And so, the Champions League play-off between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur ended with unbridled joy for the Londoners and crushing disappointment for the Manchester millionaires. Where City go from here is a story that will dominate the summer perhaps as much as the World Cup. Will Roberto Mancini still be in charge when the 2010/11 Premier League season starts? Will City be able to tempt the big-name players they desire without Champions League football to offer? And what does the future hold for the players currently plying their trade at Eastlands?
There was always going to be a large turnover of players at the City of Manchester Stadium this summer, regardless of who the manager was or what European competition the team was competing in. With just six months in the job, Mancini needs more time before he can truly, accurately and fairly be judged. Time, as has often been said, is the one commodity City cannot buy but a year in the Europa League will not do terminal damage to City’s plans – rather, a run at Europe’s secondary tournament may act as a proving ground for the squad’s ability to play three games in a week, and, as Fulham have shown this year, a serious approach to the competition can reap rewards. For a club starved of success – led by a manager with a history of winning trophies – the Europa League represents a much better chance to satiate that hunger than the Champions League would have done. And with the Champions League out of reach for another year, the City job becomes less appealing for the game’s top managers, leaving Mancini more secure in his position and able to build with more thought for the future. This was not a now-or-never, all-or-nothing season. In fact, in an ironic twist, losing out to Spurs this year could be the best possible happening for City’s long-term plans.
If we presume Mancini starts next season as City manager, the make-up of the XI he names for City’s first league game in August is much less clear. What seems certain is that a player the calibre of Fernando Torres is unlikely to leave one club lacking Champions League football, Liverpool, only to jump into another club in the same boat. With City not invited to the Champions League party, any superstar player who signs on the dotted line will be motivated by one or possibly both of the following factors: City’s undoubted potential, and the vast riches they can afford to pay. Those interested in the former are the ones Mancini needs to pick out and build around – anyone showing more interest in the latter will not help City over the long haul, and Mancio would be best advised to note that just because he has all that money at his disposal, that does not mean he has to spend it. There are areas City do not need to improve – they are well stocked for holding midfielders and goalkeepers, for example – yet if Gianluigi Buffon came on the market, City would be quickly in for the Juventus star. That is not to say Shay Given or Joe Hart are on Buffon’s level, but rather both Hart and Given are more than capable of minding the net for a Champions League-chasing outfit, and the time, effort and money lavished on capturing the signature of Buffon could be better spent addressing City’s unbalanced midfield and, with the notable exception of Tevez, impotent attack.
Players leaving may well outnumber those incoming this summer, with Stephen Ireland already making noises about being unsettled at City. Ireland has certainly been unable to reproduce the sparkling form of 2008/09, when he was named City’s Player of the Year, thanks to a combination of injury, illness and lack of form. The 23-year-old would attract attention from nearly every team below City in this year’s league table, as would the other future exiles, a group that might include Micah Richards (heavily linked to Spurs), Shaun Wright-Phillips (lost his place to Adam Johnson) and Roque Santa Cruz (injury-prone, a favourite of the old manager). Mancini will have been formulating his ideas on who he wants to keep and who he will let go since December, so the fire sale will not be a reflex action or an impulsive car boot sale on missing the top four but rather the cumulative effect of what he and his staff have observed since December.
In an interview with City’s official website, Chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak spoke of the successful season the club have experienced even without Champions League qualification, and that Mancini is the right man to lead the club for many years. Now is the time to support the manager not just with words, but with actions too.