Man up, Mancini!
Man City's midweek plummet back to Prem parity at Goodison Park gifted us with a kaleidoscope of jolting images: the protester who handcuffed himself to the goal, adding new meaning to the maxim "dumb as a post"; Everton's blue-collar defender Tony Hibbert, stuffing the no-longer-so-fearsome Sergio Aguero into his back pocket; or even United washout Darron Gibson finally doing something that made people at Old Trafford happy to hear his name.
But there was one image that I found to be truly shocking: the dangling thread on Roberto Mancini's Armani overcoat.
Given that the Italian is usually so flawlessly attired he makes Jose Mourinho look like Kevin James, it could only mean one thing: City is starting to fray at its expensive seams. And it might not have a good enough tailor to keep either Mancini's outfit or its title chase together.
Mancini himself -- who has spent a frustrating week failing at his numerous attempts to exorcise the demon seed that is Carlos Tevez from his Eastlands flock -- chose the path of self-immolation after his team's 1-0 loss to Everton. "I didn't prepare well for this game," he said. "I thought it was maybe easier."
As admirable as it is for a manager not named Ian Holloway to shoulder responsibility -- can you even imagine Sir Alex or Lord Wenger engaging in that level of accountability? -- Mancini is nothing if not wily. And Ferguson, in particular, has been around the say-one-thing-mean-another block far too many times to be fooled.
"When an Italian tells me it's pasta on the plate, I check under the sauce to make sure," he famously said before playing Inter Milan in the 1999 Champions League quarterfinal. "They are the inventors of the smokescreen."
But where there's smoke, there's often a flame, and if Mancini is to avoid the Mark "Your services are no longer required" Hughes exit door, he'll need to locate the Etihad fire extinguisher, pronto. Have you looked in Mario Balotelli's bathroom, Roberto?
Tevez's festering presence represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Mancini. The Argentine whose face once adorned a huge downtown billboard proclaiming "Welcome To Manchester" is apparently not welcome in either Milan or Paris despite his cutting-edge snood-centric fashion sense. Mancini, ever the pragmatist, has even gone so far as to include the peripatetic striker on his 25-man roster for the rest of the EPL season, while once again blowing smoke with his straight-faced comment that "Tevez has no problem with me."
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Seriously, if Tevez has no problem with Mancini, then Luis Suarez has no problem with United fans.
Yet does anyone not think that in one of those dark nights of the soul, Mancini hasn't entertained the thought of a rehabilitated Tevez in his front line, especially with the recently subdued play of Aguero who, despite scoring 14 goals this season, hasn't found the net since Jan. 3? For a player who depends on his Usain Bolt-esque quickness off the mark, he has appeared strangely leaden in front of goal, a drought compounded by Edin Dzeko's frustrating lack of aggression in the box. Meanwhile, for all of Balotelli's wondrous gifts, he's not exactly a consistent threat, except to himself.
And so, with no striker in dominant form, opponents are able to pack six men in the penalty area at all times and dare David Silva to do it himself. But the stylish Spaniard -- so adept at decimating teams on the counter when there is plenty of room for his speed, vision and passing range -- has been flummoxed when trying to pick the lock of a massed defense.
All of which explains City's impotence midweek at Goodison Park. While the game against the Toffees was always going to be sticky -- the Sky Blues have won only once at Goodison in their past 14 visits -- this was City's fourth defeat in the past nine games. During this anti-streak, the team has morphed from an unstoppable soccer blitzkrieg to a far pricier version of Stoke City, and the juggernaut that had scored an Xbox-like three or more goals in 14 of 23 games has only caused that kind of damage twice since Christmas Day. The weather, the year and Mancini's tailoring have all turned. Can regression to his previously preferred "parcheggiare il bus" tactics be far behind?
While City's early-season scoring binge leaves it atop the Prem on goal differential (imagine if crushing United by five goals early on proved to be the difference-making margin in May), it is not the idyllic, secluded view it enjoyed before the new year. Once again, Sir Alex's indomitable Scottish refusal to concede anything to anyone has United sharing the top spot, and while the rest of the London teams are reduced to scrambling for fourth place, Spurs remain annoyingly relevant.
And therein lies Mancini's firefighting challenge. No amount of Sheikh Mansour's black-gold lucre can purchase the experience required to navigate the rigors of a title run-in. With little trophy-hunting practice over the past 51 years to fall back on, the struggle for City will be to conquer the asphyxiating pressure that Ferguson has made an art form out of exploiting.
Sir Alex's United teams have been defined by their ability to nervelessly ride out the hot streaks of various EPL title pretenders before ruthlessly emasculating them down the stretch. Who doesn't remember Liverpool's brave charge for Prem glory in 2008-09, its most recent full-blooded attempt to end its gloriously long title drought? How will-sapping it must have been to see Fergie's boys constantly closing in the rearview mirror until four goals from Andrei freakin' Arshavin at Anfield caused the Reds to run off the road and cede United the prize.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
But while that car wreck foreshadowed Rafa Benitez's slide into irrelevance, there is no guarantee that Mancini will suffer the same grim fate, even though every dropped point brings him that much closer to the precipice. Mourinho's latest sniffing around the backsides of affluent Prem sides certainly cannot be helping Roberto's agita.
With the pressure mounting, Tevez begrudgingly returning and negative results accumulating, you can't really fault Mancini for trying to deflect blame from his players, who must be psychically exhausted by all of this season's sideshows. The distractions are borderline legion: In addition to the Argentine tango, there's the loss of the influential Yaya Toure to the African Cup of Nations for a critical month; the latest suspension for City's seemingly only in-form but out-of-whack striker, Mario the Mercurial Balotelli; and the collapse of the back line during Vincent Kompany's four-game spell on the sidelines while serving a dubiously deserved punishment. While Tevez and his parasitic agent continue to serve as the entree in this feast of dysfunction, the mind boggles at the pain that Mancini must be feeling now that he's been forced to give up on Wayne Bridge.
Fortunately for Mancini over the next month, City faces a pretty straightforward run of cannon fodder -- Fulham, Aston Villa, Blackburn and Bolton -- assuming it can rediscover the ruthlessness and self-belief that defined its torrid start to the season. Will City's deep squad and deeper pockets be enough to secure the title and Mancini's salvation? I know one person who's rooting against it. Clue: His name rhymes with Jose Mourinho.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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