Maybe Mark Hughes harbours more indignation than we know at Roberto Mancini's appointment to the job he was not allowed to finish. Maybe Mancini harbours more concern than we know about the distance left to travel. Either way, the antipathy between the two was all too evident last night as the Italian's half-hearted acceptance of a handshake prompted his predecessor to accuse him of a lack of grace.
Hughes's Fulham side had just compounded the sense that City are heading towards another anxious spring when he extended a hand and, when Mancini refused to look him in the eye on accepting it, he snatched it away. A diplomatic incident then played out, in which Mancini first accused Hughes of the same offence when his City side beat Fulham 4-1 at Craven Cottage in November. "I heard that he said something but I don't understand. He did the same in London. He should be happy he got a draw against us," he said.
It was petty fare from Mancini, who surrendered the high ground to Hughes. "It's probably my fault again but I'm a little bit old-fashioned," the Welshman contended. "I always think if you offer your hand, it should be accepted regardless of the circumstances. I had to offer my hand and do it with sincerity when my team was beaten 4-1 by Roberto's. On the day I was disappointed obviously but I acknowledged that his team was better and he deserved a handshake with sincerity. Maybe I misread it, but I just didn't think Roberto acknowledged the efforts of my team and how well we'd done today." And of Mancini's comments about Craven Cottage: "I don't recall doing that. I think he's incorrect."
The spat, which left Mancini's assistant David Platt running down the tunnel to play the peacemaker, occurred on the same patch of turf where Hughes ironically waved Arsène Wenger off down the tunnel after he has refused a hand when City put Arsenal out of the Carling Cup in December 2009, then insisting that the Frenchman "doesn't know how to behave."
The real point lay in Mancini's declaration to journalists that "these stupid things" were "probably the best thing in the match." City's performance was so stultifyingly flat that the anxiety beginning to creep around east Manchester is that another Champions League 'knock-out' game with Tottenham – who they face in mid-April – appears on the cards. City have taken five points from five Premier League games now and Mancini is yet to work out how to arrange the £165m of manpower purchased since Hughes left town. Carlos Tevez, a legacy of the Hughes era, is in throes of a dip in form in the past month and no one seems capable of filling the breach.
A week ago, Edin Dzeko seemed to be the ideal strike partner for the captain. Here, Mario Balotelli, starting on the left of a three-man line behind Dzeko, looked marginally better. His first-half goal certainly demonstrated why the City manager has such faith in him. A casual exchange of passes with Tevez and Balotelli was cutting past Danny Murphy into a shooting position. His spatial awareness was superb as, with minimal backlift, he thumped his ninth goal in 11 starts into the bottom left had corner of Mark Schwarzer's net.
There were brief flashes of inspiration after that – a fine second-half pass sent Tevez in for a shot which Schwarzer pushed aside – but Balotelli was more often frustrating and Manini was dissatisfied.
Asked if he was happy with Italian, he said: "No. He scored a good goal but I am not happy. He should play well. Better than today. For the strikers it is important to score. But strikers should also play for the team. Not just for Balotelli, for Carlos and Dzeko."
It was a strong rebuke, no doubt designed to provoke the same reaction that Mancini received from Adam Johnson when he publicly censured him earlier this season. Mancini has been frustrated by Balotelli for some weeks, considering his nonchalant response to a lingering knee injury to be unwelcome. The striker's yellow card for a needless trip on Damien Duff takes him to seven yellows and a red.
"Sometimes players can play badly," Mancini said. "You cannot always play well. But the attitude is always important. If you don't have a good attitude, it is difficult to play with three strikers. If you have three strikers on the pitch, they should work with the team, not only when we have the ball, but also when we lose it. Strikers should work with other players."
All of which explained why the hand he was offered may have not been that welcome. It had been a year and 70 days since Hughes last settled into a Manchester City dugout and there was certainly no local sentiment in the City reception for him. But the team ethic was apparent in the way Fulham responded to his team-talk. The visitors needed only three minutes after the interval to draw level, Andrew Johnson spinning past Aleksandr Kolarov to race on to Brede Hangeland's fine through ball and cross for Duff to strike home first time.
It means Hughes could depart with his head held high. Leaving Mancini behind with all the pressure, there might even have been a part of Hughes that reflected he was better off out of this place.
Booked: Man City Balotelli. Fulham Murphy, A Johnson.
Man of the match Murphy
Referee P Walton (Northants)
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