Mancini, Mayhem and Manchester City

Spending some £250 million on new players, booting out Mark Hughes as manager not only so unceremoniously but deviously, the club has cut a deeply antipathetic figure. Can Mancini now change Manchester City’s fortunes? Brian Glanville finds out.

The smoke has cleared, the torrents of newspaper abuse for Manchester City, for the undoubtedly crude, callous and clumsy way they sacked Mark Hughes finally abating, Roberto Mancini’s reign has begun impressively. The mere fact that a team whose defence had been as open as a barn door, giving away three goals in each of Mark Hughes’ two final games gave away no goals at all in Mancini’s first two victorious games was significant indeed.

Two questions can be asked about Mark Hughes’ sudden defenestration. First, has he insensitively treated? Secondly, did he deserve to stay? One of the chief charges against Manchester City was that they were allegedly economical with the truth. That they insisted that the decision to sack Hughes came after an inept 0-3 defeat at Tottenham, when it became quite clear that negotiations with Mancini had began weeks earlier. Matters were not improved by the blusteringly of the garrulous chief executive, Garry Cook, an Englishman who had worked for Nike in the United States, and had blotted his copybook before.

Once, when he described the ineffable Thaksin Shinawatra, the former President of Thailand, and then City’s owner, as a good man to play golf with. This, of somebody publicly accused by Amnesty of torturing political opponents, and of corruptly amassing huge sums of money. Then, when Manchester City made an abortive attempt to buy the Brazilian star Kaka, from AC Milan, Cook brashly declared that Milan had “bottled it”.

There already was much unease and dissatisfaction over the immense sums of money put into the club by their Abu Dhabi benefactors, who were reportedly appalled by the fusillade of criticism which assailed them when they, or the club they own, got rid of Hughes. They protested plaintively that they thought, with their transfer expenditure of some £250million, that they were putting Abu Dhabi on the European map. As it has, their extravagance made the £350 million the Russian oligarch Abramovich lent to Chelsea (which has just been turned into equity) pale by comparison.

It was pointed out that though City had drawn a lot of games they’d only been beaten twice under Hughes and occupied a decent position in the Premiership. Moreover you couldn’t blame Hughes for Robinho, the spoilt Brazilian forward who had cost £32 million and had done nothing to justify it. Hughes, by contrast, had bought for a mere £14 million the Flying Welshman, Craig Ballamy who in Mancini’s first game at home to Stoke would substitute a lethargic Robinho and put him to shame. Making you wonder why Mancini had preferred him to Bellamy in the first place and kept him on the field for 70 anonymous minutes.

In parenthesis, it was Bellamy who started the next game at Wolves, Robinho who came on only as late substitute though his pass did set up the third City goal. The early reports that Bellamy who’d played for the Wales team managed by Hughes, had been incensed by Hughes’ ejection and wanted to leave, blew away in the fair winds of Victory. Assured at Wolves when Mancini, switching tactics, took him off the wing and placed him just behind the dynamic proactive striker Carlos Tavez in attack.

As for the defence, it was substantially strengthened by the insertion at centre back of the 6 foot 4 inch Belgian international, Vincent Kompany, largely ignored by Hughes: who, to be blunt, made something of a dog’s dinner of his centre backs. He sold the solidly dependable Irish international Dunne to Aston Villa, where he at once settled down to dominate: and splashed out £22 million for the Everton stopper, Joleon Lescott. A transfer which did as much as anything to fuel City’s unpopularity.

For Everton were desperate for Lescott to stay: just as he was determined to make his fortune at City. His form went down the drain, a demoralised Everton conceded six goals in their opening Premiership game at home to Arsenal and Lescott, you might say, sulked his way to City. Where nemesis awaited him, for he has been so badly injured that he will miss many weeks of the season. And one assumed will be indispensable.

To sum up, I think it is fair to say, in the light of recent results, that Hughes was not unlucky to go, but unlucky to be bundled out with such crude insensitivity, his dismissal arriving out of the blue: or, since City were concerned, the Light Blue! A former England international knowingly remarked that Hughes had not been the appointment of the owners. He was there when they bought the club and, traditionally, owners like to appoint their own man.

And Mancini? You did wonder a little after his preference of Robinho to Bellamy in the opening, Stoke, game, there more so as he kept Robinho on the field, a passive figure, for so long. There is, not doubt that Robinho at his best, and his most committed, is one of the world’s most gifted and exciting forwards, but there’s been virtually no sign of that this season; and you wonder whether Mancini feels he faces the challenge to get the best rather than the indolent worst out of the Brazilian. If so, I fear he may find himself flogging a dead horse: or at least one reluctant to come to life.

Mancini himself has sufficient English to make himself understood, and certainly sufficient managerial experience at Lazio, Fiorentina and Inter, where championships were won — admittedly with Juventus out of the picture. He seems quickly to have established a good respectful relationship with the players who he has been training hard, and, in the pairing of Bellamy and the electric Tavaz, he has arguably the most dangerous spearhead in the League. Which, to be brutally honest, isn’t by and large this season a very Good League. Chelsea have all too frequently faltered, not least in a defence where Peter Cech in goal and John Terry, lynchpin of the defence, seem to have made a breakdown in communication.

Arsenal were badly stricken by that dreadful injury to their salient striker, Robin Van Persie, out at least till April with tiny Russian Arshavin used alone up front. Manchester United have lost Ronaldo. Liverpool desperately miss Alonso, for whom Italy’s Aquilani, notoriously liable to injury, has proved, when he plays at all, no substitute. All this makes Mancini’s optimism about his team’s chances more than chimerical.