Charm, luck and hard graft: how Mancini began with a bang

Posted Wednesday, January 06, 2010 by The Independent

So far, so good – but tomorrow City's new regime faces its first major test, against United. Tim Rich on how it all went right, and whether it can last

1. Drill the defence

As they entertain Manchester United in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final tomorrow, City have renewed confidence in defence. Internazionale were the club that invented the art of "catenaccio" – or protecting a 1-0 lead – and Roberto Mancini did not win three Serie A titles at San Siro by neglecting his back four. No other part of the Manchester City set-up played more of a part in Mark Hughes' downfall than an expensively assembled defence anchored around two centre-halves in Kolo Touré and Joleon Lescott, who between them cost £38m. Hughes' final three matches saw Manchester City concede nine times in increasingly shambolic performances.

Mancini spent much of his first fortnight at the club's Carrington training ground coaching the defenders himself and the results have been obvious on the scoresheet. His first three games, against Stoke, Wolverhampton and Middlesbrough, the kind of moderate opposition that regularly breached Manchester City's back four under Hughes, were all won with clean sheets.

In the wake of Hughes' penultimate game, a frantic 3-3 draw against Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok, Micah Richards suggested that the back four had to become more disciplined and less prone to mad cavalry dashes in support of the forwards. In Mancini, Manchester City have discovered a man who understands instinctively the art of disciplined defending. And moreover, he has done it with thin resources, pairing Vincent Kompany, a midfielder, with Touré for his opening match and employing a 19-year-old academy product, Dedryck Boyata, for his first taste of the FA Cup at Middlesbrough. Both looked more secure than Lescott often did, and Boyata is likely to feature tomorrow night.

2. Appease the egos

Mancini survived for four years at Internazionale which, in the world of Serie A, is a lifetime. When he came to Eastlands it was to face if not a player rebellion then plenty of unease among the squad that Hughes had assembled at such expense.

For differing reasons, Robinho and Craig Bellamy were his most awkward assignments: the Brazilian because he patently didn't fancy spending another winter in Manchester, the Welshman because he had known Hughes for a decade and was especially disheartened by his sacking.

Mancini, with the City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak watching, was cute enough to start his first game with the man for whom Abu Dhabi United had paid £32.5m before quietly discarding him for Bellamy. Mancini also displayed a humorous touch when asked how he would keep the turbulent striker on board. "Bellamy is not my friend?" he replied before pledging he would start at Wolverhampton. Bellamy's declaration in print that he was committed to the new regime was Mancini's reward. The manager's praise of Shay Given, another affected by Hughes' sacking, was also skillful. Mancini praised the Irishman as one of the "best five goalkeepers in the world" but after a dozen years at Newcastle what Given would really appreciate is playing in front of a well-drilled defence.

3. Win over the fans

Winning over the fans was not as hard a task as some might have imagined. Hughes' dismissal may have been crassly handled but the outrage in the media was not matched in Manchester. The majority of City's supporters were indifferent to his fate.

As someone who got to know Robbie Savage during his time at Leicester, Mancini is adept at playing to the gallery. The City scarf he has worn for all three of his matches and which he will surely sport in tomorrow's semi-final, is a clever and especially stylish gesture. He has also not been afraid to mention transfer targets, which is something fans often appreciate. Yesterday, he threw in the names of Christian Chivu and Ivan Cordoba when asked if he were interested in bringing Patrick Vieira back to England. It was a game Hughes never entered into but those who paid for their season tickets at Eastlands know City are the world's richest club and they will always be interested in how the money is spent.

4. Give youth a chance

One of City's great success stories has been their academy. Richards, Vladimir Weiss, Michael Johnson, Nedum Onuoha represent a wave of talent that might emulate Shaun Wright-Phillips' success. By employing Boyata and Weiss in Saturday's 1-0 win at Middlesbrough, Mancini proved his statement that: "I've never been afraid of giving young players their chance. It is important to me and the owners that we continue to bring young players through the academy."

5. Ride your luck

"Baciato dalla grazia" they called him in Italy – "kissed by good fortune". Perhaps they were referring to his looks and the kind of style they have always appreciated at City. And that Mancini has been a lucky manager. He was at Internazionale when the corruption scandal in Italian football eliminated Milan and Juventus as serious rivals. Without what they called "calciopoli" Mancini's CV would not have seemed nearly so impressive to the men of Abu Dhabi. And his luck has held.

The squad he inherited from Hughes is better than anything Rafael Benitez or Sir Alex Ferguson had on their first day in office. The spadework was done by his predecessor – and the glory is now Mancini's to snatch.




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