James Lawton: If Roberto Mancini can offer Manchester City only excuses, Pep Guardiola may bring answers
The list of those who would make more impact than the current City manager is embarrassingly long
Now that two of his most admiring amigos form the new Manchester City hierarchy, Pep Guardiola is understandably enough a huge shadow over the increasingly dislocated Roberto Mancini. But surely he is not the only one. Indeed, the list of those who you would have to back to make more of an impact on the Champions League with one of the most expensively assembled squads in the history of football is getting embarrassingly long.
If the Italian is increasingly waspish about the level of pressure he is experiencing before tonight's re-match with the young and unproven Ajax team which ripped City apart in Amsterdam two weeks ago, he doesn't have to look too far for its source. Most of it is being generated by the self-destructive stream of his own consciousness which has accompanied, step by faltering step, his latest misadventures in the game's most prestigious club tournament.
Mancini's pitiful record in Europe is bad enough but just as damaging is that almost every time he opens his mouth he gives us an insight into the likely reasons why it is quite so dire.
Yesterday he was visibly smarting under the weight of persistent questioning about his job security at the Etihad Stadium and the inevitably looming image of Guardiola with the appointment of his Barcelona confederates Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain as, respectively, chief executive and director of football. But as the speculation intensifies around his shaky tenure, Mancini continues to provide reasons why such luminaries as Barça's two-time Champions League winner Guardiola, Jose Mourinho – a contender to become the first coach to win the prize with three separate clubs – and old blood-and-guts Sir Alex Ferguson have to be seen in an entirely different dimension.
Mancini talks endlessly of the Champions League as some torturous, learn-as-you-lose exercise even as new-wave coaches like Ajax's Frank de Boer and Jürgen Klopp of Borussia Dortmund light up the competition – and in successive ties utterly outplayed City.
Yesterday the City manager's bizarre thesis was stretching towards the surreal. "We're a good team but we're not ready in the Champions League like the other teams. Chelsea tried for 10 years to win the Champions' League. They were probably the best team in Europe for 10 years and they won it when they probably didn't deserve to. They deserved to win it three or four years before. The Champions League is like this."
Yes, indeed they did, but only Mancini in his current mode could advance the point as some kind of justification for his serial disasters. Chelsea might have won in 2008 if John Terry hadn't slipped on his backside at a pivotal moment in the club's history and a year later they might well have done it if a Norwegian referee hadn't sabotaged so profoundly their brilliant performance against, Barcelona, of all opponents.
When Chelsea lost in Moscow it wasn't for a lack of nerve or competitive courage against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. They didn't skulk into the dark Russian night under the command of Avram Grant, a coach who, for all his perceived weaknesses, didn't talk endlessly of the need to learn the European ropes.
This was also Mancini yesterday: "I don't think we're ready to win the Champions League. If we say we are, we are not honest."
We should remember something which it is reasonable to believe has already been noted by the new inhabitants of the executive suite of Manchester City. This is not a greenhorn manager nurturing a bunch of callow, ill-considered players plainly operating out of their depth. It is a coach who had four cracks at the competition in Italy, once with Lazio and three times with Internazionale, and finished bottom of the qualifying group once, and failed in two quarter-finals and one round of 16. It surely added up to some kind of learning experience but one that has hardly radiated much hope or insight into, so far, two catastrophic crusades with City.
Nor can Mancini plead that he suffers in comparison to the resources of a Klopp, De Boer or Huub Stevens, the Schalke coach who ambushed Arsenal at the Emirates a fortnight ago. Mancini has troops as seasoned – and potentially dominant – as Yaya Touré, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez and, on the kind of night he enjoyed against Germany in the Euro semi-final, Mario Balotelli. This should not be a tentative expeditionary force. It should be ready to engage the action on any battlefield.
The most persistent word is that Guardiola is assessing his best opportunity as the days of his New York sabbatical slip away, with a Chelsea now adorned by the skills of Oscar and Hazard and Mata at the head of the list. But then City have so much to offer the reuniting of the Three Amigos. They have a developing scouting system, one that might one day soon have the drawing power of the fabled Barça academy, and the resources to make the key moves a new coach might need to make a team in his own image.
Guardiola has the aura of both a winner and the author of beautiful football. Klopp and De Boer have seized on the adventurous instincts and excitement of talented youth. Mourinho continues to find ways of shaping any situation to his own advantage, and it is interesting to remember that for all his ruthlessness he was given a teary farewell by the Internazionale players he guided to Champions League glory at the second time of asking.
Mourinho didn't speak of some fiendish seminar stretching out into a distant future. He made his assessments and operated from his club's strength. Most of all he lived in the moment. There is a mound of circumstantial evidence to say it is almost certainly too late, but Roberto Mancini should really give it a try.
Heroic Vettel fit to follow in Senna's slipstream
It is has always been the challenge of Formula One to properly showcase the nerve and the brilliant skill of its finest drivers and surely the point has rarely been more ferociously underlined than in the performance of champion-elect Sebastian Vettel in Abu Dhabi at the weekend.
It was an absorbing race and mesmerising performance by the German who had acquired the unwanted reputation of a robotic enforcer of Red Bull's technical prowess.
On Sunday, though, he reminded us of that old thrill when the great racers would hurtle into the chicane at Monza, when the extraordinary, some said divine, Ayrton Senna, showed us what he meant when he declared: "Being second is to the first of the ones who lose... and so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and your experience as well, you can fly very high."
Vettel's performance hit a stunning altitude when he came flying out of the pit-lane at the back of the field. The formidable Fernando Alonso exclaimed "incredible" when he was told Vettel was at his back for the third place that seems likely to win him his third straight title.
Yes, it was certainly that. The top racers should draw lots to determine the race in which they are obliged to start from the pit-lane. It would, race by race, illustrate the most compelling reason for it all.
Wenger abuse caps a torrid few weeks
A few weeks ago some us were reproached for our cynicism over declarations that a day of good spirit and reconciliation at Anfield might just have ushered in a new tone of decency in football.
It would be too wearisome to list all the contradictory evidence compiled by some loathsome behaviour on the terraces – and the pitches – over the last few weeks. Maybe it is enough just to hope that those responsible for the sickening chants against Arsène Wenger at Old Trafford on Saturday are even now being hunted down.
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