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Mancini benefiting from club backing

RIDE THE WAVE
Roberto Mancini received a vote of confidence from City owner Sheikh Mansour.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

Roberto Mancini cycles to Manchester City’s Carrington training ground every morning. Sometimes he flies in, pedaling furiously in a private race. But this week, he got to coast in, taking a rare and relaxed ride to work. He didn’t have to race, for once: an endorsement of his management had come from the person that mattered most.

In a rare interview broadcast the day after City’s 2-0 win away to Wolves, a result that brought them within touching distance of rivals Manchester United ahead of next Monday’s all-important derby, their billionaire owner Sheikh Mansour said: “The difference is three points and we do have a chance. But whatever happens even if we don’t win I am very happy and satisfied with the players, the team and the management. They have performed very well and have improved in their last few matches.”

It would appear from that appraisal that Mancini has done enough to earn himself another season on City’s bench. If he had to present a case in defense of his record, as it seemed he did only two and a half weeks ago after a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal left his team trailing far behind United, his chances look slightly better now.

So far under Mancini, City have finished fifth and third in the Premier League and lifted their first FA Cup since 1969. Should they win their remaining three games of this season, while maintaining a superior goal difference over United, another historic feat will be achieved, as they’ll win their first league title since 1968. Progress has been made.

In the event that City comes up short, it cannot be denied that they’ve improved. They’re 18 points better than last season, and their current total of 80 would have been sufficient to win the Premier League in five of its 20 years. City boasts the best attack and defense. No team across Europe has been as good at home domestically as City in the current campaign, averaging more on a points-per-game basis than Barcelona and Montpellier.

Rivaled by Tottenham earlier in the season, City have played the best football in England. They have been much better to watch. There has been only one 0-0 result involving City this season, while the handbrake that Mancini kept on throughout his first year and a half in charge has been taken off. His team has hit three or more goals in 23 of their 52 matches, including a 6-1 win over United. The supporters have had a lot to cheer about. If they didn’t, how would a celebration like the Poznan have become so symbolic?

 

And yet, for all the good work, there is still a perception that in light of the resources made available to Mancini, anything less than delivering the Premier League trophy deserves to be considered a failure. City have spent approximately $392 million on new players in his first two full seasons at the helm: a figure many feel is more than sufficient to ‘buy’ the title.

Few would dispute the assertion that, given the same means, José Mourinho would have in all probability guaranteed it and at a canter too. Chelsea invested $362 million in their team between 2004 and 2006, and they got their money’s worth. Mourinho won the Premier League at the first attempt then retained it the following season.

Which begs the question: if City were presented with the opportunity to appoint the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ this summer, would they part with Mancini? Inter president, Massimo Moratti, asked himself that very question around this time in 2008 and answered: yes. He wasn’t made to regret it, as Mourinho led his club to an unprecedented treble.

However, reflecting on that period, Inter's players are just as keen to give credit to Mancini for that cycle of success. “Mourinho knew how to lead us,” Esteban Cambiasso recalled. “He understood what was missing after his first year, but before him Mancini was very important. The true difference for a team is going from not winning to winning, not from winning to winning more: we learned how to win with Mancini.”

This has been the focus of his work at City, overseeing a shift in mentality at a club that until last season hadn’t held a major trophy in 35 years. While several City players have won things before, including the most prestigious honors in the game, only five have lifted the Premier League title. Two of them, Carlos Tevéz and Owen Hargreaves, did so while at Manchester United.

Making the next step is easier said than done. “Every team that faces United is afraid,” Mancini admitted. “It takes 20 years to create strength like that and it will take many more years of work here to get to where United are now. When I went to Inter it was the same situation. They had not won the league for 19 years. They found it hard to even win three games in a row.”

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To some that might sound like an excuse, a plea for more time. Mourinho himself claims it’s a fallacy that a coach can’t win things at a club in his first year. But Ferguson can empathize with Mancini. It wasn’t until his seventh season at Old Trafford, during which time he’d endured calls for his dismissal, that he finally ended United’s 26-year wait for a league championship.

Mindful of his own experience, Ferguson holds Mancini in high regard. When it was put to him earlier this week that United’s neighbors are only challenging them because of their money, Ferguson replied: “That’s not really accurate. It’s true City became rich in a pretty incredible way, but it’s not the fact there is a new owner and new ambitions which necessarily change things.”

Ferguson’s veiled implication is that a lot of it can be put down to Mancini. While there have been relative disappointments, the highs of this season are still more memorable than the lows.

Could Mancini expect to keep his job based on this season’s results if he were at Chelsea? Carlo Ancelotti would inform him, probably not. But this is City. Sheikh Mansour seems a more reasonable character than Roman Abramovich, and would be justified in keeping faith with him. Whatever happens in the derby and thereafter this season, City are very close to fulfillment.

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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