at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
For someone blessed with a bulging trophy cabinet, a £37million contract and heart-throb status in Manchester and Italy, Robert Mancini is awfully tetchy these days.
Nobody it seems is safe from a wild-eyed rant by the 47-year-old Italian, as City players Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott and Joe Hart, executive Brian Marwood, referee Peter Rasmussen and even a Champions League pitchside cameraman can all testify.
No wonder Sky Sports will keep a lens trained on Mancini at all times during City’s game against Tottenham today in case the manager combusts in the technical area over some perceived slight from his own players or the match officials.
At face value, Mancini has nothing to get hysterical about as he welcomes Andre Villas-Boas to the Etihad Stadium. City are champions and the only unbeaten team in the Premier League this season.
The club insist his job is safe even if they finish bottom of their Champions League group, and his close friends, including City coach David Platt, are adamant he will not walk away voluntarily from the project, having turned down the Russian national team job to sign a five-year contract in the summer.
On top of that, he no longer has to work on transfer deals with Marwood, who he did not respect. But the arrival of new sporting director Txiki Begiristain from Barcelona won’t mean more funds in January and has also given conspiracy theorists the opportunity to link Pep Guardiola with the Etihad Stadium.
Yet something is still troubling Mancini — and the relationship with his own players is the key to his future. No matter how rich an owner, modern football has shown that the players hold the power on all first-team matters. Roman Abramovich, the wealthiest and most powerful individual owner football has seen, proved that earlier this year.
He spent £13million and gambled his own reputation by bringing in Villas-Boas to Chelsea in 2011 to replace Carlo Ancelotti. But such is the investment in players’ wages that, when John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard decided they were not having the young Portuguese manager, Abramovich backed the players, sacking Villas-Boas after less than a year.
City’s players have never liked Mancini because of his aloofness, strict discipline and mixed public messages. But until now they have always respected him, and his ability to organise a team pattern and deliver trophies, the FA Cup in 2011 and Premier League title in May. But that fragile peace was exploded in the hours after the Champions League defeat at Ajax.
Mancini angrily confronted them in the dressing room and told them he had personally taken the blame in front of the world’s media to protect them.But with his next breath he shouted in temper that he actually did blame them for the 3-1 defeat which had all but killed their prospects of reaching the knockout stages this season.
The reaction of most players was one of disgust that Mancini had claimed in one breath to be trying to protect them, and in the next treated them with contempt.
Since that game, City have struggled to beat Swansea and been held to draws by West Ham and in the return game with Ajax. It makes the performance, as well as the result, against Spurs today absolutely crucial.
‘Some of the players hated him for what he did after the first Ajax game,’ said a well-connected source. ‘When the manager comes in and tries to be clever, explaining how he has been protecting them but doesn’t mean it, that’s not good for morale. Only time will tell but it might prove a tipping point in their relationship with him.’
Mancini has been down this road before.
He regarded the 2010 FA Cup final as a make-or-break game for him, believing defeat against Stoke City at Wembley would give Marwood and his other enemies the chance to sack him.
Last season he earned a new deal when a late rally saw them make up eight points on Manchester United in the closing weeks to become champions. Just before then, he had resembled a dead man walking, particularly when Mario Balotelli was sent off in a defeat at Arsenal to leave United odds-on title favourites.
The question is whether the City players are motivated enough now to save Mancini’s skin again. An additional problem is what support Mancini will get in January. Last summer, he wanted A-list signings but was given Scott Sinclair, Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia instead.
The manager stressed at a meeting with Begiristain last week he would like to do business in the next window but the view from the top in Abu Dhabi is players such as Edin Dzeko, Balotelli or Joleon Lescott will have to be sold to finance any new purchases. And none of the City squad are keen to leave because no other clubs can match their wages.
Mancini is fighting the only way he knows how, with intensity and passion. Platt, a former team-mate of his at Sampdoria, thinks the Italian will have to be carried out of Manchester kicking and screaming rather than walk of his own accord.
‘I know him — his desire is to win; it’s what he’s here to do,’ said Platt, now on the City coaching staff and a valuable ally for the manager.
‘He signed a five-year contract in the summer which was given to him by the football club by virtue of the fact he’s the manager of the league champions. And at the start of this weekend’s fixtures, we were two points off the top in third place after 10 games, with 28 to go. That’s 84 points to play for. It’s hardly a crisis.’
With so much at stake, the biggest decision for Mancini is whether to hand Balotelli his 50th City appearance. The bad boy of Italian football has come to epitomise the chaos at City, although he did set up the title-winning goal in May for Sergio Aguero.
Platt insisted: ‘Roberto manages him to try to get the best out of his talent. I’ve grumbled and groaned as a player. It’s not until you actually put a tracksuit on and put a whistle in your mouth that you realise just how much of a git you were.
‘That’s the nature of the beast in being a footballer. You are heightened into that competitive edge every day. If you are taken off in games, you don’t expect to be happy about it.’
Today’s game against Spurs could be a watershed. Win to stay in contention at the top and Mancini may feel relaxed enough to do his own press conferences next week (Platt stood in for him on Friday). Lose and the commotion surrounding the club will not go away, even if there is little evidence that Guardiola sees City as his dream job.
Captain Vincent Kompany will try to walk out of the tunnel today with a sense of balance.
‘You won’t ever hear me say one game is less important than another,’ said the Belgian. ‘Tottenham will want to bounce back from the defeat they had last weekend (1-0 to Wigan). We want to show that we can carry on with this unbeaten streak, so it’s a game to look forward to.’
They are wise words from the calm defender. If only his manager could keep a similar sense of proportion, his life would be a lot easier right now. – Mail On Sunday