"Abu Dhabi – Travellers Welcome" reads the new legend on the front wall of Manchester City's Carrington training ground.
It's the brand message of the emiracy which has transformed the club and though some of the security staff are genuinely worried that the itinerants with caravans may take it as an invitation, the footballing irony is magnificent.
The new signings continue to roll in, with Italian striker Mario Balotelli the latest in town, courtesy of a private jet from Milan yesterday. As The Independent reported, also yesterday, a £23m deal and £2.8m annual salary was agreed late on Thursday. James Milner will follow from Aston Villa next week if the hitch to Stephen Ireland's progress in the opposite direction can be resolved. Ireland claims he is owed £5m by City and is asking for a £2m compromise payment. City insist they owe him nothing.
The first awkward test after a summer which may see the spending top £130m comes immediately, in today's lunchtime encounter at Tottenham, the side who jolted Mancini's ambitions for a top-four finish at the death last season. On the face of things City, a club now equipped with Yaya Touré, David Silva, Jerome Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov as well as Balotelli after a series of signings that have taken their current spending levels to £106m, should be entering the match with the momentum, though it is hardly a spirit of euphoria which has accompanied them through these last days of build-up to a season on which Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson are agreed upon one thing: that fourth place for City is the minimum requirement.
Instead, the club has been beset by the simmering discontent of the players who have been jettisoned, first Craig Bellamy and then Ireland. There is also a storm brewing with Shay Given if Mancini prefers Joe Hart to him today – and the feeling now is that the Englishman may have done enough. It was while the thorny goalkeeping issue was under discussion at Carrington yesterday that Mancini's pager went off. He jumped. "It is Shay!" he joked. "No. I hope they are both here."
There was no Mancini jocularity for Bellamy and Ireland, though. Ireland "needs to change", the manager said. "Sometimes it can happen: one player stays in a squad for 15 years, plays well every week, but it is the time for him to change. He played here for all his life." And the decision to omit Bellamy from City's Europa League squad was a "technical" one, he added. "Last year Craig played all the games with me but this year I choose other players. I'm a manager and I have to make this choice. What he says after that is not important."
Mancini has always been his own man at City – it was that quality which enabled him to offload Robinho, another player he wants out, to Santos, where his predecessor Hughes put up and shut up on that score. But his analysis of Ireland, who was named the club's player of the year just 15 months ago, sounded shrill, even in the faltering English with which it was delivered, and the question as City go in search of some return at last on investment in excess of £300m, is whether there should have been so much renewal. The fact Hart will be comfortably their longest serving player if he starts today says everything about a club whose capacity for flux knows no limit. Can this band of happy travellers really bond and establish a new core when they are such strangers to each other and their club?
Mancini is certainly not the most popular manager among some of those inside his club and though he hopes the summer appointment of coach David Platt will help build a bridge to his English playing contingent, there is certainly potential for fireworks. Of course, he rejected the idea that he was taking a risk by throwing away British and Irish players who really knew the territory, such as Bellamy – who may reasonably wonder why the recalcitrant Robinho is more worthy of a Europa League squad place than he – and Ireland, whose complexities were certainly understood by Mark Hughes, who transformed him. "No, in our squad we have Shay, Joe Hart, Wayne Bridge, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry, Michael Johnson, Wright-Phillips, [Micah] Richards," Mancini insisted. "We don't only need strong characters, we need good players. But we have nine, 10, 11 English players."
If Robinho, Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor had not offered enough man-management challenges, then the arrival of Balotelli [who was 20 on Thursday] certainly will. His tempestuous career at Internazionale has been blighted by racist abuse but many question his temperament. Mancini believes he can handle it. "He's just young and, like all young guys, sometimes his behaviour is different but it's false to say that he is not a good man," the manager insisted. "In England I think Balotelli could be a fantastic player. He can improve here. He is changing country, changing his club, and I think that will be better for him. I think in one or two years he will be one of the best players in the world."
Mancini's new interpreter simultaneously translates every question to make Mancini's responses far less random than last season, where answers sometimes bore no relation to questions. But while his own English is taking time to develop – and certainly has not done so in the summer – he believes that his players must master the language if they are to bond. "I hope that the players who arrive here... can speak English," he said. "They must speak English with the other players for sure. It's important they're together."
Mancini certainly feels a visit to White Hart Lane could have come at a better time, hinting that David Silva and Carlos Tevez may not be ready to play today and that he will go with those who have featured more prominently in the past month. Defender Jerome Boateng has also picked up a knee injury playing for Germany. "Tottenham will probably play the same team as last year but we will [be] a new team and we probably need more time – not two months, but two or three weeks working together will be good," Mancini said, sounding suspiciously like a man getting his defence in early.
For all the doubts, City look to have bought wonderfully well. Boateng and Kolarov combine defensive rigour with an ability to attack down the flanks. Silva could potentially be the signing of the summer. Touré looks heaven made for the Premier League with his blend of touch and supreme physical strength. The challenge for Mancini when they are all fit, is how to start Adam Johnson, as he surely must if the winger plays as he did both against Valencia and for England against Hungary in midweek. It is a dream team, for sure.
The football world awaits – including Ferguson, whose own expectations of City were delivered honestly yesterday and with no attempt to whip up a storm. He was allowed to work nine years for his first title. Mancini has only nine months to secure a top-four finish.
'Super Mario' Balotelli: talented but troubled
Mario Balotelli, who used to be called 'Super Mario' by Internazionale fans, has long attracted attention in Italy for both his precocious talent and ability to cause controversy.
*He was handed his Inter debut as a 17-year-old by current Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini in December 2007 and rapidly won headlines by scoring twice against Juventus in the Coppa Italia. That helped spark an acrimonious relationship with a section of hardcore Juve supporters whose persistent racial abuse of the striker eventually led to their ground being closed for one game.
*Before Balotelli's second season in the Inter first-team, Mancini was replaced by Jose Mourinho and predictably he soon fell out with the Portuguese disciplinarian. A troubled relationship came to a head when Mourinho dropped him for last season's Champions League tie with Chelsea. Balotelli then appeared on Italian TV wearing a Milan shirt and threw his Inter jersey on the pitch at San Siro after being booed by fans.
*He scored 20 goals in 59 games for Inter and helped them win three Serie A titles and the European Cup, earning his first Italy cap against Ivory Coast this week. Inevitably that was marked by controversy – Balotelli was born to Ghanaian parents in Palermo and some fans still struggle to accept him as eligible for the Azzurri.Reuse content