James Lawton: Mancini must man up if City are to emulate the heroes of '68
City have become not so much the unstoppable horse as the one-trick pony
Yaya Touré was always going to be a critical absence at the formative stage of a Manchester City season now showing the potential for full-blown catastrophe. But if they could not cover for the big man who often resembles a force of nature as much as a high-priced football commodity, who could?
Silva, Nasri, Milner, Barry, De Jong, Johnson and the new recruit, Roma veteran David Pizarro, aren't so much a skeleton staff as a managerial fantasy for Tuesday night conqueror David Moyes of Everton.
It is a reality that Roberto Mancini – to his credit as a football man of some honesty rather than a skilful self-publicist – maybe acknowledged when he took the blame for the ultimately wretched performance in the 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park. Some eyebrows were raised by Mancini's candour but some desperate times demand desperate remedies. What Mancini could not indulge in was even a hint of deflected blame as Moyes celebrated his fifth triumph over the Italian in six collisions. This represented not only huge over-achievement but also a recurring instinct for drawing maximum value from the thinnest resources.
Mancini scourged himself for sub-par preparation but the problem seemed to run a little deeper. City looked like a team of dwindling belief and at the current rate the challenge facing Touré when he returns from Africa might well be daunting even for a man of his power and confidence.
Telling, perhaps, was the expression of James Milner when returned to the bench after making way for Adam Johnson. Milner has produced some magnificent performances in the face of his team's diminishing certainties and most notably in the stirring rally against Manchester United in the FA Cup tie.
On Tuesday night, though, his face was a grim mask as he watched his team-mates drift from one point of confusion to another. Indeed, one camera shot offered more than a hint of the expression which overcame Cesc Fabregas, also a spectator, when he considered the scale of Arsenal's failure in last year's Carling Cup final at Wembley. A harsh and somewhat premature conclusion, you might say, but it is a comparison which will come more sharply into focus if City falter again any time soon.
Banished from the Champions League, hustled out of the FA Cup and the Carling Cup, City are threatening to match Arsenal's fall from the radar. They have become not so much the unstoppable horse as a one-trick pony. Still, as we are constantly told, winning the title for the first time since the team of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison did it with such thrilling nerve 44 years ago is the move that might unlock so many other possibilities.
What has to happen, clearly, is something that disappeared quite disturbingly this week. It was the swagger of natural-born champions-elect. Some believe that one of the truly outstanding achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson was to get United, vintage 2011, first past the post last spring – admittedly by a flattering margin. If he does it again the critical acclaim has to go up several notches – and the sharpest point of analysis would surely come in the measuring of his resources against those of Mancini.
This is the time of the season when champions-elect begin to show their credentials, move up their self-assurance levels a notch or two, and if this week anyone has even hinted at this it is certainly not City. The demeanour of Ferguson has rarely been so jaunty this season as when United were brushing aside Stoke 2-0 at the same time as City were floundering so badly on Merseyside.
Harry Redknapp, rejoicing at both a break from court and fresh evidence that Gareth Bale is building again towards some epic performance – and still more financial upgrading in the European transfer market – may also have briefly reflected that if Jermain Defoe had appreciated a fraction more quickly the brilliant weight Bale put on a late cross at the Etihad Stadium, City would now be smouldering in third place.
Such conjecture, of course, never got a football man anywhere, but then nor did the kind of navel-gazing produced by Mancini in still another defeat. His assistant Brian Kidd was around at the time to feel, as a rising United star, the force of City's superb emergence all those years ago. He might just want to point out the key was an astonishing level of confidence, a belief that the team of Bell and Lee and company had come together in the understanding they had become unstoppable. They proved this when they carried the title in their last two matches with wins at Tottenham and Newcastle.
Any comparison with that mood and the one City took to Goodison Park this week has to be forlorn. Yes, 1968 is a long time ago but some things in football never change. High among them is the need of a manager to make his players feel good. This is hard when his body language so often speaks of despair.
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