Both Manchester managers saw the bigger picture yesterday but only one was really in command of it.
Roberto Mancini had "one thing to say before the football" and it was to "thank all the good people in Manchester who helped to calm the situation" and it was welcome that he put the value of social cohesion above the value of Samir Nasri.
But for Sir Alex Ferguson a sense of bafflement with the motivations of the rioters who took to the streets of Manchester in midweek came with the certainties of knowing the minds and the qualities of his own young people. "They really want to wake up and appreciate the society they are in and appreciate what their parents have done for them and the opportunity they have been given," he said, free and unscripted, of the looters. And what about signing Wesley Sneijder? "You can forget anyone you like, I'm happy with the young players I've got."
Of course, both these men occupy a gilded place, as far removed from the rioters as from those who created their two great clubs, with the express aim of distracting working men who were prone to public drinking and violence, in the 19th century. But Ferguson spoke with the ease of a man vindicated by his decision to place his faith in youth, while Mancini finds himself in the midst of his own maelstrom, still buying, selling and assimilating like fury as City launch off into their fourth season under Abu Dhabi ownership: the one in which Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan is expecting a title. "I am worried," Mancini said yesterday, frustrated by the fact that Nasri will not, after all, be his player in time to face Swansea on Monday.
In City's grand scheme of things, an embarrassing Carling Cup defeat at West Bromwich Albion does not sound like a setback to register much but it is the one which some of those who work with Mancini say he keeps returning to. The Italian fielded a virtually unrecognisable side at the Hawthorns last September, which lost 2-1, to preserve his best players for the lunchtime kick-off against Chelsea four days later, which they won 1-0. Mancini sees an omen in that cup defeat. He knows he can't throw in Greg Cunningham, John Guidetti, Javan Vidal and Ben Mee into Champions League combat, like he did in the Midlands. Waging battles on two fronts and failing to make next May's Premier League top four is an outcome that has haunted him for the last three months.
It doesn't help that Mancini and his coaching staff seem to form a nucleus removed from the City board. "It's not just them. It's a difficult market at the moment," he said of chief executive Garry Cook and football administration officer Brian Marwood, when explaining his Nasri frustrations yesterday. "I told them it was important to move quickly. I understand it's not easy but we need this player. We asked for this player two months ago."
Mancini has been given reign, where transfers are concerned. He did not feel that Ashley Young was a player City should pursue and though the interest in Fiorentina's right winger Alessio Cerci is his alone, he will be free to go after an Italian who seems to be almost as combustible as Mario Balotelli. But it still feels very much 'them' and 'us' with the board, in a way that it wasn't with Mancini's predecessor, Mark Hughes.
Mancini can be a hard man to reach accommodations with. He always was a fiercely uncompromising player – "With referees? Ooof. He was awful. He couldn't control himself," his mentor Sven Goran Eriksson recalled last spring – and age hasn't mellowed him. Those coaches who sit on the bench with Mancini tell of an individual so supremely talented as a player that he cannot relate to a player's error. The uncompromising part of Mancini lies behind his desire to see off the premises those players from a previous era. The Craig Bellamy who strolled insouciantly up to Carrington at 10am yesterday was arguably City's most powerful player two seasons ago and would provide the width which seems to be missing if Mancini would nurture him.
But the Italian is having none of this. "We have our team for the moment. I think he's a good player but if there's another solution for him it would be better. It will be difficult for him to stay here," Mancini said yesterday. Shaun Wright-Phillips also provides width and, critically, would satisfy Uefa's requirements for one of the four home-grown players needed for each Champions League squad. He, too, will be probably gone by September.
Many will say that those two are Europa League standard players, and nothing better, but the sense persists that those arriving to replace them do not really want to be there. Nasri, who longed to join United, is understood to have told a confidante this week that he does not really want to leave for City. The strategic decision to move for Sergio Aguero when City learned that Atletico Madrid chief executive Angel Gil Marin would not contemplate the backlash from selling him to the Bernabeu was made because City cannot be sure how long either Balotelli, let alone Carlos Tevez, will actually be with them.
The breadth of talent available to Mancini, with Nasri expected to sign by Monday, makes it difficult to envisage anyone but City chasing United hardest. But it seemed significant that, as Mancini launched into a speech on the rioters yesterday, his watch alarm went off. Expect more of them to sound in a turbulent nine months ahead.
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