Monday 11 December 2017

Mancini aims to step out of the firing line

Ian Herbert

After the deference and slight duplicity of his public pre-derby talk last weekend, Roberto Mancini has taken off the gloves and set about the task of holding on to the Premier League title, and his job.

Manchester United can move nine points ahead of their neighbours if they defeat Sunderland today and City lose at Newcastle, and Mancini abandoned that deflection strategy he has of claiming Alex Ferguson's team are better.

His own side is the better one and was superior in the 3-2 defeat at the Etihad Stadium, he said, and the only reason United won that game was because they threw themselves into defending.

"I don't say they are lucky because United are a strong team," he said. "When I say they have more experience it is for this reason because they notice (and doing something about it) every time they are not better than us. Now they are not better than us but they know they should defend very well – and they defended for all of the second half."

His argument took a little getting to grips with, but it was one of a manager who knows he must dispense with subtleties and somehow drive his players into a winning mentality.

Even as he spoke, City were preparing to slip out news of their £97.9m losses, which amplify that the days of transfer market largesse are gone if they are to comply with Uefa financial fair play rules. Mancini must stick with the players he has got this winter, barring an injury emergency, though the most searching question is whether he can inject some motivation among some of those players with whom he seems at odds.

Mancini effectively confirmed that there had been a set-to with Joe Hart in the home dressing-room on Sunday and it is understood that a disagreement has taken place this week with Samir Nasri – who, after removing his head from the City wall when Robin van Persie's free-kick was sent in on Sunday, missed training on Wednesday with "a headache".

Mancini's translator clarified that the Frenchman has had a sinus problem, though it was fairly evident that the relationship has been strained.

How had Nasri been this week, the manager – who says there is a 2pc chance of captain Vincent Kompany playing on Tyneside today – was asked. "I think Samir knows this but there is no problem," he replied. "Everyone can do a mistake. It's impossible to be perfect."

The last part was true, though the past 18 months have not worked out as Mancini would have hoped for the first player whose signature City beat United to, and the public playing out of the free-kick embarrassment comes at a difficult period for the 25-year-old.

His personal reputation has been damaged in France by the revelation, in the tell-all autobiography of former national coach Raymond Domenech that Nasri was "trouble".

He severely tested Mancini's patience during the September international break when, after the manager had allowed his senior players time off, Nasri took off to Las Vegas. It did not help that he immediately sustained a hamstring tear in his first game back.

Nasri is a strong character. Mancini trusts him, always plays him in the big games and rarely keeps him on the bench. But Nasri is a prime example of one of those players who is not changing games as City expected when investing £24m on him.

Hart is at the core of the City collective, which makes Mancini's public prickliness towards him puzzling. The manager yesterday did not deny the dressing-room rumpus with Hart, Nasri and Carlos Tevez.

"I used to keep it in the dressing-room – not like other people that talk outside the dressing-room," Mancini said. "For me it's not like this and we know where this comes from."


Tevez will not be happy with the public criticism either and even those who do not deviate from the positive script, like David Silva, raise the question of how they can be driven to last season's heights. Silva admitted this week that his troublesome left ankle requires "constant care."

The prospects of Mario Balotelli being a consistently dangerous force are fading by the week, though the one-on-one coaching for him on Wednesday demonstrated how Mancini has not given up.

Mancini also criticised fourth official Mark Clattenburg for reporting Gareth Barry for using abusive language following the defeat to United. Barry is understood to have reacted to Clattenburg telling referee Martin Atkinson that time was up at the end of last Sunday's game at the Etihad Stadium.

Mancini said: "I think every referee or fourth official should understand that, after you lose a game in the last second, if a player says inappropriate words they should understand this." (© Independent News Service)

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