James Lawton: European flop highlights shortcomings of Roberto Mancini
He was behaving as a parody of a coach who knew what he was doing
One of the more persistent absurdities accompanying Roberto Mancini's Champions League misadventures is the idea that suddenly he is going to exclaim "eureka". And then the mysteries of performing with even a basic adequacy in football's greatest club competition will suddenly dissolve.
Please, is it not time to get a little more serious about the fact that Mancini, barring something quite miraculous, has condemned himself to still another catastrophic European experience?
What is it that a man who has known – admittedly with resources that most of his rivals would die for – considerable domestic success in both England and Italy needs to discover about a challenge which on five occasions now has left him so confused?
Surely it cannot be that there is some extraordinary suspension of the normal rules governing success at any level of football.
It cannot be that Mancini, given all his experience as both a distinguished player and a successful coach, needs a prolonged education in the special demands of a competition which is so self-evidently a natural extension of a winning coach's work.
Jose Mourinho never played the game professionally but no one needed to tell him how to win the great prize with Porto and Mancini's old club Internazionale.
It was simply a case of more of the same. More drive, more confidence. More tactics geared to the potential of your players and some easily transmittable sense that you have the means to get the job done.
On the night Mancini was once again behaving in Europe as a parody of a coach who seemed to know what he was doing, one apologising for a crime he never began to explain, Jürgen Klopp, coach of the Borussia Dortmund team which so thoroughly outplayed Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, was reflecting on why it was his team had just brought down Real Madrid. They had done it with a performance that was resonant with both easy skill and the hardest effort.
The requirement, said Klopp, was an understanding and confidence in the strength of your players and a degree of boldness in taking on any quality of opposition. Frank de Boer might have said the same after his young Ajax team had so thoroughly thrashed City – or Huub Stevens after his Schalke's ambush of Arsenal at the Emirates.
It wasn't some blood-stained insight drawn from years of Champions League battling. It wasn't some dogged pursuit of a mislaid chord. It was what you do as a serious contender for one of football's great prizes.
You certainly don't criticise your players with the public frequency of Mancini. You don't dismiss the instincts of players as naturally whole-hearted as Joe Hart and Joleon Lescott – and especially not after revoking a declaration that Carlos Tevez had gone beyond all reasonable bounds of redemption when he refused to follow orders in a huge match in Munich, then sulked off to South America.
You don't engage in tactical debates over the desirability of three or four at the back, and necessary adaption times, in the wake of a chaotic defeat already guaranteed to drag your credibility as a top coach uncomfortably close to zero.
Yet still we have this crazed theory that City are not involved in a serious examination of their status as a potentially leading club in Europe but are on some kind of open-ended voyage of discovery.
Many of Mancini's rivals have very good reason to find it hard to believe that anyone enjoying such huge resources should be given such an easy ride of performance assessment at the highest level of the game.
In Milan, Internazionale allowed Mancini three attempts at making some impact on the Champions League. When he failed for a third time to get beyond the quarter- finals, the verdict came in hard and final.
Mancini may feel that, having won the Premier League title, even if it was by the finest, most hazardous margin despite a squad that was palpably the strongest in the land, he is entitled to at least as much indulgence from his Abu Dhabi owners.
Perhaps he will get it. Maybe he will continue to operate in the security of a bizarre role as a hugely rewarded student on a European training course. There is, of course, the possibility of another outcome.
It is that somebody in the Middle East will note that the apex of the club's ambition, the European crown for which there has been such giant investment, remains somewhere on the dark side of the moon.
Manny Steward, the trainer who turned boxers into legends
Most fight aficionados would say that in the hierarchy of great trainers, Emanuel Steward, who died this week at the age of 68, occupied third place behind Eddie Futch and Angelo Dundee. However, in such company a bronze medal glows like the purest gold.
Not that "Manny", whose greatest achievement was Tommy "Hitman" Hearns and the Kronk gym in Detroit, which in boxing terms became a kind of sweaty amalgam of Oxbridge and the Sorbonne, always exuded a sheen of absolute purity. He was a knowing denizen of the fight jungle, which made that possibility somewhat remote, but he was the most stimulating company over a glass of his favourite Chablis in a thousand late night bars.
He was also a superb reader of a fighter's potential. He variously discovered, produced and handled a record 41 world champions, including Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya and Evander Holyfield. Lennox Lewis, who was brilliantly rehabilitated by Steward after his shocking world title defeat by Oliver McCall in 1994 to the point where he became one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, issued the warmest of tributes yesterday. He spoke of someone who cleared away so many impediments threatening a fighter's ability to fulfil his potential. Steward was less successful in purging some of Naseem Hamed's vanities but when any career was placed in the hands of the man from Bottom Creek, West Virginia, you knew that it would never be short of the wisest prompting.
Certainly, the great Hitman always regretted his failure to follow the instructions in arguably the most intense and spectacular fight of the 20th century, his defeat by Marvin Hagler in 1985. For two rounds Hearns pounded Hagler but when his legs began to wobble in the third it was the confirmation of Steward's worst fears. He had hammered home the need to use the ring, to draw from Hagler some of his formidable strength.
But, many years later, Hearns recalled: "I thought I had to go to my limit. I had to gamble and I had no regrets when I lost, even though I knew I should probably have listened to Manny when he tried to rein me in. I'd worked so hard and my legs felt so heavy I didn't believe I could go 12 rounds.
"I felt I had to get him out of there. I'd never blame Manny – we had our rows but they were never about how good he was. If I had my time back, I would listen more to my great trainer. I would trust my legs, fight through the tiredness. I would box him, use my reach. That was the strategy Manny outlined a thousand times, but then the bell rings and you are in another reality."
In the small hours of the following morning, Manny Steward took a slug of Chablis, sighed and said, "Tommy didn't fight the way I wanted, but no one will ever forget what they saw, and I will never wonder why I loved him so much."
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