The full extent of Mark Hughes' fury with some of the established Manchester City players he considers to have become "too comfortable" was revealed yesterday when it emerged that Elano was axed from the match-day squad to face West Bromwich last Sunday after he had put in a lacklustre training session the day before, on the back of a poor personal display in the side's Uefa Cup defeat in Santander.
Words are understood to have been exchanged between player and manager at the Carrington training ground and the sense of division within the ranks of a club in the relegation zone after defeat at the Hawthorns was also underlined by the seemingly bizarre behaviour of the Brazilian's compatriot Jo at the weekend. He trained on Saturday, phoned in sick and missed the coach to the West Midlands on Sunday – but arrived under his own steam. Hughes has been disenchanted for several months with Elano who, while the City manager was in Abu Dhabi for his first talks with the club's new owner, Sheikh Mansour al Nahyan, last month, went public about his frustrations about his lack of starts. The coach at Elano's previous club, Shakhtar Donetsk, is understood to have telephoned City to alert them to Elano's sensitivities to not playing, and that message seems prophetic now.
The row mirrors one which made him an equally alienated figure at the Ukraine club. In fact, Elano has started 16 league and cup games this season, scoring four times, and after a meeting in the manager's office following the player's previous outburst, which led to a £40,000 fine, he was selected for European games against Paris St-Germain and Racing and the Premier League match with Everton.
He was poor in all of them and seems to be on the way out of City, with the Spanish side Espanyol and Italy's Lazio understood to be interested. Though Hughes appears to be safe to launch the January spending spree Sheikh Mansour is preparing for, the friction behind the scenes reflects the wider problem of how he should manage players who were a part of the Sven Goran Eriksson regime which preceded him last season.
Stephen Ireland is the only individual to have responded to the Welshman's new, disciplinarian culture, with neither Richard Dunne nor Micah Richards worthy of a place in any Premier League starting line-up on current form. Darius Vassell is another inherited player who, according to some noises emerging from the club, is disenchanted and Hughes showed from the touchline at West Bromwich just how frustrated he was with the player's consistently poor delivery from the right. Tal Ben Haim does not appear to be Hughes' answer to City's grave central defensive problems.
The defender was marginalised on Sunday, with the England Under-21 international Nedum Onuoha given the role of understudy to Richards and Dunne. Hughes' language suggests he has more faith in his younger players and of Elano on Sunday he said: "[His] performance levels have not been up to scratch so I've left him at home and brought some of the younger lads."
It is difficult to predict whether Elano's seemingly imminent departure from Eastlands will affect Robinho. The record British signing has described his compatriot as a "brother" and during City's 3-0 win against Arsenal last month pointedly celebrated with him near the City bench, where he was a substitute.
The sense of a fissure between the old and new is reinforced by the fact that Hughes' own men – Shaun Wright-Phillips, Vincent Kompany and, gradually, Pablo Zabaleta – are the ones delivering. Though the badly needed Martin Petrov is not expected back much before the end of the season, the possible return next month of Valeri Bojinov will provide badly needed support in the striking department. That said, Hughes would appear to be in need of reinforcement in all areas of the pitch on current form.
City's executive chairman, Garry Cook, indicated last week that Hughes would definitely still be in place in January. "I think a lot of people expected a light switch to be flicked as soon as the news broke that we'd changed control," he said. "There are a lot of people at the football club, including the manager, who are building for the future and those things take time. Some things have not gone according to plan, like results, but that doesn't mean we go veering off our original strategy which was cleared and reviewed with Sheikh Mansour."