Forget Mario Balotelli and the Anfield away dressing room door. The lesser noticed, though far more significant, expression of anger in the course of Manchester City's fiery afternoon at Anfield on Sunday was Samir Nasri's. It was difficult to discern whether the expletives he mouthed in his native French were for his manager or himself but they were unmistakable. "Sa mere, sa mere," Nasri said, several times over, when his number was held up after a mere 65 minutes. There is no direct translation of the expression in this context, though they are words of deep frustration.
This sums up how the autumn has turned out to be for 24-year-old Nasri, who had always looked like the one of City's two summer signings from Arsenal destined never to look back. Instead, Gaël Clichy has been the man renewed in a period of conflicting fortunes for the two Frenchmen, who are back in north London as their old and new clubs rejoin battle in the Carling Cup quarter-final this evening.
Clichy somehow felt like an afterthought when, for a sum of £7m, he was stolen from under Liverpool's noses in July and hardly mourned by Wenger. Liverpool actually seemed to take it the hardest. A good humoured text message from one of their scouts to City's technical director Mike Rigg suggested some severe frustration. Nasri, though, was courted so fastidiously – Mancini's eulogies depicting him as the "final piece in the jigsaw" – that he felt sure to be the key to his new club's development. "Pure indiscretion... absolutely out of order," raged Wenger after Mancini had ventured to discuss publicly the player Arsenal were so desperate to keep.
Nasri's price turned out to be nearly four times that of Clichy, though the job of repaying that £24.4m is not exactly under way. His parting gift to Wenger was a scintillating performance against Liverpool, on 20 August, though Kenny Dalglish need not have feared the same player, second time around, on Sunday. Nasri's supine display rather told the story of his season: six Premier League starts, a mere 14 minutes in the symbolic 6-1 win at Old Trafford and an emerging sense that when Mancini picks his first XI – as he will against Bayern Munich a week tomorrow – that Nasri's name will not be in it. Very early days, but he does fit a pattern in which the migration up the M6 has not been as happy as Wenger's players assumed it would be. Neither Emmanuel Adebayor nor Kolo Touré have found the success they would have wanted at City.
Events are not always within a player's control, of course. Just ask the City players how they slept on the night before last Tuesday's Champions League defeat in Napoli where Nasri, a 70th-minute substitute, did not shine. They'll tell you about how the air conditioning mysteriously failed in their part of the team hotel, leaving the squad attempting to sleep in their hot rooms. But what Nasri really didn't bargain for was the competition he has faced from David Silva, the finest player of this Premier League campaign to date, and James Milner, City's most improved player on last season and, Silva aside, their best. It has perhaps not entirely helped that Manchester United was the club where Nasri really wanted to be.
Clichy's story has been a very different one. The left-back, who is two years Nasri's senior, has certainly found Mancini's squad rotations slightly frustrating. "As a player you always want to play, its a big difference for me because at Arsenal I was used to playing week in week out," he said yesterday. "Of course you are disappointed but I am not the only one and I've played in some amazing games against United, Tottenham, Liverpool..." Yet he clearly is Mancini's first choice – ahead of Aleksandar Kolarov – and though dependability, rather than invincibility, best describes him, he is in his best period of form for several years. Several of Clichy's crosses at Anfield had echoes of the days, after Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea, when he was being touted as a superstar.
Clichy finally has some competition across 100m – Micah Richards and Nedum Onuoha, in that order, can outrun him in a way few could at Arsenal – but that seems to be all that he has to worry about at a club where he appears to be the one assuaging the angst of others. Clichy was in the firing line when Adam Johnson, not a player terribly predisposed to being substituted, was withdrawn after 40 minutes against Villarreal at the Etihad Stadium last month. "He was asking me why I thought I had been taken off and I said, 'Don't worry about it, man'," Clichy related. "I said that you have to respect the coach's decision and move on."
The indignation he felt over a move that nearly doubled his wages – from £58,000, excluding bonuses, to over £90,000 at City – seems to have dissipated, too. There was some cynicism in the summer when Clichy, who said after Adebayor's departure from Arsenal to the club in 2009 that "if you are a player who thinks only about money then you could end up at Manchester", made the very same move. Clichy responded by suggesting that Wenger's squad had "collapsed" last season because it lacked depth. "I really hope the fans have memories of me as a player who always gave 100 per cent," a more mellow Clichy reflected yesterday. "I think they'll be more sad at losing Fabregas than Clichy. I always said they will be near the top at the end of the season. They had everything against them at the start of the season – red cards, injuries, own goals."
Wenger is unlikely to have mellowed quite so much as Clichy, whose desire to play against his close friend Theo Walcott (with whom he speaks every week) is unlikely to be realised, with the second choice Kolarov in line to start tonight. The Arsenal manager's patience has been sorely tested by the knowledge that City have designs on making Robin van Persie their fifth Arsenal signing next summer. It was out of deference to Wenger that Clichy ducked eulogies to Van Persie yesterday. "Do I really need to say how good he is?" the defender said. "He is one of my very good friends."
Though Clichy also felt that "it should be fun going back there", Nasri is unlikely to feel quite so buoyant. His departure was seen as a betrayal in a way which that of Clichy, a servant of eight years, was not. Clichy was yesterday also remembering how, as an 18-year-old, Wenger made him a part of the young side who went all the way to a semi-final against Middlesbrough.
Wenger had Nasri in mind when he cautioned supporters against the kind of abuse Adebayor received when he went back. "You want to respect the players who have played for us, that is what we expect," the manager said. But a rough welcome at his old home will not be one of Nasri's prime preoccupations. He is too busy trying to make a smooth landing at his new one.
Nasri deserves respect, Wenger tells fans
Arsène Wenger has urged that Samir Nasri is afforded a warm welcome when he returns to the Emirates for the first time since his £24m summer move, despite some fans' lingering sense that he betrayed the club that brought him to the Premier League in a bid to force a move to City.
"I hope Samir gets a good reception," said Wenger of the 24-year-old, who was sold after failing to agree a new contract with just a year left to run on his existing deal. "Personally I want every player who has played for us to be respected when they come back. You want to keep your young players [but] ... he improved tremendously while he was with us. He was an important player here and I'm sure he will be for City as well."
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Seen as the final piece in Roberto Mancini's jigsaw. The former Marseilles man's light has only flickered this season, with him spending too long on the periphery of matches. Total starts 11/21
Signed for £7m, the left-back has enjoyed a promising start to his City career, starting nine league games so far. In the Champions League, however, he has been used sparsely, with Aleksandar Kolarov often chosen instead. Total starts 11/21
The Ivorian received a six-month drugs ban in February. Has not started in the League this season as City have flourished.
Despite a flying start the striker failed to settle in Manchester. He was loaned out in January last year to Real Madrid, and is this season at Tottenham.