Manchester City clinging on by their fingertips
SOCCER: CHAMPIONS LEAGUEWhen the Champions League draw placed Manchester City in a group with three other national title-holders, and two of these from the continent’s other strongest leagues, Spain and Germany, there was no dispute that Roberto Mancini’s luck was out again.
This followed last season’s accumulation of 10 points – the generally accepted standard for progression – which still placed City third and eliminated them before Christmas in their inaugural Champions League campaign.
Yet this term the domestic form of Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax makes City’s return so far, one point, look significantly under par. Real trail Barcelona by eight points in La Liga; Dortmund’s Bundesliga deficit to Bayern Munich is 11; and Ajax lag Twente by 10 in the Eredivisie, with the Dutch champions’ only win in their last six outings coming against City a fortnight ago.
If being the only unbeaten team in the Premier League, two points behind Manchester United, is factored in, the 3-1 victory of Frank de Boer’s side over City’s millionaires seems even more disheartening as Ajax roll into the Etihad Stadium this evening.
After a poor sequence in Europe with the 3-2 defeat in Madrid and 1-1 home draw with Dortmund before the defeat at the Amsterdam Arena, the Mancini mantra of the last campaign – “we need more experience” – continues before a match that is must-win to keep any hope alive.
“For us it is the second year we have been in the Champions League,” he said. “We need more experience as a team, not so much individual players because they do have experience. But we need to be lucky because it is difficult when you are in the worst group all the time. I said after the 0-0 at West Ham on Saturday if we said: ‘We are ready to win the Champions League’, it is not [true].”
The counter argument is that, armed with knowledge gained from last year’s failure and having the pick of a band of stellar “individual players”, Mancini, was offered a fresh five-year deal precisely because he is the man City believed could transform their European fortunes this time.
So far his personal Champions League career statistics do not support that view when set alongside prominent peers. Pep Guardiola’s win percentage is 60 per cent, his loss rate 10 per cent; Alex Ferguson is next with 55 per cent to 19 per cent; Jose Mourinho’s is 55 per cent, 20 per cent; Rafael Benitez’s reads 53 per cent, 23 per cent; and Arsene Wenger’s is 46 per cent against 29 per cent.
In these two defining categories of managerial ability Mancini’s numbers rank bottom: he has a 45 per cent victory rate and a 31 per cent defeat count.
As the Italian accepts, his squad bulges with vastly seasoned internationals whose 785 total caps is more than United, Chelsea or Arsenal boast.
Mancini’s go-to performers also include a World Cup and twice European Championship winner (the currently injured David Silva) and three Champions League victors (Maicon, Carlos Tevez and Yaya Toure, who have also all won domestic titles overseas).
Gareth Barry agrees with the manager that individually they cannot hide behind inexperience.
The midfielder said: “As players we can’t use that as an excuse. This group of players have been together for two years and maybe you can look into that a bit. We’re certainly not using that as the main excuse. My reason is that we have not performed to the best of our abilities and have been found out. It is a step up, you’re playing top teams every week in the Champions League. We need to adapt to that a little bit better.”
Mancini is intent that City learn from their experience to date. “We need to improve our team and we need to learn from our mistakes,” he said.
The problem could be that with Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, City’s new chief executive and director of football respectively, forming an ex-Barcelona axis at the club, the big whisper is that Guardiola could join his erstwhile colleagues to form a formidable Spanish triangle of power if Mancini does not deliver.