Dublin – The night before Manchester City's last game at Sunderland, their opponents on Wednesday, was New Year's Eve and in the team hotel Roberto Mancini gathered his players and drank a toast to 2012 and the championship.
It was delivered in a way nobody in that room could possibly have anticipated, although the City manager has not forgotten that the year began with Sunderland snatching victory in the last minute at the Stadium of Light.
“We have lost the last two games there in the last minute,” he said. “It is better that we don't think about what happened there. We lost them both because we were trying to score in the last second.”
At the time it seemed especially significant since New Year's Eve had also seen Manchester United improbably beaten at home by Blackburn, leaving the two teams separated by only goal difference, which is how it ended.
How 2013 will climax is still unknown, although should City overhaul United, Mancini will become the seventh manager since the war to retain the championship. Since the others include Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Bob Paisley, Stan Cullis and Sir Matt Busby, he would be in some fairly rarefied company.
Mancini believes he has been accorded too little respect for taking City to their first championship and FA Cup since the years when Malcolm Allison was lighting cigars in the Maine Road dugout. The inference is any reasonably competent manager could have done so with the money that was funnelled his way from Abu Dhabi. Retaining it would flatten many of those arguments.
Despite reports that City's director of football, Txiki Bergiristain, had flown to South America to discuss the future of Neymar, the jewel of Brazilian football, Mancini said he anticipated little January transfer movement.
“I am happy with the players I have got,” he said, a statement that strains credulity when you examine where Mancini's main summer targets, Eden Hazard, Robin van Persie and Javi Martinez, ended up.
Adam Johnson was the first footballer Mancini bought after succeeding Mark Hughes and his departure for Sunderland in August was a story of promise unfulfilled. Johnson's return to the north east has not reignited his career and against teams like Reading on Saturday, who packed their defence and invited the champions on to them, Mancini might have done with some of his wing play.
“I didn't want Adam to leave,” he said. “But he told me he wanted to play all the time and, for this reason, I had to let him go. Adam was an important player for me but I understood his situation – he was young and he wanted to play.” Johnson is a little older now and he is playing a little more than he would have done had he remained at Eastlands. It should also be pointed out that he is not playing any better.
Mancini will be losing players. Should Ivory Coast reach the Africa Cup of Nations final, as they did last year, the Touré brothers will miss five Premier League games and two rounds of the FA Cup. When he returns, Yaya expects a slog to the summit.
“I have seen a lot more of the ball than I did last season when teams came to attack us and we could pick them off,” he said. “Now most teams have changed their approach to playing Manchester City.
“A team that lost 4-0 against us last season will have learned. They will pack men behind the ball and make it difficult for us to find a way through. We want to win the title again, but will have to work even harder to do it.” – The Independent