Special One looming large over Mancini
Mourinho's hinting at a return to English football piles pressure on City boss going too quietly about his business, writes Paul Wilson
There is a sub-plot to the battle for fourth place taking place at Eastlands today, if that is not too grandiose a billing for the meeting of two tired teams, and its denouement may depend on whether Manchester City or Liverpool win the race to achieve Champions League qualification.
Should it turn out to be Aston Villa or Tottenham who finish fourth then all bets are off, but as things stand, if Jose Mourinho intends to return to England any time soon, and he keeps hinting that he does, then Liverpool and Manchester City appear his most likely destinations.
It could happen as early as this summer, since both clubs could be in the market for a new manager by then. Liverpool and Benitez no longer look at each other with adoring eyes and the Europa League is unlikely to change anything one way or the other. Benitez has admirers elsewhere, and if an honourable exit can be agreed to suit all parties then this summer may be the time to do it.
City appear in less immediate need of a new manager, having only just appointed one. It seems doubtful, though, that Roberto Mancini is really the long-term answer to the club's quest for world domination. The Italian has a reasonable reputation and was available, so until he proves otherwise it is easier to see him as a necessary part of Mark Hughes' removal than the manager City have identified to take them to the next level.
Everything about the Eastlands revolution so far has been brash, strident and attention-grabbing, even if much of the attention has been grabbed for the wrong reasons. Mourinho would make a perfect fit as City manager, much more so than a quietly spoken, undemonstrative type who struggles to make himself understood and has not so far managed to put a personal mark on the team he inherited from Hughes 13 games ago.
From Mourinho's point of view, too, once he realises Manchester United are not going to be beating a path to his door in the foreseeable future, City may provide the best option -- unless Real Madrid come calling. City will not need to build a new ground in the near future, unlike Liverpool, and their ownership appears benign and unproblematic. And they have all that money.
Even from Italy Mourinho must have heard of the difficulties Benitez has been having with the Liverpool hierarchy and few leading candidates would walk willingly into the situation in which the Spaniard has found himself this season, that of restricting transfer activity in order to make inroads into the enormous debt. Liverpool are in need of a major overhaul and money is tight. City have a core of decent players and the wherewithal to attract more, and have plenty of scope -- one might say almost 30 years of scope -- for a good manager to make an immediate improvement.
Would Mourinho consider City? He would certainly be flattered by an approach. For a start he feels isolated and underappreciated in Italy -- "I am the only foreign coach in Serie A. Life is difficult here" -- and having first-hand knowledge of the power balance in England the idea of doing in Manchester what he previously achieved in London, would probably appeal to his sense of mischief.
Mourinho was loved and hated in almost equal measure while at Chelsea; either way he enjoyed being the centre of attention. "There was negative criticism of my time in England, but I also read that I was a breath of fresh air," he proudly told a Portuguese newspaper last year. Despite winning the league in his first season with Inter, thus continuing the domestic success established under Mancini without managing to make the desired improvement in the Champions League, Mourinho has a shrewd idea he will never be the centre of attention in Italy.
"When they vote for the coach of the year, voted for by the coaches who are all Italian, I don't win. I have to vote for myself to get a vote. I see also in Italy how they celebrate the victories of Ancelotti's Chelsea, or Capello's England, and deeply regret Mr Trapattoni's misfortune (with Ireland) in missing a World Cup in such an incredible way in Paris. I've seen the privilege, passion and affection with which Ancelotti, Trapattoni and Capello are treated, but for the only foreign coach in Serie A, life is difficult. How can they ask me if my love for Italy is different when I've never loved it?"
Short of pinning a "Come and get me" note to the roof of his dug-out Mourinho could hardly offer English clubs a clearer invitation and now that Guus Hiddink has tied himself to Turkey for the next two years he is the pre-eminent target for an English club wishing to make a statement of intent.
An English club with ambitions to match his own, that is, and money to back up those ambitions. If we are to remove Chelsea from the equation, as we surely must, that leaves only City and Liverpool as likely suitors.
One has all the money, another has all the tradition, but as Benitez has been discovering it is hard to buy top players with tradition.
Are City really in need of a new manager, so soon after replacing Hughes? On the face of it, no. Mancini has been doing a respectable, if unspectacular job, even if critics are beginning to look at the end product and wonder whether the same could not have been achieved under Hughes.
The Italian has just had his first falling-out with Craig Bellamy, though not too much need necessarily be read into that. All managers fall out with Bellamy and Mancini is probably to be congratulated for lasting two months. Apparently Mancini's policy of chopping and changing training sessions, making some long, some short, holding some early in the morning and some in the afternoon, is not going down well either, though his new signing Adam Johnson sees nothing wrong with it.
"Some days you get a lie-in, some days you are finished by lunchtime with the rest of the day to yourself," he says. "Personally I like that, no two days are the same. I didn't know a lot about the manager as a person when I came here, just about his career and honours, but now I've met him and he's been first class from day one.
"He's quite cool and has good man-management, he'll pull players to one side and tell them if he wants something different. I'm sure he can help me improve."
Perhaps Johnson would say that, having only been at the club less than a month, but the real question is whether Mancini can help City improve. His other January signing was harder to understand, and not just because Patrick Vieira will have to sit out three games for his rash retaliation in the 1-1 draw at Stoke last week.
With Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and Vincent Kompany already at the club and Stephen Ireland occasionally deployed in a deeper role City did not appear to have an urgent need for another defensive midfielder, yet Mancini's preference seems to be for not two but three such players in the same team.
Vieira played fractionally behind Barry and De Jong at Stoke, leaving Johnson the only out-and-out attacking player in the midfield quartet and Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz somewhat isolated up front. Even with Bellamy and Carlos Tevez unavailable Mancini could find no room in the starting line-up for creative talents such as Ireland, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Martin Petrov, and while some might say it is about time someone introduced City to the concepts of organisation and defensive discipline, others reckon the manager is far too cautious to be given control of such an adventurous and attack-minded squad.
While the arguments on either side will doubtless rage for a while yet, what spectators at the Britannia stadium saw on Tuesday was unquestionably a poor City performance, with Vieira a mile off the pace and even further from looking anything like his old self.
Even with 10 men Stoke would have won and made Mancini's position even more uncomfortable, had not the referee, Alan Wiley, spared City by denying Ryan Shawcross what looked a perfectly good last-minute goal.
When Mancini was asked whether he thought there had been a foul on Shay Given he said, reasonably enough, that he had not seen the incident.
"You're learning fast, Roberto," a reporter replied drily. "Thank you," Mancini said, believing he had just been complimented on his improving English. "I have been watching Coronation Street."
A small and insignificant detail, if you like, but possibly a revealing one.
As a communicator Mancini is not in the class of Mourinho, Hiddink or Capello, who all came to this country without direct experience and with varying levels of English but made their wishes clear from day one. Mancini may be a first-rate manager, if slightly out of his element in England, yet after two months it is clear he is even quieter than his predecessor. Maybe there is nothing wrong with that. Not everyone can be a special one.
But this is the club that sacked Hughes because everything was too quiet. City are in a hurry to be noticed. If a special one happens to be available, you can bet they will be interested.