Mancini faces toughest test

What were the odds, before Tuesday night, of seeing one of the most urbane and sophisticated coaches in world football, a man with a taste for Bentleys and handmade shoes, reduced to impersonating the ashen-faced caricature of Private Eye‘s Ron Knee?

As he coped with the insubordination of his leading goal scorer, Roberto Mancini may have wished he was in charge of the deadbeats and has-beens of Neasden FC rather than some of the prima donnas wearing the shirts of the richest club in the world.

On the morning after the bust-up in Munich, player Carlos Tevez issued a statement in which he said sorry to everyone except the man who really deserved an apology. Mancini’s own words immediately after the match summed up the disgust of a manager who had seen his authority flouted in the most public fashion: “Do you think at Bayern Munich a player would ever behave like this? At Milan? At Manchester United? No.”

Jerome Boateng, who moved from Manchester City to Bayern in the summer, could certainly feel that his words during the build-up had been fully justified as he watched Mancini fail to persuade Tevez to take to the pitch as a substitute, endure Edin Dzeko’s truculent gestures on being withdrawn and argue with Pablo Zabaleta in the dug-out over comments that the manager apparently had misunderstood.

Comparing City’s squad to that of his new club, the Germany defender said: “They don’t have the same togetherness. They are strong, technically and physically. But I don’t see them in the final because there are better teams. We are better, for one.”

He was roundly berated for airing his opinion, but the word “togetherness” seemed to provide the key to the way the match would go. You can spend all the money in the world on assembling a squad of superstars, but it will be wasted unless someone can glue them together into an efficient and reliable working unit.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, who mentored Mancini during their successful seasons in Genoa and Rome, always believed his No 10 would graduate to the dug-out. “He was like a coach when he was a player,” the Swede said last year. “He was a coach, he was a kit man, he was the bus driver, he was everything. At Sampdoria he checked that everything was in place before training. Sometimes I told him: ‘Mancio, you have a game to play on Sunday. You’ll be exhausted if you have to control everything.’ But he was like that.”

It is no surprise, then, that Mancini was outraged by Tevez’s conduct on Tuesday, although from his days as a player he also knows what it feels like for a goal scorer to sit on the bench, kicking his heels in frustration.

His bad luck in that respect, however, has been more than balanced out by two pieces of extremely good fortune since he embarked on his career in management 10 years ago. The first was to have accepted the job of Internazionale’s head coach at a time when the Calciopoli scandal had virtually decapitated Serie A, making Inter’s three consecutive championships under him not quite the achievement they appeared to be. It was his record of underachievement in the Champions League — two consecutive quarterfinals followed by elimination in the round of 16 — that persuaded Massimo Moratti to send for José Mourinho, who put Mancini’s achievements in the shade.

After his dismissal by Moratti, Mancini spent more than a year cultivating contacts and improving his English until, just before Christmas 2009, he had another piece of luck when the new owners of Manchester City summoned him from the wilderness. His record hardly made him the most obvious choice to guide a club that had suddenly acquired unmatched resources and limitless ambition.

But since arriving in East Manchester he has kept City on an upward path, last spring’s successes followed this season by the welcome introduction of a more attractive style of football. It was his bad luck that City’s Champions League debut placed them in a group with Napoli and Bayern, two formidably well-coached teams, and that he should then suffer, in front of millions watching on television, the consequences of a dispute between the club and a man whose presence guarantees victory in 58% of their matches, against 48% without him.

In that 10% lies the ultimate test of Mancini’s ability to succeed at what is surely, with the possible exception of Real Madrid, the hardest job in club football. —

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