There was no doubt among Manchester City's players late on Wednesday night that there had been valour for every one of them in defeat. Manager Roberto Mancini rose to his feet on the team bus as it navigated a route out of Old Trafford and told them they could be back again as winners. He earned a deafening round of applause from his new players when he took his seat.
That said, no one around the blue side of Manchester was pretending yesterday that the Carling Cup semi- final defeat was anything less than a tragedy – and one compounded by the minor little miseries, like manager Mancini being forced to wait behind a locked gate to get into his press conference and United's kitman Albert Morgan walking up to City executives in the Old Trafford tunnel at the end and waving a red scarf in their faces.
City lost the battle, for sure, 3-1 on the night, 4-3 on aggregate, but it would be foolish to rule them out of the turf war. The detractors who would like the Arab riches to fall on stony ground, and for City's years without silverware to extend for more decades, are fond of imagining that Mancini's grip on the club is a precarious one which may end this summer. But the Italian has a security which his predecessor, Mark Hughes, lacked. The club's chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, wants Mancini to hit the 70-point target in the Premier League this season which Hughes agreed to at a board meeting in August, but the Italian will still be in situ next season if he does not.
It is understood that Mubarak and his board do not believe it is fair to expect Mancini, who is on a straight three-and-a-half year contract, to achieve the season's target having arrived halfway through. Neither is a top-four place this May understood to be a condition of his tenure extending to the 2010-11 season, though Mubarak is convinced from what he has seen that Mancini's results since arriving set him on course to achieving it.
The club are also undertaking work to ensure that the chief executive, Garry Cook, hugely valued in the Middle East, is not exposed to any more of the embarrassments which have contributed to his gaffe-prone image. Mubarak and his team are reported to believe Cook was left exposed when a video phone was used to record his declaration, in a bar in New York two weeks back, that City would become "without doubt, the biggest and best football club in the world".
Cook had been assured beforehand that it was safe to deliver a rousing speech to fans at the City-supporting Mad Hatter pub, where he had arrived to present a blue plaque to the bar to mark its affinities. The publicity created by the speech has helped fuel the latest chatter among the enemies Cook has made in the game that he is destined to be ousted this summer, though there is no evidence that this might be the case.
The Arabs have been astonished by the blizzard of publicity which City attract and they view Cook as an individual who has taken the hit for them after Hughes' departure last month. They also consider him pivotal to aspects of the club's corporate transformation which are alien to many traditionalists, and recognise the substantial role he had in player recruitment before Brian Marwood's arrival as football administrator. Cook, who remains generally popular with City fans, was heavily involved in the signing of Shay Given.
Cook's reputation took a major hit when Hughes left, though a clearer picture is now emerging about the Arabs' motives. The 70-point target was clearly fundamental, after four transfer windows' activity was condensed into two as the Arabs see it. "Accelerated player acquisition" was the term Cook used – though Mubarak's staff acknowledge that this was their way of putting it, not his, and that it was a mistake in retrospect to leave him to repeat it.
But points were not the only issue, with the Arabs understood to be relieved that Mancini appears to be more willing than the Welshman to accept their offer of the larger group of back-room staff which they believe befits the manager of a potentially world-class side. They felt a need for defensive specialists.
There is evidence from United and City's respective financial statements of the past month that the gulf between the two of them is narrowing fast. City's wage bill – £82.63m – will surpass United's next year and that, rather than transfer fees, is believed to be the prime indicator of a team's likely success on the field of play. Spending on salaries accounted for 92 per cent of variation in league position between 1998 to 2007.
City do still appear to lack the Wayne Rooney talisman in the squad of largely solid Premier League players Hughes gathered around him and Mancini, who is not expected to launch a clear-out this summer, perhaps needs the marquee signing which City will go for when the opportunity arises. But who, bar Rooney, will be left at Old Trafford when Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have gone? And which of the Manchester clubs is debt-free to buy more? Yes, that battle was absorbing but the war will be something else.
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