Ian Herbert: Mancini given a taste of what still needs to be done at Eastlands
You can spend £200m and talk about winning, but you won't purge a City fan's pessimism
Thursday 06 May 2010
The most fitting part of it all was the match programme cover, adorned with the names of a sample of the club's 9,000 season card holders. These are the ones who have travelled the full, unexpurgated journey with Manchester City and who are so inured to the pain that accompanies every significant football occasion that you couldn't tell one of them before kick off last night that everything was going to be all right.
"That's what all the non City fans say," said one of the few City senior executives who has lived through relegation at Luton in 1983 and the Paul Dickov moment against Gillingham at Wembley in 1999, when offered some pre-match reassurance. You can spend £200m and talk about a "winning mentality" all night but you won't purge this pessimism from a City fan. They know there is a comedy moment or defensive mishap around every corner, waiting to happen on a night like this. One of the more bizarre items in the programme quoted Stephen Ireland denying rumours he was intending to build a shark tank at his house: that's the kind of surreal place the club can be at times.That link to the past is inexorable.
The question for last night was enshrined in the message on an advertising hoarding for Etihad, the Abu Dhabi airline. "Time to change to the best," it declares . But there has been a suspicion around this stadium for some time that "the best" is still some way off, despite Roberto Mancini's inclination – curious in a man whose tactical acuity is so well established – to say that City are the persistent victims of poor fortune, rather than purveyors of poor football.
Their arrival so close to the riches of the Champions League had given rise to observations on all that money can buy, but it had actually obscured the miracle of their being in the self-styled Champions League play-off at all.
Those with a rose tinted view of what Sheikh Mansour has delivered this season remember Shay Given's heroics in the home win over Chelsea, Craig Bellamy running riot at Stamford Bridge, Alan Wiley's "Fergietime" at Old Trafford . But these moments have been exceptions to the rule. Viewed in full focus, Mancini's five months have included some dark days for a side who have spent so heavily – £223m since the Abu Dhabis arrived in September 2008. The desperate goalless draw at home to Liverpool was perhaps the worst Premier League fixture of the season; there was something similar at Arsenal; defeat at home to Everton, successive games in league and FA Cup against Stoke City without a win.
Last night's game began as football in its purest form: a full-blooded exhibition of wing play which blew away all the pre-match hysteria and the accusations of City's transfer market bullying and distilled everything into winger versus full back: football the way it was played before the wealthy owners intervened. But there could be no illusion about the defensive weaknesses which have been there all along the road. Wayne Bridge was second in the contest with Aaron Lennon. Kolo Touré was a shadow of the presence Ledley King provided for Tottenham. The only headers Touré won were in the Tottenham box, where he diverted two Bellamy corners – supreme goalscoring chances – wide of goal.
Carlos Tevez might have started the match by making a mockery of the fatigue which brought his training session to a premature close on Tuesday, but when City attacked, they did so in insufficient numbers, rarely delivering enough bodies to the box when Adam Johnson was opening up a flank. This caution on the counter attack – the Mancini way – makes his side less vulnerable to the high-scoring draws which were a characteristic of the Mark Hughes era but it breeds a tentative approach. Spurs, starting a point ahead of City with only Burnley to play on Sunday, were the side who could have opted for a defensive set-up, but instead delivered all the attacking intent. They were justly rewarded for their valour.
Mancini also needs some guile and powers of creation in midfield; skills which will be harder to find now. The diminution of Ireland and Shaun Wright-Phillips is one of the aspects of his era which should give Abu Dhabi genuine cause for concern. City's preparations for defeat were so complete that they had The Smiths' Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now ready to play at the end. Typically sharp marketing. Now for another difficult summer of reconstructive surgery.
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