Saturday 17 February 2018

Mancini's familiar Euro failings help Ajax bridge financial gulf

Mark Ogden

Roberto Mancini often ties himself in knots with his many superstitions, so the Italian probably regarded it as some kind of bad omen when his flying visit to Amsterdam's Jimmy Choo store on the morning prior to Manchester City's clash with Ajax saw him leave empty-handed.

Mancini, wearing his 'lucky' blue-and-white City scarf, certainly did not look happy with himself as he returned to his chauffeur-driven Mercedes on Amsterdam's exclusive PC Hoofstraat with nothing to show for his shopping trip.

Still, having spent the summer complaining at not getting what he wanted in the transfer market, despite the peerless wealth of the Premier League champions, Mancini is beginning to become accustomed to the reality that money does not always guarantee everything that you want.

Against Ajax, Mancini's expensively assembled team discovered again that the Champions League is more about tactical nous and ingenuity than the reputation of those on the pitch. Teams and managers must think harder in this competition.

It is a lesson that Mancini ought to have learned during his four-year spell as Inter Milan manager, however, when, despite three Scudetti, he failed to take one of Europe's wealthiest powerhouses beyond the quarter-final stage of the Champions League.

City have offered Mancini his shot at Champions League redemption, but despite earning a five-year contract this summer as a reward for guiding the club to their first league title in 42 years last season, he still appears to be no nearer to finding the magic formula to succeed among Europe's elite.

City have now played five Champions League away games under Mancini and lost four of them -- one against a Villarreal team which ended up being relegated from La Liga months later.

In fairness to City, two of their away defeats have come against Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, hardly the easiest destinations in Europe, but while Mancini's team were brighter against Ajax, they still allowed the weakest team in Group D to enjoy far too much possession.

As a result of City's flimsy defending, Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen twice went close to scoring for the Dutch champions before Siem de Jong cancelled out Samir Nasri's opener with a crisp finish on the stroke of half-time.

For a manager who laid such resolute defensive foundations at City last season, the inability of his team to translate that rigidity to the Champions League, this season and last, must be a concern.

Yet there were no tactical alterations for this game. The personnel changed -- again -- but the system was the same 4-2-3-1 set-up that Mancini has favoured for more than 12 months, save for a brief, unsuccessful flirtation with a three-man defence at the start of this campaign.

The only changes to the Mancini blueprint were minor tinkerings with preparation.

Having previously preferred to land in their Champions League destination on the evening before the game, Mancini instead chose to fly Amsterdam on Tuesday morning, enabling his players the time to train at the stadium and get a feel for their surroundings.

Mancini also loosened the leash on his players, with Edin Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov enjoying a lunchtime coffee in a pavement cafe rather than being holed up in a five-star hotel.

But Mancini's changes appeared to be little more than cosmetic and hardly substantial enough to give City the edge they required against Ajax.

Tactically, Mancini has never risen to the challenge in the Champions League and his shortcomings were exposed more than ever against Frank de Boer's team. Eriksen, a player who memorably tore England to shreds in Copenhagen 18 months ago, was given free rein to do the same to City, while right-back Ricardo van Rhijn also enjoyed acres of space down the right flank.

City were wide open and showed no signs of heeding Mancini's warning that they must stop allowing opponents to pepper Joe Hart's goal with shots, having allowed Real and Dortmund to create a staggering 57 efforts on goal in their previous group games this season.

Then came Gael Clichy's visible bewilderment when he was told by Kolarov, following his introduction as a replacement for centre-half Joleon Lescott, to move alongside Vincent Kompany at the heart of the defence.

When Clichy's outstretched boot deflected Eriksen's shot into the net for Ajax's third goal, Hart looked at the full-back as if to ask, 'what on earth are you doing in that position?'.

Clichy probably wondered the same thing, but as Yaya Toure and Kolarov argued about the tracking of De Jong later in the game, the sense of confusion throughout the team was evident.

Direction comes from the top, though, and Mancini once again failed to provide it on the highest stage and bad luck has nothing to do with it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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