Failure in Europe leaves Roberto Mancini vulnerable as Pep Guardiola waits in wings
There are times when Roberto Mancini must think he is back in Italy, where any coach completing two full seasons at the same club feels entitled to the epiphet "long-serving". Manager of the team he led to a first championship in 44 years, he is currently presiding over an unbeaten start of 10 games to the League season, yet finds questions being raised about his future employment.
Of course, special circumstances apply, one of which is that the club in question is Manchester City, where desire for instant success has made the club's supremely rich investor-owners almost as impatient as the only comparable regime, at Chelsea.
Like Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour wants to establish City as a European power by winning the Champions' League.
Doing so won Roberto Di Matteo a new Chelsea contract, but Tuesday's 2-2 draw at home to Ajax effectively confirmed that Mancini (pictured) will not be holding up the trophy at Wembley in May.
Finally, there is the shadow cast by the most admired coach in the world, Pep Guardiola, who just happens to be taking a sabbatical – one which his advisers say will end next summer.
"The doors are open for Milan, just like they are open for Manchester City, Chelsea and so on," said one of those advisers last week. "Pep will listen to offers and then he will evaluate them."
All three jobs would have their attractions; the worry for Mancini being that neither Milan, whose coach Massimiliano Allegri could soon be sacked, nor Chelsea has recently installed two Catalan senior executives who had worked with Guardiola at Barcelona, the chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain.
Rather than face any more of the questions that caused him to flare up at a media conference before the Ajax game, Mancini ducked Friday's press briefing, his assistant David Platt attending instead. Platt spoke up for him, as did the experienced Argentinian full-back Pablo Zabaleta, who was presumably referring to the players as well as the manager when he said of the criticism ahead of today's visit from Tottenham: "Sometimes in football you have to be ready for that, but that is when you have to be stronger. Things are not going well in the Champions' League but it is important to stay united because things are still going well in the Premier League. One of the positive points for us [against Ajax] was that we showed good character and a good spirit."
The coach in the opposite dug-out to Mancini this afternoon is no stranger to similar pressures. This time last season André Villas-Boas was just running into trouble as manager of Chelsea with three defeats in four League games and, before winter had turned to spring, he was out.
Although not without difficulties at Tottenham, where home form has been unaccountably poor, he is happy today to play the role of underdog, just as Spurs did on their previous trip to Manchester six weeks ago when achieving a stunning 3-2 victory at Old Trafford.
"It's the sort of game you have nothing to lose, so you approach it in a very confident way," Villas-Boas said. "Whatever you get out of playing the Premier League champions on their own ground is excellent."
Although he is unlikely to stick with the 4-4-2 formation featuring both Jermain Defoe and the striker signed from City, Emmanuel Adebayor, Villas-Boas will hope to play on a certain tension in the City ranks by maintaining best Tottenham traditions: "We want to respond a little bit to the Tottenham philosophy, we want to be brave when we play away from home. I'm not sure if it's going to pay out with the results we want, but we certainly always try to have a go."
Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
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