Friday, April 27, 2012

A BRIGHTER DAY

"A DAY WILL COME when your arms will fall even from your hands!" A day will come when all this will seem as absurd and impossible as it would seem impossible and would seem absurd today if Kyle Walker beat Sergio Aguero to be the Young Player of the Year (or YPOTY as some will surely one day call it). A day will come when the mind games will stop making any difference, when minds don't play games anymore, but concentrate on the task in hand. Unscrewing that bottle top. A day will come when good hard work and graft reigns sovereign over play acting and cheating, when the  Zabaletas of this world will be held in higher esteem than any flimsy airborne Ashley Young.

A day will come.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

ITALIAN BOB

Mancini has failed us and we're all going to die.

To decipher the ways of the football world sometimes is to look into a tangle as impenetrable as Uncle Rodney's old sock drawer. A steaming swamp of fluff and beetles, dust and loose threads, leading off out of the tangle in all conceivable directions.

The opening phrase could be a summary of what half of the press pack is either committing to laptop this week or dreaming about in bed at that precious moment when the sheets begin to ruck up a little. We are at the pointy end of the season and the point is sticking right where it hurts most right now.

So, whilst so many are engaging their brains and intellects in the hot pursuit of Roberto Mancini, Balotelli and even, in some cases, Gary Cook, who left the apparently sinking ship six months ago, yet others are scampering after scapegoats for the current lamentable 2nd place occupied by our heroes in blue. Desperate times call for increasingly desperate prose, of course. It would be less than surprising if some articulate scribe began to lambast the shortcomings of Peter Swales whilst we're all at it. And as for John Maddock, Romark, Billy Meredith and any number of pantomime villains that used to stalk the Maine Road corridors, it could be open season coming up, if only The Mail's sports editor has the space to grant you.

Not got....
The common cause of all this teeth gnashing is of course City's dramatic "slump" into runner's up spot in the table. Admittedly, it is an unfortunate time for such a thing to happen, especially when coupled to United's desperate combination of 100% points and totally uninspiring football. However, when the great and good sit down and ask themselves who and what they remember from this slightly haphazard 2011-2012 season, most will answer either Tottenham Hotspur's pretty push and poke football (the uncrowned darlings of the press), very short spells of Arsenal (curiously against Tottenham and when all was lost against Milan) and three glorious pre-Christmas months of Manchester City. Nobody in their right mind will mention the gracious and awe-inspiring football played at Old Trafford. The laser passing of Scholes and Carrick, the thumping headers of Johnny Evans, the increasingly hairy Wayne Rooney. This will be because there was no awe inspiring football to be had, barring a slightly manic afternoon in September when Arsenal decided to do their full Teenage Keystone Kops impersonation.

Not got...
Mancini, laden with gifts from the Middle East that allowed many in the press to bestow upon City an obligation to win both the Champions League and the Premier League Title, has produced a side this year, which at times has played breath-takingly good football. Sharp, incisive, accurate, effective. The wins at White Hart Lane and at Old Trafford were poetry in motion and will live long in the memory. He has moulded an effective unit from an array of stellar self-confident talent. He has harnessed the power of world stars like Aguero and Yaya for the good of Manchester City. He has had many - and still has quite a few - people taking him very seriously indeed.

Yet, what we do best on this sceptered isle of teen idols and ready cooked lasagne, is to monitor someone with close fascination, suspended in temporary awe of their otherworldly powers, digest what makes him tick, befriend him until we can get him to share his secrets with us, then explode into rancorous criticism when weaknesses finally begin to appear. We marvel at the coat and scarf. A coat! A scarf! So eloquent. Such unspoken statements of class and style. How he wraps it in and out. How he buttons it up! How he folds himself into that shirt! How his hair seems to float! But, when that carefully manicured arm, still locked in its black Dolce and Gabbana sheath, waves itself in the air in wistful pleading for a booking, the skies open and black clouds rain down frogs and pellets in all directions.

And now, in the eye of the storm, where all is quiet, whilst outside a maelstrom whips itself into a frenzy across Alan Turing Way, we see a small man, slight and frail, bedraggled hair limp and grey, face lined, teeth gnashing and grinding gently against each other. We see a man, who cannot motivate his staff, cannot control his players, cannot see what we all so plainly see. Suddenly the black has turned white without even having a sniff at grey as it passed us all by. The glorious saint has turned quickly into a toad.

Not got...
The truth, as with all things on this unstable planet of ours, is somewhere in between. Mancini, a genius in his own thoughts, is far from it in reality. Nevertheless, he is not the wailing metaphor for stubbornness and crassness that others will paint him, either. We can look at Mancini's reign at City in three distinct phases: first, the difficult entrance, a squad littered with Mark Hughes's men, unready and in some cases unwilling for battle under somebody else's tutelage. Second, the real honeymoon phase, which has seen proper progress, tangible success. An FA Cup win, so gloriously pre-empted by an epic FA Cup semi final derby win, a 3rd place finish to gain entry to the Champions League and, this season, a concerted assault on the league title itself, taking in the afore-mentioned away victories from heaven. We now enter a third and perhaps epoque-shaping phase: The Final Step Up.

To complete this third phase in the development process that will cement his reputation in the City history books, certain elements need to remain strong or -if missing- be put firmly in place. Patience, Continuity, Faith, Drive, Clarity, Honesty, Togetherness. With these you can scoop all that is before you. Without them you face becoming a ragged, laughable outfit bereft of any continuity. You turn into Chelsea.

The Men in Robes clearly have a plan and we should be thankful for that. That Roberto Mancini stays central to that plan depends very much on Roberto Mancini. Here is a man, in his own thoughts and indeed words, touched by genius. Not many can publicise opinions like this and get away with them. It only takes small failures for genius to look badly soiled. He has built a high scaffold. From up there you can see the oceans, but you can also hang yourself in full public glare.

To publicly bash the likes of James Milner, sadly out of sorts against Sunderland, but hardly offered the chances to play that his performances this season deserve, is to step out onto thinning ice. When you deepen the insult by continuing to put up with the erratic bahaviour of a colleague, as Ian Herbert tracks commendably in the Independent you may risk beginning to put a significant number of straight anglo-saxon noses out of joint. To continually gesture your dislike of what goes on in front of you recalls a Southern European version of Stuart Pearce during his goalless and mostly hopeless time at City (an odd animal that would be with its pukka leather shoes and ultra high-waisted Kappa leisure wear). To publicly display mistrust and disgust in your own staff is not a great idea. It spreads disquiet, it embarrasses those on the receiving end. It does little positive.A combination of these two elements was seen after Balotelli's second goal v Sunderland. He had left him on the pitch, despite wanting to "remove him after 5 minutes" and, when he finally delivered, Mancini remained firmly seated and simply shook his head.

Not all the City players show signs of being part of an integrated whole. When a spat can break out about whose turn it is to take a free kick, particularly when the score is set at 3-1 to the opposition in a vital match, you just know there are some issues in there somewhere. Yet, who is to blame for edifying rucks like this? Reading Richard Williams in The Guardian it is clearly the manager and not the player.

Mancini has always, as a player and now as a manager, had that slightly arrogant streak that all high-end performers possess when confronted with the shortcomings of colleagues. That he makes his disquiet so public, in gesture and comment, is at times regrettable. It can be counter-productive. If he has other failings, it is that he has stayed loyal too long to those he cannot trust (Balotelli) or who have no energy left (Silva) and has not given enough time to those who are finding it hard to gain his acceptance (Milner, Johnson, Dzeko). His patience was dramatically finite in the cases of Adebayor and Bellamy, as they swiftly found out, but Balotelli survives every brickbat and sharp comment. Those sloping shoulders, the lazy gait, the disinterested haunted stare, the weak attempts at gaining free kicks and the run around Italian press conferences as a warm-up to the vital match all suggest a lost kid in need of guidance. Milner, a man who clearly heads for bed with isotonic horlicks around half past nine, must look on and weep.

Not got...
So, with an apparent "unravelling"" occurring on Mancini's watch, questions are coming thick and fast. Clearly, mistakes have been made. There are tired players, who needed to be rested before now, cocky players, who needed to be taken down a rung or two, and lost souls who needed an arm around their shoulder long before now. There have been far too many opportunities to say the opposition have been underestimated, a cardinal sin at the peak of the Premier league, where you are damned to mid-table if you don't prepare the same way for every single opponent. A season that seemed fit to positively burst with possibilities is ending with the one remaining option being squeezed gradually from our grasp. However unfortunate the exit from the Champions league was, as with that from the FA Cup, the same cannot be said of the League Cup and the Europe League, both tossed away carelessly by a group apparently either "focussing on the league" or busy "underestimating their opponents". If Mancini is guilty of anything, it is of allowing the players to relax in the Liverpool and Sporting matches, where wins should have delivered us to the far reaches of both competitions. These were bright obvious chances cast away without a thought.

Swap....?
Despite this, in the name of continuity, it would be daft to do anything other than trust in Mancini to complete the job he has been given. Maybe this summer he can downgrade "genius" to "mortal" on his self-glorifying website and we can all start 2012-13 with feet firmly on the ground and eyes trained clearly on the (multiple) targets.

In the meantime, we can only presume that manager and players will give maximum effort and concentration during the next seven games. If they do, all might not be lost.

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Imbiber of Amantis 2005, cold water, black coffee. Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; hapless dreamer, willing accomplice and crafty left sided midfielder.

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