Monday 18 December 2017

Mancini focused on Euro decider


Duncan White at Eastlands

JOKES belong to the victors. Roberto Mancini has had some week, with his star player Carlos Tevez grumbling about the intense training programme and increasing speculation as to whether either of them will be at the club next season.

So when he was asked in the aftermath of this crucial win if Tevez had been carrying a slight injury, he deadpanned, "No. Maybe he was tired from having to work twice in one day."

The Italian had a right to be in playful mood. After this win, he knows that victory over Spurs at this ground on Wednesday, and the fourth-place finish that it should bring, will strengthen his hand immeasurably -- 90 minutes to determine his future. "All journalists ask me this question. I don't know. But it is not important to me now. It is important that the squad win the next game and get fourth position," he said.

In front of a watching Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the chairman, City started promisingly, but Villa soon started cutting into them. In the 17th minute, James Milner took a free-kick quickly and with City stalled, Stewart Downing cut inside from the right wing, poking the ball in behind for John Carew, who tucked the ball beneath Martin Fulop.

Mancini admitted the Hungarian goalkeeper, signed as emergency cover on loan from Sunderland, was "so nervous" during the first half but was happy with the way his confidence grew after that shaky start. It took him two efforts to subdue a tame Milner shot while he was relieved to see Downing's strike fizz wide.

There was growing anxiety in the stands. As news filtered through to the stadium that Spurs had gone a goal up against Bolton, it looked like Sheikh Mansour had spent an awful lot of money getting into the Europa League.

Then, in two explosive minutes, the game was turned on its head. Adam Johnson, lively again, lured Stephen Warnock into a sliding tackle in the box and the Villa full-back duly complied. He was lucky not to have conceded one earlier in the half, when Tevez's shot hit his outstretched arm. It was Tevez's turn to be lucky with the penalty -- it went under Brad Friedel's dive with enough power to prevent the American stopping it. Villa almost immediately retook the lead as Carew again outwitted Kolo Toure, rolling him in the box only for his shot to smash against the crossbar. City surged on the counter. Patrick Vieira rolled the ball in behind Downing for Johnson, who cut back on the byline, sending Downing flying past him. He passed to Adebayor whose weak shot got through Friedel's desperate effort to keep it out.

In a manner typical of City since Mancini joined, they tried for most of the second half to consolidate their lead, ceding vast amounts of possession to Villa. Frustratingly for Martin O'Neill, his side struggled to create the clear chances they needed, despite the intelligent promptings of Milner.

City tried to hit Villa on the counter and actually had the best chances to score. With 25 minutes left Bellamy's curling shot, after he had cut back inside from the left corner, was heading for the top corner before a leaping Friedel flung out a hand to push it behind.

With Villa taking greater risks -- Warnock was replaced by Emile Heskey and James Collins pushed forward into a free role -- it was not surprising that they conceded the third. The manner in which it came was remarkable though.

Fulop collected a huge punt from Stiliyan Petrov and promptly flung the ball out to Shaun Wright-Phillips, halfway inside his own half on the left touchline. The City substitute spun round Collins and accelerated away from him and into the Villa half. Carlos Cuellar came sliding in but Wright-Phillips swerved away from him too, before rolling the ball across to Bellamy. The Welshman had time and he curled the ball into the top corner.

O'Neill was world-weary and wry in the aftermath. He meets Randy Lerner next week to discuss the future and is not committing himself to any position until then. While he concedes to enjoying management "in a perverse way", it's not a job he is about recommend. "I have told the players that if they can get a real career out of football, don't even think about it," he said. "Don't think about management at all.

"Get a cushy coaching job. If I could come back in another life that's the job I want. To be reserve team coach with Alex Ferguson at the helm. Then you're kind of safe."

Sunday Independent

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