Santa fails to save Sparky from the sack

Manchester City 4 Sunderland 3: Man City = Mancini as owners lose patience and bring in 'dream ticket' of Italian plus Kidd for ditched Hughes
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The Independent Football

He started the game dressed for a funeral, finished it with a wave to the crowd and then Mark Hughes was gone, off up the tunnel for the last time. Despite his 55th Premier League game in charge of Manchester City ending in victory, Hughes was given his marching orders by owners who have grown tired at the team's stuttering form under the Welshman.

Yet as he drove away from Eastlands for the final time, Hughes could not be blamed for feeling aggrieved at the rapid speed of his departure, two weeks after masterminding a victory over leaders Chelsea.

After all City have lost just twice this season on the Premier League stage, three fewer than Sir Alex Ferguson. And while Rafa Benitez remains in charge at Liverpool after seven League defeats and a failed Champions League campaign, Hughes will be jobless this Christmas despite City sitting four points behind fourth spot with a game in hand.

Yet the chaotic defending under Hughes, again in evidence yesterday, convinced owner Sheikh Mansour to take drastic action. With Roberto Mancini, the former Internazionale coach, taking immediate charge, with Brian Kidd as his assistant – a promotion from the former City player's role as technical development manager – City's season is at a crossroads. They are still well positioned to qualify for the Champions League if Mancini can find a winning formula, something that deserted Hughes. Despite starting the season with four successive wins, the record books will show that Hughes' 18-month reign ended on the back of three wins in 13 League games. Not good enough for the world's richest club.

"A return of two wins in 11 Premier League games is clearly not in line with the targets that were agreed and set," Khaldoon Al Mubarak, City's chairman, said in a statement released 90 minutes after the game. "Sheikh Mansour and the board felt that there was no evidence that the situation would fundamentally change."

On the appointment of Mancini, who won Serie A three times while in charge of Inter, Al Mubarak said that he had a proven track record of winning trophies and championships. "What is clear is that Roberto believes in City's potential to achieve at the highest level and importantly in his own ability to make this happen."

It was typical that Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz, two of Hughes' most trusted lieutenants, having served under him at Blackburn, should make key contributions in their manager's farewell game. According to City sources, Hughes, who spent £130 million on transfers in the summer, knew before kick-off that this was to be his last game, the 3-0 defeat to Tottenham on Wednesday convincing the club's hierarchy it was time for a change.

Dressed in a long black coat, a dark grey suit and black shoes, Hughes showed no emotion for any of his side's four goals. It was telling that Emmanuel Adebayor and Robinho, whose inconsistent form has frustrated Hughes, were dropped from his final line-up following the surrender at Spurs.

Their absence was hardly noticed in the opening 15 minutes as City raced into a 2-0 lead before anxiety creeped in once more. Sunderland had lost three of their previous four and Steve Bruce's side found themselves behind as early as the fourth minute, Santa Cruz netting his first League goal in a City shirt following a sweeping move involving Carlos Tevez and Bellamy.

Hughes, who spent the entire 90 minutes standing in his technical area, expressed no emotion whatsoever and he again had a blank look when Tevez doubled the lead from the penalty spot eight minutes later.

It was awarded after Nyron Nosworthy clipped the industrious Bellamy just inside the area. Tevez had pleaded with the club's owners before the game to keep faith with Hughes, the Argentina international insisting he is "100 per cent" behind the manager. The striker did his bit to keep Hughes in a job by beating keeper Marton Fulop. Seemingly cruising towards three points, fans began recalling the last time their side had managed a clean sheet win in the Premier League.

Yet by the time they remembered it was at Portsmouth on 30 August, Shay Given was fishing the ball out of his net after John Mensah's header went unchallenged following a cross by Andy Reid. Suddenly, the confidence seeped from City and, in an astonishing match, Sunderland drew level in the 24th minute.

Once again City only had themselves to blame after a mistake by Kolo Touré allowed Jordan Henderson to rifle an equaliser into the roof of the net. Hughes was furious and even Bellamy's sixth goal for his club this season, which made it 3-2, failed to change his mood.

City piled forward after the break in an attempt to kill off the game. Fulop produced a fine stop to deny Tevez in the 55th minute but another poor piece of defending allowed Sunderland substitute Kenwyne Jones to make it 3-3.

Fortunately for the hosts, Sunderland's defence is as crazy as City's and, in an absorbing game played in freezing conditions and with snow falling, Santa Cruz stabbed home the winner after good work by substitute Pablo Zabaleta and Gareth Barry. While City finished the evening with a new manager, Sunderland finished the match with 10 men after Turner was shown a straight red card by referee Andre Marriner for an elbow on Barry.

Attendance: 44,735

Referee: Andre Marriner

Man of the match: Bellamy

Match rating: 9/10

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