Wednesday, December 26, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: December 28, 4:38 PM UK
Doubts creep up on Mancini's City
Kristan Heneage, Stadium of Light
Karl Marx once claimed that: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." This was certainly the case for Manchester City as for the third year running they succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light.
"Next year we don't come," Mancini joked after the game. Quite whether 'we' was referring to himself or his team was difficult to decipher. His post-match demeanour seemed far more relaxed compared with the frustrated figure he cut during the match, constantly pacing to and from his dugout.
Once again starting Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero up front, the diminutive Argentines were undefeated in the fourteen previous games they had started together, and looked dangerous early on. However as the half progressed, and the goals did not flow, Mancini's instructions became more agitated.
Still not at their best, City's desire to overcomplicate was again inhibiting their attack. Simon Mignolet was forced into a string of good saves in the early throes, but too often Mancini's men were trying to thread parcel string through a needle. Sunderland's narrow, space-sapping defensive block was leaving little room to play in, and allowed for none of the extra touches City's players were attempting.
It was something the Italian manager noted after the match referring to his side as 'too soft in attack'. A worrying admission given they called upon a striking trio that cost just over £100 million to assemble.
It was for just a tenth of that figure Adam Johnson relocated back to the North East. A man with a point to prove, and the cover star for the day's match programme, Johnson shared a pre kick-off embrace with a few of his old team-mates, including Pablo Zabaleta. Four minutes in and friendships were forgotten he ran at Zabaleta with the kind of reckless abandon associated with wingers of old - drawing a foul in the process. It was to be a tough day for the Argentine international, after an accidental meeting with Steven Fletcher's boot in the first half required Terry Butcher style bandaging.
The former Espanyol man was also heavily involved in the eventual winner. "He [Johnson] looked a bit stunned, I have to admit I wasn't sure until I heard the roar of the crowd," a composed Martin O'Neill said of Johnson's goal after the game. Controversy in the build-up saw an injured Zabaleta ignored by referee Kevin Friend following a tackle by Craig Gardner. As the ball broke to Johnson, his drive inside and wicked shot caught out Joe Hart - the ball squirming under the England international's hand and gently rolling in.
A brief flicker of uncertainty and subdued cheering swept over the Stadium Of Light. Even the goalscorer was unsure of the outcome. His muted celebration and embarrassed smile, the sign of a man who had most likely dreamt of this outcome in his bed the night before.
As one man laughed another almost cried. Mancini, who had earlier responded to decisions going against him with a smile, was now incensed. Waving his hands frantically in the air, anyone with an affiliation to referee Friend was now most definitely a foe. The fourth official earned himself a bi-lingual barrage as a feeling of deja vu began creeping over the visitors and their away support. Eerily peaceful after the game, a joke was his method to diffuse the situation. "The referee ate too much for Christmas, and was not in good form," Mancini decreed.
He also attempted to mitigate his side's defeat by citing yet more luck for the home side at the Stadium Of Light. It was something Martin O'Neill refuted vehemently, with City's inability to create far outweighing any potential luck Sunderland were enjoying.
While Johnson may have been the match-winner, it was full back Danny Rose who was again drawing the plaudits. Cries of "Marty, Marty, sign him up!" rained down from the terraces as the youngster was withdrawn with two minutes to go. Currently on loan from Tottenham Hotspur the wing back will now likely have a number of suitors come January, after another composed defensive display.
In a bid to rectify the situation, first Edin Dzeko, then Gareth Barry, and finally Joleon Lescott were all introduced but provided little. As injury time ticked away, whistles echoed round the Stadium of Light. One final corner, with the inclusion of Joe Hart in attack was headed away and the referee whistled for full-time. Unfounded joy, similar to that at last season's fixture poured from the terraces onto the pitch, and was enhanced when news filtered through that Newcastle had lost in the last minute away at Old Trafford.
As the players departed the field - Sessegnon and Larsson jumping like eager schoolchildren - David Platt patted Johnson on the head, his face like thunder. This was not how they had anticipated a Boxing Day trip to the North East unfolding. For Mancini, there were few words on his former winger: "Johnson was really clever. He did very well."
In Mancini's native Italian, 'In bocca al lupo' serves as a way to wish luck. Translating as 'Into the wolf's mouth', the recipient's response is usually 'Crepi il lupo' (may the wolf die). However, after Wednesday's defeat to the Black Cats, Mancini may be questioning whether that same wolf has begun to digest his hopes of retaining the Premier League title.