If only they could have clung on for a few seconds more. If only someone, anyone, had gotten to Paul Scholes before he met Patrice Evra’s cross in the dying minutes of Saturday’s Manchester derby. If only Manchester City’s key attacking players had risen to the challenge of facing Manchester United instead of shrinking under the pressure.
In the biggest Manchester derby in decades, the Blues’ star names failed to show and live up to their potential, leaving May’s clash with Tottenham Hotspur firmly in all-or-nothing territory. The previously-demonic City strike force was too often guilty of a wrong decision or left flailing in the wind by a lack of support while in his biggest test to date, Adam Johnson showed that for all the potential he clearly possesses, he is not yet ready to test the world’s top full-backs – Evra was rarely troubled, leaving City short of a vital weapon. On the other flank, when Craig Bellamy did get the better of Gary Neville – a rare occurrence – the Welshman took the wrong option and United lived to fight another day, to City’s ultimate cost. Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor were impotent and the midfield battle was won by the troops in red – so much so Roberto Mancini had to deploy Patrick Vieira, a move that shored up the centre but did nothing for City’s goal scoring chances despite the Frenchman’s forays. City deserve to be amongst the top four or five teams this season but have much to do – perhaps mentally as much as anything – before they can overcome the resilient United and rarely has that been more apparent than on Saturday afternoon.
The disappointment felt at Eastlands was devastating, expletives uttered as hands were thrown towards the heavens, the optimism generated by the last few weeks’ monumental performances swept away by a familiar tidal wave of frustration and regret. Typical City, it seemed, blowing their chances of glory when they had not been so real in years. But examined closely, this was anything but typical City. The reason defeat hurt so much was that the occasion was so different – the Blues of Manchester may have gotten one over their more glamorous cousins occasionally but victory on Saturday would have given life to a dream City fans have had since money came pouring into their club – that the United hegemony was coming to an end, brought crashing down by their noisy neighbours. And that still might be the case, for City are the only club in England who do not have to cut their cloth accordingly. The hierarchy at the City of Manchester Stadium can keep throwing money towards whoever sits in the manager’s chair in an effort to bring the game’s top trophies to the other side of Manchester, but they will not come through sheer expense alone – and in truth, even if the roles had been reversed and it was Stephen Ireland heading home a late winner, City would be no closer to overtaking United et al than they are today, as they continue to nurse defeat.
Patrick Barclay, one of the most respected football journalists in the country and The Times’ chief football writer said in a column on Monday: “(Mancini) is the wrong man for the job of turning Manchester’s other club into one of the world’s most respected… The manager, for all his knowledge, seriousness of approach and high-class early experience, is not inspirational.” How different Barclay’s words would have been had City eked a barely-deserved triumph over United – and this is the kind of thinking City chief executive Garry Cook and his superiors must avoid. If Mancini is to be the man who guides City into world football’s upper echelons, one defeat to the reigning Premier League champions does not change that – just as one victory over United would not have altered matters either. Mancini certainly looked an inspirational figure as City routed Burnley and Birmingham City in consecutive weeks, to guide a group of players he has known since late December – less than six months – in a league he has essentially no experience of either as a player or manager and under the spotlight that being the world’s richest club brings to the brink of the Champions League is surely a testament to the Italian’s skills. To do away with Mancini now, as Barclay suggests, would be madness. For an example of what happens when billionaire owners grow impatient, look a division below to Queens Park Rangers. City are on the right track – but it will take more than a few months to get there.
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