Tuesday 21 November 2017

Mancini lacking the courage of a champion

Italian missing the self-belief and ambition to propel Man City towards the highest level

Man City boss Roberto Mancini missed a golden opportunity to lay down a marker against their bitter rivals. Photo: Getty Images
Man City boss Roberto Mancini missed a golden opportunity to lay down a marker against their bitter rivals. Photo: Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

Manchester City's tactically putrid attempt to signal the first days of the rest of their lives as, at the very least, the equals of Manchester United had to be seen as a dismaying lack of ambition and self-confidence after £350m worth of team-building.

In its wake, however, some were more inclined to identify an extreme strain of a gene shared by their manager Roberto Mancini with his celebrated compatriot Giovanni Trapattoni.

Ever since taking over the Irish team, though, Trap has been able to take up a defensive position of impregnable strength. Who, really, could argue with his claim that he had made the best of his available resources, all of which would cost much less than the upkeep of City's substitutes' bench, and lived with the rest? Result: a viable sense of a team shaped with much pragmatic intelligence, a bunch of players of varying degrees of natural ability who have had some notable moments of over-achievement.

Pure Italian instinct you might say -- a practicality deeply imbued with a sense of what is possible and what is not.

Unfortunately for Mancini this week there was a problem that Trapattoni will never face in his Irish assignment. It was that anyone attributing similar qualities to his strategy against United was in danger of a visit from the men in white coats.


Maybe it is indicative of the pressures the City boss has endured in the last few weeks that he was prepared to take that risk after crowning a night of stupefying timidity with the replacement of Carlos Tevez by Emmanuel Adebayor in the last minute of added time.

"At least we didn't lose against United," he said. "A draw is better than losing against one of the strongest teams. A lot depended on this game."

Much also rested on City's ability to show that recent convulsions, including defeats by Wolves and Lech Poznan, the alarming volatility of their £24m signing Mario Balotelli and clear signs of tension and division in the dressing-room had not deflected them from the point of their owner Sheikh Mansour's vast investment.

This is, we were told constantly in the build-up to Wednesday's game, to make City one of the great teams of the world game, a club able -- and willing -- to face on equal terms the Real Madrids, the Inter Milans and, of course, the Manchester Uniteds.

If the approach to United was anything more than a one-off freezing of will and confidence, the anger -- even disbelief -- that swelled in the City Of Manchester Stadium is likely to build relentlessly over the coming weeks and months.

Central defender Kolo Toure insisted after the goalless draw, that was mostly played out in the no-man's land of midfield -- and had just two passable chances, one for City, one for United -- that his team had merely been doing what is required of them if the vital target of a top-four place and a run in the Champions League is to be achieved.

"What we have to do," said the former Arsenal player, who was in the first wave of mega-signings launched by Mancini's predecessor Mark Hughes, "is hold our own with the top teams like Chelsea and United and Arsenal -- and make sure we beat the others."

It sounds plausible enough when you consider City's impressive defeat of Premier League leaders Chelsea back in September, a point against United -- who had won six of the last seven Manchester derbies -- and that in the 3-0 defeat by Arsenal they competed well for most of the game despite being a man down.

But then you also have to consider the greatest imperative of an emerging club with more financial resources than any of their rivals. It is the need to build a level of self-belief that was utterly missing from the great early challenge of the season.

The demeanour of United manager Alex Ferguson was perhaps the most telling commentary of all on the bewildering lack of aggression displayed by City in front of their own fans. Given the pressure that had been building around the match for several weeks -- and the Old Trafford crisis over Wayne Rooney that many believe was at least partly provoked by the interest of City -- Ferguson might, in all the circumstances, have been reasonably pleased with a point.

Yet his face and at least one of his comments suggested something quite different. He said it was always disappointing when his team didn't win. It was surely not too fanciful to pick up the implication that this is especially so when your opponents display so little heart for anything more than sharing the spoils.


Ruud Gullit, who knows a little of the football ambition which is shaped by dynamic work in midfield, also offered a damning insight into the City performance. He pointed out that Yaya Toure, the club's best-rewarded player, had begun to run with a desperate and ultimately futile frequency. It was not Toure's natural game, said Gullit, but maybe he had been stirred by the passivity of all those around him.

And if Toure didn't offer support to the lonely front-man Tevez, who would? David Silva, the talented but somewhat frail Spaniard, and the uninspired James Milner certainly displayed no more than a fleeting appetite for the job.

One argument in defence of Mancini is that he cannot be expected to deliver championship contenders in one and a half seasons, that even with his resources there is inevitably a process of trial and error.

No doubt it is true, but the weight of criticism this week is not to do with the pace of a work in progress. It is about the concept and the priorities of the work.

The brutal truth is that City stepped back from their most immediate and important challenge. They announced that they were happy to take what they could from neighbours who had rarely looked less mighty. Mancini said it was a mark of progress. Back in Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh may just feel the need for a little more convincing.

Irish Independent

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