Dreaming of Wembley

Posted by Simon Curtis

Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesRoberto Mancini and Manchester City's season comes down to next week's FA Cup Final versus Wigan.

With one side basking in that Wembley afterglow of success that sometimes strikes League Cup winners down with a rare sort of paralysis more often accredited to striped Australian bugs, and the other in a typically pre-Wembley Cup final tip-toe of self-preservation, Swansea and Manchester City served up a game that seemed to last even longer than the 102 minute marathon in October between the two sides.

That was one of the Premier League's longest ever games. This one seemed to be trying to drag itself grimly on well beyond that remarkable barrier, despite referee Mike Jones's mercy killing occurring as early as the 93rd minute.

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City, on an eight game run of success that has seen them hoisted as the Premier League's late season form team, versus Swansea, a team searching for any semblance of form at all. Michael Laudrup and Roberto Mancini, both alumni of Lazio and true scholars of the more artistic machinations of this simple game we call football, have their work cut out.

For Laudrup, his season's job has been done since the moment Swansea's first ever trophy was secured along with a comfortable berth in Premier League mid-table. After Swansea's inaugural season with the big boys under Brendan Rodgers, this term has been so far from the usual goblin attacks of second season syndrome as to be almost totally unrecognisable from the expected norm.

As for Mancini, his season's work hangs on the small matter of next weekend's game with Wigan Athletic at Wembley. It seems ever so slightly odd that a team that has participated in the Champions League and run with (or slightly behind) Manchester United all season for the league title, should now be staring at a single make-or-break game, but that is the reality of the situation Mancini and his men find themselves in.

Win it and City go into the close season full of hope, with a fourth trophy secured in three years, ready and willing to spend on new recruits of high calibre and working towards a renewed assault on the top of the table. Lose it and those dreaded storm clouds of old will begin to gather, the sound of sharpening knives will be heard and certain sections of the press will have their gleeful field day.

Mancini's reaction to the news that City had been chatting to Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini during the week was generally translated by the word "non-plussed" in the mainstream press. What he feels inside is another matter. To be portrayed as a failure, or anything approaching it, is to ignore the sound job done so far and instead be dazzled by those who will have it that the Italian is a one-man vanity project, who cannot or will not countenance proper man-management and who has no time for players who do not show the same levels of technique and know-how that he did in his gilded youth.

Laudrup, you feel, might have been forgiven for having feelings along similar lines, as he watched his charges flail and flap and fail to get past a lethargic, dreamy-looking City. Those televised tears shed so publicly here last season could have been tears of frustration Saturday, as a full strength City did nothing to suggest they will finish the league campaign devouring opponents. Instead, as Cup Final foes Wigan embarked on yet another sprightly end of term relegation sprint, City were to be found plodding around the Valleys leaden footed and disinterested.

These traits were perhaps best illustrated by the towering figure of Edin Dzeko, who appeared for the second half instead of Yaya Toure. Dzeko's moment came near the end, with just seven minutes remaining, as he succeeded in steering an easy chance wide with the aplomb of a man with his mind on the dotted line at the bottom of a contract entitled "The Undersigned Will Hereby Play for Borussia Dortmund". The Bosnian has the air of a man asked to hold onto a wardrobe for five minutes in case a light breeze blows it away, who still manages to be empty handed when you return. Four goals in 2013 for City, Dzeko's startling malaise is just a microcosm of City's big failing this season: 26 fewer than at this stage last season. For the team, this can be rectified. For Dzeko, you sense the exit door is falling off its hinges waiting for him to pass through it, both as far as he is concerned, as the club itself.

There were some positives to gain from all of this: Joe Hart accumulated yet another clean sheet towards what will surely be his third consecutive Golden Glove award, while also surpassing Micah Richards as City's third-most fielded player in the premier league era (161); no injuries were reported (although Scott Sinclair did end up in a Manchester hospital after a blood clot in his shoulder was reported. The player had not travelled with the squad); plus referee Jones saw fit not to award a penalty to Swansea (why break the habit of a season...?) when the classy Matija Nastasic wiped out Michu in the area. Dzeko later tried the same trick at the other end, but his clumsy fall looked more like an old lady running down a flight of steps. It has been that kind of an end to the season for the Bosnian. For it not to be that kind of a season for City, they must re-find the panache and drive in time for Wigan next Saturday.

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