Why Mancini can’t get it right in Europe

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When Roberto Mancini’s rage against the slow death of Manchester City’s Champions League aspirations finally fizzles out, it will be replaced by the recognition of a brutal truth.

Mancini was the flesh and blood embodiment of all the frustration this competition has brought City as he stalked on to the pitch carrying bitter disappointment and a burning sense of injustice at the end of the 2-2 draw with Ajax.

The result leaves the Premier League champions needing to win their final two games at home to Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid and away to Borussia Dortmund, then a few other cards to fall favourably, to avoid a second successive departure at the group phase.

There is currently a strange atmosphere surrounding City and Mancini. It has manifested itself in a lack of belief in the Champions League and appears to have spread to the supporters, who were subdued until a second-half rally lifted spirits.

It was as if players and fans were in need of inspiration to make City feel as though they really belong in this competition. The spirit of Mancini’s men should not be doubted, given the manner of Tuesday’s comeback from two goals down to almost win, but a spark is missing.

City have struggled to get to grips with the Champions League, even with the added layer of confidence being champions should give them, while Mancini himself has never got a handle on it, either with Inter Milan or at Eastlands. Hindsight is a wonderful gift but perhaps City did need an “A-List” signing such as an Eden Hazard or Javi Martinez to lift them to the extra level required in the Champions League, to make them feel collectively more at ease on this stage.

It takes time to grow into the Champions League let alone win it, and there will be pains along the way. Chelsea took until 2012 to finally win it, and Arsenal have been hammering away in the competition for years without lifting the trophy.

So to expect City, no matter how much was spent, to pitch up and instantly lay waste to Europe’s elite was somewhat fanciful, especially given the groups they have been given. Where City have come from in such a short space of time should offer some context.

What could reasonably be expected is better than two points from four games, amid a sense that City are still not getting to grips with the requirements of the Champions League.

Read more about Manchester City’s stuggles in the Uefa Champions League at BBC Sport. Meanwhile, Jonathan Wilson also takes a look at the reasons behind Mancini’s failure to lead his team past the group stages of Europe’s ultimate club competition.

Where their lack of European pedigree certainly has hurt them is in the draw. With a low coefficient they have been placed in tough groups both last season – with Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal – and this – with Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund.

And perhaps it is the case that it takes time to learn how to balance the twin demands of the league at a weekend and regular high-level competition in midweek.
 
But by far the bigger issue seems to concern Mancini. Last season’s group-stage exit was perhaps unfortunate; 10 points would usually be enough to progress. But in four seasons with Inter, Mancini’s side went out in the quarter-finals twice and in the last 16 twice. The issue is perhaps less that the Italian struggles with the different style of European opponents than that the quality of the Champions League exposes flaws that domestic football doesn’t.

And that, unfortunately for Mancini, would seem to enhance the claims that, for all his success – four title wins in six years – he is a lucky coach rather than a great one; after all, his three Scudetti came in a Serie A severely weakened by the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal, while his Premier League title was at least in part won because of an uncharacteristic collapse by Manchester United.

The real problem for City seems to be that Mancini is aware of the doubts about him and seems to be going through a phase of trying to prove himself, overcomplicating things as though to make clear that he is the genius, he is the one who deserves the credit for City’s success. The change of shape against Real Madrid, for instance, was baffling.

The real worry for City is that the flaws are deep-rooted and may start to show not just abroad but at home. The sale of Nigel de Jong, the sidelining of Joleon Lescott and the dabbles with a back three all suggest a side trying to switch to a more possession-based game, Mancini perhaps following the general trend or – more intriguingly – looking to head off rumours that Pep Guardiola is being lined up as coach by adopting a style based on Barcelona’s. Whatever the reason, it isn’t working.

How do you feel about Manchester City’s troubles in Europe? Do you think Roberto Mancini can eventually take them to the pinnacle of European club football or does the blue half of Manchester need to find a new manager to fulfill their Champions League dream? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page or @toknowthegame on Twitter.

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