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Defending a title is more difficult than winning one

Weeks after leading Blackburn Rovers to the Premier League title in 1995, Kenny Dalglish stood down as the club's manager to become their director of football. From the outside at least, it appeared an unusual move to make at that time and most people were caught by surprise.

First-team coach Ray Harford was promoted in his place, and years later he explained the wisdom of Dalglish's decision. He said Dalglish recognised instantly how incapable the players were of repeating their achievement. The change in their attitude and their behaviour occurred the moment the league was won, and the qualities needed to successfully defend their title were nowhere to be seen. He said nothing of the sort in public, but Dalglish knew the time was right to step away. They finished seventh in the Premier League the following season and did nothing in the Champions League, so it seems he knew exactly what he was doing. I've never had that impression watching Roberto Mancini.

Manchester City are at the point now that Blackburn Rovers were then. Champions of England for the first time in a long time, the heavy investment from their owner has created an expectation of continued success. Rewarded with a new five-year contract in the summer, Mancini is seen as the man to deliver it. But his put-down of Joe Hart after Tuesday's late collapse in Madrid may reveal a deeper concern than their glaring weaknesses in defence.

When told of Hart's post-match comments, Mancini was quick to put him in his place. "Joe Hart should stay in goal and make saves. If anyone should criticise the team, it should be me, not Joe Hart. I am the judge, not Joe Hart." Senior players came out in support of Hart and his performance but Mancini was clearly unimpressed.

There are many ways to interpret his outburst. Firstly, Hart said nothing offensive, insulted nobody, made no reference to tactical errors and then apologised for what happened. It was the most diplomatic way to express disappointment and avoid criticism of anyone, but maybe that's Mancini's point.

Perhaps he should not have been so dismissive of his own role in Madrid's two late goals. Rather than accept he was at fault for both, he stressed instead that City "won and lost as a team". Either way, for Mancini to respond in such a scathing way to fairly innocuous statements would suggest Hart had it coming for a while. Perhaps a shift in attitude is being picked up here too?

After Manchester United ended their long wait for a title in 1992, Alex Ferguson immediately addressed the threat of waning motivation or a shift in focus among his players. Famously, he held up an envelope containing the names of three unidentified players he said would let him down the following season. He told the players he already knew who and what to look out for. The players didn't know that the envelope was empty but it had the desired effect. A simple but effective method, and one that remained in-house at the time.

Perhaps Mancini picked the wrong time and the wrong target in his attempt to keep control of the dressing room. His dependence on Mario Balotelli last season was a direct consequence of his catastrophic mishandling of the Carlos Tevez situation. Balotelli looked like he cost them the title when he was sent off at the Emirates but City, helped by Tevez and United's failings, got another chance.

City's money will probably ensure that Mancini gets lucky again this season. Sergio Aguero's admission on Tuesday that he would have preferred to sign for Real Mad-

rid if they showed an interest didn't help, but City cannot afford a repeat of last season's bust-ups if they are to succeed once again.

Their failure in Europe last season will not be as easily accepted this time round, nor will constant public spats between Mancini and his players. If the club is to achieve the aims of its owner, Mancini will need to improve in both areas. His Champions League record is modest, but his man-management at times is appalling.

They've only won two of their five competitive games and are yet to keep a clean sheet this season. Victory this afternoon over Arsenal will help erase the memory of Tuesday night, but defeat will compound the disappointment.

Joe Hart may know exactly why Mancini reacted that way, but maybe it was only because he was at fault for two of the goals. However, if he is sensing the same issue that Dalglish and Ferguson had to deal with all those years ago, then failing to confront it will cost him the season, and it may even cost him his job. I assume the club's owner has no such problems discarding underperformers.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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