Another low for Mancini
UEFA CHAMPONS LEAGUE:ROBERTO MANCINI is streetwise enough to know what happens next. However galling the vast majority of Manchester City fans find it, whatever it says about the impatience of the modern game, this is a tough business and the Italian cannot be guaranteed a fifth season should his team miss out on “the miracle” he talked about before leaving Amsterdam and the scene of one of his lowest moments as manager.
Not quite the lowest but, equally, not far off. Carlos Tevez’s mutiny on the touchline at Bayern Munich still has to be the nadir. There was the 0-0 draw at home to Birmingham in his first season when an unpopular substitution prompted fans to turn on him, and the turbulent defeat at Arsenal in April that left them eight points behind Manchester United, seemingly out of the title race and with an open acceptance at the club he might pay with his job. Yet what happened against Ajax on Wednesday certainly makes the top five.
With one point from three games, it will not even be straightforward for City to qualify for the Europa League, never mind the knockout stages of the Champions League, the competition the Abu Dhabi United Group craves. Mancini’s position in May then becomes a legitimate talking point.
Mancini would have to retain the title if his job prospects were not to recede dramatically.
The mere suggestion will be unpopular, but this is the pressure under which a manager exists at this level. Everything we have come to know about the club’s owner, Sheikh Mansour, and the more hands-on chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, indicates they are not trigger-happy, but men of this wealth are not renowned for their tolerance when key employees fail to deliver.
Mancini has not only presided over an unsatisfactory run of results in Europe, but his judgment has also come into question with an unusual frequency. He is yet to settle on his best formation this season, or offer a reasonable explanation about why he is making so many changes.
At Ajax, he tried out three systems. James Milner played central midfield, right wing and wing-back. Sergio Aguero, one of the best strikers in the business, started on the left and then moved into the centre. Micah Richards and Gael Clichy played as full-backs then centrehalves. Samir Nasri began on the right wing and finished on the left. Yaya Toure was first an advanced midfielder, then a holding one.
An argument can be made that players should not be restricted to one role, but wholesale changes will always disturb a team’s rhythm. In total, there were only two outfield players – Vincent Kompany and Edin Dzeko – who played the entire match in the same position. It was as tactically naive as City have looked in the Mancini era and, behind the scenes, Richards is not the only player to have reservations about the need for change, particularly when it comes to experimenting with a three-man defence.
The deterioration in the defending is certainly not what Mancini must have envisaged after employing a new coach, Angelo Gregucci, in the summer to work specifically on this part of the team. Gregucci was Mancini’s assistant at Fiorentina in 2001. Since then, the 48-year-old has managed eight different Italian teams but had only one spell in Serie A, where he lasted barely five weeks at Lecce.
He was sacked by Reggina in April, only three months after taking the job, and does not speak English, meaning Mancini quite often has had to translate for him on the training ground. City’s three fixtures in the Champions League have seen the opposition accumulate a total of 72 shots which contrasts with 85 in their eight Premier League games.
“Last season we were so good, not conceding many goals,” Joleon Lescott said. “We got a lot of plaudits so it’s only fair we get criticism now because we are conceding more goals.” The defender himself had a particularly difficult time against Ajax, badly caught out when Niklas Moisander headed the second.
“As a team,” Lescott added, “we are not overly enthusiastic about the way things are going.”
The problem for Mancini is he has never taken a team past the quarter-finals of the Champions League and already has lost one job at Internazionale because of it.
Then, like now, he had financial backing in the shape of Massimo Moratti’s millions at Internazionale. Mancini’s final season at San Siro saw them lose to Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League and the Italian newspapers questioned whether he would ever be successful in Europe. “One evening manages to cancel out the excitement from two years of victories,” one wrote.