Roberto Mancini has always responded to criticism of the club’s lack of success in the Champions League in recent seasons with a defiant defence of his own record, tipping the club to come good under his guidance sooner rather than later, but will they ever achieve the dominance that the club’s wealthy owners have clearly earmarked for the future under his tenure?
First of all, it’s important to realise that the club that the 48-year-old Italian took over from Mark Hughes and the one we see before us now are two completely different beasts. Mancini has dramatically transformed and professionalised the ranks from the shambles he inherited, helping lead the club to the FA Cup back in 2011 and their first ever Premier League title last season. That is tangible evidence of progress by any measurable standard.
Nevertheless, his biggest doubters have always stated, with some justification, that considering he has now managed the richest club in world football along with perennial Serie A title-challengers Inter Milan at the height of their domestic dominance, that his record in the Champions League simply isn’t up to scratch, leading to questions not solely concerned with his managerial ability, but more to do with his suitableness to match the club’s lofty ambitions to become a true European heavyweight.
Successive campaigns have seen the club fall at the first hurdle and bow out in the group stages and while the quality of the opposition wasn’t to be sniffed at (Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal last season, Ajax, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund this season), there’s a sense that not only have the side stalled, but they’ve gone backwards, lacking both ideas and imagination up top and any sort of defensive resolve against top-class opposition at the other end, which considering the investment involved, simply isn’t good enough.
Their exit saw them become the first English team in Champions League history never to record at least one victory in the group stages and while Mancini stated that he wasn’t embarrassed by their record, he damn well should have been. As silver linings go, being dumped out of one European competition and then not even qualifying the other so that you can concentrate on defending your league crown will be of no comfort to the club’s hierarchy.
However, when it comes to playing in the top flight, Gareth Barry’s 90th minute winner against Reading displayed everything good about the Mancini regime – the sort of never-say-die attitude which clinched them their first league triumph in 44 years back in May. They represent a clear, present and long-term danger to rivals Manchester United now and credit must go to the man at the helm for making good on their potential.
Mancini stated after the game: “We have won trophies and I think we can continue to win in the future. I think we need to win more and more. It is easy to arrive on top but it will be more difficult to stay there for a long time.
“This is the big challenge for us. I think now our target will be to win the second title because to win two titles in a row will be very important. I think we will win, if we work better than in the first five months of the season and forget what we did last year. If we win it that will be even better than winning the first title.” And you certainly wouldn’t bet against them.
However, with Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano hired by the club in key positions, they could be prepping the ground for the arrival of Pep Guardiola in the summer should Mancini fail to clinch that title, after all, the Spaniard was the brains behind Barcelona’s two Champions League triumphs inside three years on their way to being acclaimed the best club side in a generation.
Meanwhile, Mancini’s excuses that the side are still relatively new in Europe carry little to no weight when you further inspect the experience of the players involved at other clubs during their respective careers, which when you add to his reputation as a bottler with Inter only serves to cast doubt on his long-term future.
Manchester City are a club with such wealth that they need to continually set themselves bigger goals; it’s always ‘what’s next?’ as they look up the ladder towards the pinnacle. Humiliating exits are simply not part of that plan. Taking a closer look at Mancini’s record in Europe this season, the needless tinkering with a 3-5-2 system cost them dearly at crucial junctures in their qualifying campaign, and they seemed to lack a presence right down the spine of the side.
Moreover, when you throw in that despite winning the Serie A title three years on the trot in the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal, that he was never able to take Inter beyond the quarter-final stage, with Jose Mourinho winning it with the same club just two years afterwards and the case continues to stack up. It should be noted, though, that each of their exits, to AC Milan in 2005, Villarreal in 2006 and Valencia in 2007 were in controversial circumstances and Mourinho won the competition with a completely different front four after significant investment, the sort which Mancini asked for but never received, so it’s far from a clear-cut matter.
Getting the mentality right to succeed in Europe is a difficult thing to quantify and adjust to, but Mancini did at least take a deeply average Lazio side to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup back in 2002-3 before losing to Mourinho’s Porto side, so he has some pedigree.
He has been pigeonholed as a domestic specialist, but not the man to take the club to the next level, and given the context of his success in Italy and his resources in England, many find it hard to accurately assess his strengths as a manager. At the same time, though, he’s repeatedly hamstrung by lazy cultural stereotypes about being a ‘defensive’ coach simply due to the nature of his passport and whenever talk turns to Mancini, cliches and ill-informed opinions are never far behind, completely missing how far he has taken the club in such a short space of time.
To my knowledge at least, the club are simply paying for a lack of investment in players of genuine world-class ability in the summer; to put it simply, in England they are a big fish with a certain aura about them, but on the continent, they are simply another name and they’ve been routinely picked apart on the counter while trying to play their natural style which has served them so well on home soil.
They lack savvy and nous and Mancini is partly to blame for that but not wholly responsible and he should be given at least one more crack, hopefully in a more straightforward group for a change, before we fully judge his European record as a failure.
The jury is adjourned for a recess at the moment, and while the pressure to come to a negative sentencing mounts by the campaign, the club’s recent domestic success points to a manager worth sticking by for the time being.