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City board must answer questions
One of these days, the inevitable meeting is going to take place between the owners of Manchester City, the sporting directors and the head coach, Roberto Mancini. The pleasantries, presumably, won't last too long. They need to get down to business. And business does not look hunky dory at the moment.
Manchester City's predicament was epitomised by a handful of striking images this weekend: Mancini's eyes grew unnaturally wide as he confronted awkward questions about whether the title race was over now. Gareth Barry and Joe Hart looked like they wanted the pitch to open up and eat them as they digested the meaning of their mistakes.
Robin van Persie, a player City tried and failed to buy last summer, confidently celebrated another goal in the red shirt of the neighbourhood rivals. A tabloid newspaper declared February 10th as "the day United won the title". A number of bookmakers announced with a gritted-teeth smile that they would be paying out on bets placed for Manchester United to finish top. Millions of pounds will be collected this week even though there are 12 games to go, and plentiful points to be contested.
That's a massive statement. Especially so, considering the dramas this weekend echoed the scenario from last season when Mancini felt compelled to raise the white flag after a disfunctional display at Arsenal left the odds massively in Manchester United's favor. Back then, the gap was eight points with eight games to play. As the history books confirm, the fates inspired a monumental twist in the tale, and it was Sir Alex Ferguson who was left devastated, whilst City's love affair with Mancini was swept up in renewed romance with the gift of the Premier League trophy.
So why are bookmakers, critics and anyone who bothers to air an opinion so confident that there cannot possibly be another turnaround? Ferguson's spirit, so ferociously stoked by the bitter experience of losing out last May, is the main reason. Everyone has seen enough of his winning ways, of his indefatigable powers of motivation, to feel pretty sure that there will be no slips this time.
Ferguson's admission after they had taken care of Everton that he abandoned plans to field a weakened side in advance of the Champions League tie against Real Madrid because he was desperate to take advantage of City's frailty, to build up a lead that would be psychologically as well as mathematically imposing, was revealing. This may not be the greatest United side he has built, but the mixture of individual qualities and collective will should see them through.
How fortunate, though, that they are not under much pressure other than that that comes from within. City's slump simply doesn't make them much of a challenger. Mancini's team are 10 points worse off than they were at the same stage last season.
Why has the Premier League challenge virtually disintegrated by February? Why is the FA Cup the only competition that has a realistic chance of bringing a silver lining to the season? Why does a squad that has over one billion dollars worth of investment behind it look so stretched? Right now there are no soothing answers.
Naturally, the search for scapegoats is intense. Mancini took aim at the men on the field (when a manager turns on his players that is never a good sign). "If they play like this, they should stay at home," he tutted after a shambolic display against an impressive Southampton side. "It is not always the fault of the manager, the players should take the responsibility if they have big balls."
Whether you choose to blame Mancini, or the players, there is another department who should be shuffling a little uncomfortably and staring at the floor. The make-up of the squad is down to the sporting directors, and City looked ill equipped against Southampton.
Ask yourself how a club of their resources ends up playing with an emergency centre half (Javi Garcia was drafted in from midfield to fill in in the middle of defence and struggled) and with not a single recognized striker on its bench able to come on and change the game. It was unfortunate that Vincent Kompany was injured and Carlos Tevez unavailable due to "personal reasons", but all teams have to deal with absences to key players occasionally. City's decision to sell Mario Balotelli without replacing him is a problem to lay at the boardroom's door.
City spent a substantial amount of money in the transfer window last summer, but the jury remains out on the value of those moves. They parted with the best part of 20 million pounds on Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell. They have both started only two Premier League games this season.
As the City fans made their way back out of Southampton, they turned to an old friend for comfort: gallows humour. "We were the champions," they sang. The past tense lingered heavy in the air.
For years - decades even - the expression epitomized by Barry as he sliced the ball past Hart, a calamitous moment upon which Manchester City's fortunes plunged through thin ice and down into the sorry depths, would have all been too recognisable. It was classic City. That gut-wrenching feeling was something they knew all too well in the pre-Abu Dhabi era.
United will enjoy turning the screw this season. But it is how City respond that will be fascinating.
Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.
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