up to Mancini to cope and do his job well, wresting fine performances from players and winning matches such as the one against Spurs today. Then the storms will abate and the brilliant figure of Guardiola, tempting top European clubs on sabbatical, will recede as the obvious alternative.

Observer

Manchester City v Tottenham,

Sky Sports 1, 1.30

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