Promised land beckons for City – but the battle will be staying there
Mancini fears limited funds this summer will make fighting on two fronts tricky next term
So here come Tottenham Hotspur, heading up the Ashton New Road to put a spoke in Manchester City wheels, just as they seem to have done at all the most inopportune moments across the course of the last 35 trophy-less years. It was Ricardo Villa's high jinks at Wembley in the FA Cup final 30 years ago, Peter Crouch's header at Eastlands, depriving City of Champions league football 12 months ago, and no one has leered at City's wealth quite like Harry Redknapp, a more unwelcome manager in east Manchester than any you are likely to find. The pressure he exerted yesterday by claiming to know City's big-spending plans belonged to a mischief-making which began when he claimed two years ago that City had blackmailed him into giving up his pursuit of Craig Bellamy.
Tottenham's potential to damage City is more limited this time. The small number of points Roberto Mancini needs to guarantee progression into the Champions League, which has been Abu Dhabi's obsession since they bought City 982 days ago, means that tonight's encounter will be a little less anxious than last spring's. But the conclusion of Tottenham's season does hold a mirror up to the anxiety which Roberto Mancini carries with him into the promised land of Europe's leading club competition.
At a time when the word "budget" has formed a serious part of the City lexicon for the first time since Sheikh Mansour's arrival, Mancini has looked at the way that Spurs' squad has proved so incapable of combining a colourful Champions League campaign with a powerful push for a Premier League top-four place and is understood to be wondering whether that might be City's problem next season. While those continental exploits of Redknapp's will obscure the fact that a £200m squad has failed to maintain a place in the elite, Abu Dhabi might not view such an outcome so benignly – even if there is a delightful progression to the knock-out stages to look back on. Phase one of the City project involved high spend to reach the big league. Phase two involves staying in it. There's no going back.
It is the strength of the substitutes' benches commanded by Sir Alex Ferguson – the manager who looked at Redknapp's squad last autumn and predicted that waging a campaign on two fronts would be too much for the club – which dazzles Mancini. "United played eight or nine different players [against Schalke] from the side that will play against Chelsea," he declared only last week. "If you want to win you want to win like this." But when Mancini looks at his own bench, he wonders how his club will cope.
His chief executive, Garry Cook, was at Udinese at the weekend, watching the Chilean right-sided forward Alexis Sanchez, whose signing City want to tie up early. Bolton's Gary Cahill and Edinson Cavani, the Napoli striker who has scored 26 goals in 35 games on loan from Palermo, may feature on the list, too. But the conclusion of phase one happens to coincide with an end to the days of wine and roses. Uefa's drive towards Financial Fair Play is upon the club, and the European governing body's head of club licensing, Andrea Traverso, wants to begin shadowing the club and others from this autumn to help the drive towards reducing losses of £133m to no more than £13m a year from 2013. Mancini is back in the real world, needing his club to convert loan deals for Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz and Craig Bellamy and to sell Jo, Shaun Wright-Phillips and others, to deliver him some income.
Expect this to make for a more strained environment than last summer, when City were barely out of their league campaign when the pursuit of James Milner began, leading to huge pre-season expectation, including a beaming Mancini declaring that there might be a tattoo on his left leg after City won this season's title, to go with the pipe-smoking sailor on his right which reveals his immutable passion for Sampdoria. It will be for Cook to press home the significance of the word "budget" – testing a relationship which is not always the most comfortable, between two quite different characters.
The pressure points may come if Mancini finds that shipping out players is difficult. City were delighted at the loan deal which took Adebayor to Real Madrid because it included a £14.5m option to buy, but the prospects of the striker remaining in Madrid are next to zero after his dismal displays in the clasicos (four bookings, no goals). City need to lose his £165,000 a week salary. Their refusal to do loan business in January with clubs who would not agree to an option to buy in the summer revealed the importance of selling this summer and is why Wright-Phillips is not currently working at Fulham or Bolton Wanderers.
The restraint, taken with the figures being quoted for Sanchez (£30m) and Cavani (£20m) reveal why City will not countenance releasing Carlos Tevez, whom Mancini expects to be involved in some way tonight as a precursor to an FA Cup final appearance against Stoke City, for less than £50m. Yesterday, Nigel de Jong declared tonight's game to be the most significant since his appearance for the Netherlands in the World Cup final. "You just have to take the experiences with you and make sure you go for it," he insisted. "Everything is in our hands." But the same can't be said for Mancini this summer.
It was Redknapp who suggested, after the goalless draw with City in the Premier League's first fixture of the season, that City had too many players. "I'd hate to have another striker – I wouldn't care who it was. What would you do with five?" he reflected. But as Mancini peers towards the elite, he is finding it hard to accept that less is more.
Who's on Manchester City's shopping list? three players who could be heading to Eastlands
Alexis Sanchez, Udinese
* Age 22
* Position Striker
* Country Chile
* Caps 36
* Goals 12
* Recent injury trouble has been the only blemish on an impressive season in Northern Italy. 'The Wonder Boy' made his international debut at just 17 and impressed at last summer's World Cup.
Edinson Cavani, Napoli
* Age 24
* Position Striker
* Country Uruguay
* Caps 25
* Goals 9
* The versatile forward has been linked with a number of Europe's leading sides and impressed with a recent hat-trick against Lazio. "El Matador" also scored against Germany at last year's World Cup.
Gary Cahill, Bolton Wanderers
* Age 25
* Position Defender
* Country England
* Caps 3
* Goals 0
* The former Aston Villa trainee, who joined Bolton for £5m, has missed only two league games this season and made his England debut last September. He is a commanding centre-back and has interested Arsenal and Spurs.
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