Honeymoon over at City
THE easy smile seemed a little forced, the customary charm and coolness under pressure subsiding just long enough to reveal the occasional flicker of concern.
For the first time in his nine-week tenure as Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini did not look entirely comfortable yesterday as he faced up to a catalogue of problems -- some self-inflicted, others not -- that threaten to undermine the club's pursuit of Champions League qualification.
Mancini yesterday conceded that he had an argument with his Welsh striker Craig Bellamy on Wednesday over the best way to manage the player's knee injury, but denied ordering the player not to return to the club for three months.
Bellamy, who trained yesterday, became embroiled in a row with Mancini after refusing the manager's request to train on Thursday after a one-on-one session the previous day.
Mancini said that he had reached a compromise with Bellamy over how best to manage his longstanding knee problems, but the first signs of a rift have developed, the striker taking exception to being told how best to deal with an injury that the player believes only he and a few carefully chosen specialists know how to handle.
Other players, including midfielder Stephen Ireland, are also understood to have reservations about Mancini, not least over some of his training methods.
In one example, several were bewildered when the manager asked them recently to practise a move by running with the ball in their hands rather than at their feet.
"Yes, we did (have an argument)," Mancini said. "I spoke to him (Bellamy) in my office but normal things when you have a problem. I preferred one mode (for his knee), Craig preferred another but we resolved this problem face to face."
A season that promised so much appears to have reached a defining juncture, with City's Premier League game at home to Liverpool tomorrow the first of four matches that will go a long way towards determining whether the club can finish in the top four this season and keep alive hopes of ending their 34-year wait for silverware.
After Liverpool, who are a point and a place behind City in fifth, Mancini's team play Stoke City on Wednesday in their FA Cup fifth-round replay at the Britannia Stadium before facing Chelsea, the league leaders, at Stamford Bridge three days later.
Tottenham Hotspur, another top-four wannabe club who are sixth, then visit the City of Manchester Stadium a fortnight today.
As if those fixtures did not present a big enough headache for Mancini, City enter this crucial period against a backdrop of simmering player unrest, injuries, suspension and yet another deeply unfortunate episode that is entirely not of their making.
Patrick Vieira will miss the Liverpool, Stoke and Chelsea games after the midfield player was banned by the FA for three matches for violent conduct yesterday for kicking out at Glenn Whelan, his Stoke counterpart, during their league match on Tuesday.
That was "a big mistake", according to Mancini, for which Vieira could be fined, while Martin Petrov, the winger, has been ruled out for a month with a knee injury.
Another key concern for the Italian manager centres on City's other star performer this season, Carlos Tevez, who Mancini may not be able to rely upon over the next fortnight.
City do not know when they will have Tevez available again after the Argentina striker, who has missed his club's past two games, was granted an indefinite period of compassionate leave, having returned to Buenos Aires because of complications in the birth of his second daughter.
Baby Katie, who was born six weeks premature, is in intensive care and, as they did with Emmanuel Adebayor when the striker was caught up in the machine-gun attack on the Togo national team bus at the Africa Cup of Nations last month, City have told Tevez to take all the time he needs.
The player has indicated that he may return early next week, but with doctors unable to give any indication of when the baby's condition may improve, there is every chance that Tevez could miss the Stoke and Chelsea games in addition to Liverpool.
Tevez's worries put City's problems firmly in perspective, but the situation has left Mancini in a quandary, the manager sympathetic to the player's troubles but at the same time fretting about the continued absence of his leading goalscorer.
"I hope Carlos can solve his problems with his family and come back very quickly," Mancini said.
"This is another big problem because we've been without him for a long time. The last time I spoke with him was two days ago. I told him, 'Come quickly because we have important games' and he said, 'When I solve my problem, I will come'. I'm frustrated because I don't have Carlos here."
Mancini's sympathy with Tevez could not contrast more starkly with his feelings about Bellamy, whose involvement against Liverpool, his former club, will hinge on the player's recovery from the injury that has been a source of conflict between the pair.
Either way, it is far from ideal preparation for a significant run of games.
"If we lost against Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham, the top four would be difficult, but we haven't lost three games," Mancini added. "We must think only about Liverpool and play well and beat them." (© The Times, London)