For 16 months Roberto Mancini has been driving Manchester City along an often difficult route towards a destination that has not always been clear.
There have been training ground fights, dressing-room rifts, bolshy super-stars, bad results, terrible performances and, hanging over it all, the great sneer that, as the richest club in the world, they really should be doing better. So forgive the manager his fist-punching, crowd-exhorting, celebration on Saturday – you got the impression that Mancini had been waiting a long time for that moment.
He had barely pushed his coiffure back into place when he presented himself for the post-match inquest, his voice still hoarse from the shouting. He can come across as a cold fish and his austere management style is not always to the tastes of the modern, millionaire footballer, but on Saturday he was on fine form.
From the despair of that defeat to Liverpool on Monday, Mancini had, in five days, fashioned arguably the most important result of a generation for City. Yes, this was a vindication all right. It was one of those moments when you are forced to look at a manager in adifferent light and acknowledge that he might just be on to something.
This being English football he got about 10 minutes to enjoy the result before he was asked: what next? "If we win the FA Cup I think we can play for the title," Mancini said. "Because we improve our mentality, because we improve our team next year, for many reasons."
With a straightforward honesty, Mancini did not try to brush aside the significance of beating Manchester United. Did it matter that it was them City had beaten to put themselves one game from a first trophy in 35 years? Of course it mattered. "Our mentality will be stronger because we beat United," he said. And he had a few things to say about City's overall approach to breaking the elite of English football.
It always comes back to the money with City. All in, Sheikh Mansour has spent around £650m in taking over the club, its debt, the transfer fees and wages. That does not even guarantee a place among English football's established elite; all that does is give you a chance to challenge for one. What Mancini wants is time because, he said on Saturday, he believes a win like this is a taste of what lies ahead.
"It is one year [in the job]. Many times they ask me about spending. But we didn't buy Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. We bought young players, good players. All of them need to improve because this is the first year they are playing in the Premier League. Many years ago when fantastic players came to England like [Eric] Cantona it was difficult when they started. For every player it is difficult. All these players who didn't play or played so-so will play better next year. And I think we can improve our team."
We will forgive him the fact that Cantona won a league title with Leeds United in his first season in England because the basic point holds strong. There were signs here in that second half performance that City are capable of developing a style and identity of their own and imposing themselves on the big teams rather than just, for instance, Sunderland at home.
It was an unusual game in that it was not until the mid-point of the first half that City found their feet and, had Dimitar Berbatov scored one of the two chances that fell to him on 15 minutes, this game could have been very different. But football at the elite level, where every team has top international players, can change on the most minor twists of fate. Joe Hart's save from Berbatov and then the striker's second careless miss meant that City had an opportunity, and they took it.
A couple of efforts from Gareth Barry and Yaya Touré around 32 minutes followed by two corners in succession; another Touré run at goal stopped by Nemanja Vidic; a shot from Vincent Kompany just wide and suddenly there were the seeds of a City performance. By the time Touré scored seven minutes after half-time – taking Michael Carrick's gift of a misplaced pass and bursting past Nemanja Vidic – it felt in keeping with the flow of the game.
"I am a manager, I know that someday you can play very well and lose the game," Mancini said. "It's my job. I know this. For supporters it is different. For this I am very happy for them."
What he was saying, in the politest possible terms, was that sometimes we miss the important signs of progress that are evident to a manager who watches every minute of every training session and analyses every moment of every game. At times this season, Mancini has seemed like a lone voice. At Wembley, it all came together and you could see what he meant.
There will surely be a few more pitfalls along the way for City but this at least is a performance upon which to pitch a flag. "Sometimes you can lose some games and you don't know why, because you prepared the game very well," Mancini said. "But this is the problem when you have a new team. The manager needs time because in one year you cannot build a strong team but it is important that you improve every week."
As for United, this game did not follow the rhythms that they are used to in big matches: that of scoring the first goal, growing domination, the gradual erosion of hope in the minds of their opponents. There were some poor individual performances but it was not a disaster. They failed to score the goal that would give them lift-off, and when City got theirs, they seized the moment.
Touré's goal showed what a bit of belief and self-confidence can do for a team. Mancini's side is undoubtedly still fragile, but galvanised by a goal they were impressive. They still have the FA Cup final to come and the battle for a Champions League place. "We will finish in the top four," Mancini said bluntly and after Saturday, his words carry that bit more credibility.
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