Mischa Wilmers’ Sunday Column – Mancini off to a winning start as City beat Stoke

As the year draws to a close, observers of the premier league are left hoping that the second half of the season is as engaging as the first has been. Following Boxing Day’s eight matches the title race remains wide open and the signs look good for 2010.

Chelsea faced Birmingham away from home and Carlo Ancelotti’s team were hoping they would pull seven points clear of challengers Manchester United with a victory. Their hopes were dashed when the game ended a 0-0 draw. Chelsea had several chances to win the game but the hero of the day was Birmingham goalkeeper Joe Hart who made a string of excellent saves to deny the leaders. It is the first time in 34 games that Chelsea have failed to score but Ancelotti will be encouraged by his side’s clean sheet. The lack of goals might be partially explained by the absence of Nicolas Anelka whilst Didier Drogba was doubtful for the match and did not look to be at his sharpest. Although unconcerned about their team’s ability to score, Chelsea fans will know this was a missed opportunity. Birmingham, on the other hand, have assured their safety and will be pushing for a Europa cup place in 2010.

Roberto Mancini’s first game in charge was a resounding success as Manchester City beat Stoke 2-0. Martin Petrov and Carlos Tevez were the scorers as the Blues secured a valuable win. By the end of the game city fans had all but forgotten the controversy which has surrounded their club following the sacking of Mark Hughes. The task ahead of Mancini is clear – he must steer his side to fourth place or else risk the same fate as his predecessor. On the evidence of this performance, it may well be achievable. Liverpool, however, have not given up hope of claiming a Champions League spot and their 2-0 win against Wolves takes them to within two points of City in seventh place. Like the Blues, they too could be experiencing a revival.

Mancini’s debut game is a major topic of interest in Sunday’s papers. The main headline in The Independent reads: “Mancini: make me the popular one – City manager insists he can win over sceptics as Reign starts with solid victory.” The Times seems equally impressed with the Italian manager with its headline: “Mancini off to winning start with comfort” and Jonothan Northcroft adds “Stoke could have provided a classic “welcome to England” wake-up call for the Italian but instead it was “welcome to Roberto Mancini”, Premier League.” In The Telegraph Duncan White writes that Mancini’s first game in charge will have delighted City Fans: “It is to Mancini’s great credit that he came out of this game with a debut victory. It was on the efficient end of the scale but with a clean sheet and a few chances to spare the City fans will not be complaining.” Nevertheless despite the win there are reports of a rift between Mancini and Craig Bellamy following the Italian’s decision to choose out-of-form Robinho over the Welshman. In The Telegraph Duncan White writes: “Bellamy is reported to be angry with the way Hughes had been dismissed by Man City but Mancini was keen to stress there was no rift between himself and the prickly Welshman.” The relationship between the two will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks.

Chelsea’s disappointing draw has also attracted the headlines with Glenn Moore declaring that Chelsea were only saved from losing by the linesman in The Independent: “Fortunately for Carlo Ancelotti a linesman’s errant flag, which ruled out what would have been Christian Benitez’s first home goal, meant Birmingham also drew a blank.” In The Times, however, David Walsh praises goalkeeper Joe Hart for a spirited performance: “You may consider it two points dropped by Chelsea but it wasn’t. They played well and but for an outstanding performance by Birmingham’s goalkeeper Joe Hart, they might have won.” Walsh also adds the consensus view that Birmingham were denied a legitimate goal: “You couldn’t blame the referee or his assistant because it was borderline but it may have cost Birmingham a precious victory.” In The Observer Joe Lovejoy sums up Chelsea’s current position well: “The league leaders, who failed to score for the first time in 34 games, are increasingly vulnerable to Manchester United, whose trip to Hull today has the look of a gimme.”

In other news, The Mail on Sunday reports that Jose Mourinho has his sights firmly set on being Alex Ferguson’s successor as Manchester United manager. According to Bob Cass, “sources close to the Portuguese have indicated his Inter contract was only part of the reason for cold-shouldering City. They believe Mourinho’s ambition is to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson and that, if he bides his time, the Old Trafford job will become conveniently available.” However, the Internazionale manager is quoted as saying: “At the moment I am and will be Inter manager until 2012, that’s when I have signed up until and we are convinced we will reach 2012.”

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