Mancini plays it smart as City go back to basics
Manchester City 2 Stoke City 0: Italian wants team to reflect his self-control but old defensive fallibility is still very much in evidence
Sunday 27 December 2009
Roberto Mancini – the man who can even make a Manchester City scarf look like a fashion item. It was knotted elegantly outside of his finely tailored black overcoat yesterday afternoon and still impeccably draped there after he had spent 90 minutes on the edge of his technical area, apparently dispelling any notion that Premier League management is a job with high pressures attached.
The British touchline approach we are more accustomed to was offered by Brian Kidd, the assistant imposed on Mancini, who for half an hour or so raced in and out of his technical area, principally to hurl orders at defenders. Mancini did not want him there – he would actually prefer his friend David Platt at the club – and having gestured him away a few times with a nonchalant flick of an outstretched hand, Kidd ventured more tentatively into the coach's space. Mancini, it seems, is a coach who does things his own way.
Craig Bellamy, whose relegation to the bench suggests Mancini will not nurture him into an acceptance of Mark Hughes' dismissal, ran across the touchline to take instructions towards the end, indicating that he already knows who is boss, too. But it will take more than Mancini's insouciance to appease the supporters if Bellamy, greeted like a returning hero when he arrived in Robinho's place half an hour from time, leaves this winter.
The Brazilian provided one of the afternoon's comedy moments when after an indifferent match he took the applause, thinking it was for him. The kick he aimed when reaching the dug-out undid the picture Mancini presents of a rosy scene between club and player. It helped that Stoke did not offer the lesson in Premier League fundamentals that could have made the Italian's introduction such an unfavourable one but he certainly provided what he had promised.
Gone was some of the carefree, attacking football which has seen City score three goals on each of eight outings this season but look so defensively brittle as well. Serious defensive scares were not entirely absent but the result was their first league clean sheet since the goalless draw at Birmingham on 1 November.
That said, all the usual panic was visible when Danny Collins curled a ball in from the left after 19 minutes which Tuncay Sanli latched on to in the area and struck with venom, forcing a fine reaction save from Shay Given. The City goalkeeper needed equally fine instincts to palm away a point-blank volley by James Beattie, one of Tony Pulis' substitutes, after another, Robert Huth, had headed Matthew Etherington's free-kick back across goal in the second period. Huth headed wide from the resulting corner, with another substitute, Ricardo Fuller, and Danny Higginbotham both missing from close range at the death. Pablo Zabaleta looked the only real rock of certainty at the back for City.
But Stoke's usual aerial bombardment was missing and their own defence looked the more vulnerable. It took City a little less than half an hour to breach it, Tevez racing between Dean Whitehead and Danny Higginbotham, threading a ball which Robinho threw a boot at and missed, but Martin Petrov did much better with – sidefooting home.
Petrov has scored on the four occasions he has started a City league game this season, though both he and Robinho missed opportunities to extend the lead before the Bulgarian set up City's second. The cross he floated into the penalty area three minutes into first-half injury time reached Gareth Barry, who was left free in the area to head towards Tevez who lifted a right foot acrobatically to lift it over Thomas Sorensen. Petrov should have added a third minutes after the restart when Andy Wilkinson's tackle on Robinho saw the ball break but Sorensen saved at the second attempt.
Pulis acted quickly, introducing three substitutes in the first 15 minutes of the second half and City's penetration waned as the game wore on. But the new manager was spared some of the frantic finishes which made 4.45pm on a Saturday such a nervy time for his predecessor.
An Italian journalist put it to Mancini last night that Internazionale fans had been feeling nostalgic, observing him on a TV broadcast of this game wearing the blue scarf of a new club, as he used to wear their own. "This colour, Sampdoria, Lazio, Inter... it's my colour," he said, reeling off the names of the sides he has managed or played for. Blue is the colour then? After 17 managers in 20 years, City fans will need more proof as they've heard it all before.
Referee: Lee Mason
Man of the match: Petrov
Match rating: 6/10
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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