Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

James Lawton: Learn from the master Mancini and show faith in your team

Roberto Mancini the manager of Manchester City faces the media during a press conference at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 17, 2012 in Madrid
Roberto Mancini the manager of Manchester City faces the media during a press conference at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 17, 2012 in Madrid

Is it just me or is Roberto Mancini's long and somewhat rambling tribute to the historic weight of Real Madrid getting just a shade obsequious before tonight's Champions League engagement at the Bernabeu?

There have certainly been times these last few days when he has sounded rather more like an over-awed archivist than the manager of the champions of what we like to think of as the strongest, richest football league in the world, and never more so when he declared, "Madrid is the history of football for 100 years."



Then, after bracketing Cristiano Ronaldo with Barcelona's Lionel Messi as the world's best player, he proceeded to catalogue the strength of the rest of the Real squad. "Apart from Ronaldo, they have 15, 16, 18 players at the top."



Much more of this and the likes of Yaya Touré, David Silva, Sergio Aguero (if he's fit) and Vincent Kompany may just be wondering about the point of their journey.



There might also be fresh questions about the balance between the City manager's formidable experience and achievements in the domestic football of his native Italy and now England and his understanding of quite what it takes to make a significant impact on the world's most demanding club competition.



Here is Mancini looking back on the Champions League frustration which ultimately cost him his job at Internazionale after three Serie A titles: "We worked hard for the Champions League with Inter. But in the Champions League there are some moments you must win and that time was two years ago. You prepare to do a job but you must also be lucky."



Most importantly, of all, you must do what his successor at San Siro, and tonight's opponent, Jose Mourinho did in 2010. You must dwell not on the strengths and the mystique of your opponents but their weaknesses. Mourinho turned Barcelona's brilliant ball possession against them. He jeered that his team would grant them as much of the ball as they wanted – and then require them to do something with it.



Some said Mourinho's strategy was the equivalent of switching off the lights but none of them supported Inter, who for so long had been lions of the game right up until the moment they had to operate on a wider front.



There is maybe some encouragement for City in Real's so far less than imperious defence of their La Liga title. They may warm to the reports of Ronaldo's latest discontent and Mourinho's blistering denouncement of the team after the weekend defeat at Seville. But then perhaps it should be remembered that Mourinho's genius is to live in the moment not the immediate past – and certainly not in ancient football history.



In winning his second Champions League title with Inter – and becoming one of only three coaches to do it at separate clubs – Mourinho gave his players both belief in themselves and a clear purpose.



He didn't say that he was involved in a work in progress. He said he was ready to steal a great moment. When he left for Real, his players wept.



Would Mancini's departure any time soon have a similar effect on such pillars of City as Touré and Aguero and Kompany? If it did, it would surely not be the result of his public enthusiasm for their ability to beat any team they faced, which is of course what separates a work in progress from a moment of truth.



"I think we have good players and we are working for this," says Mancini, "we want to improve but we cannot say this now. We have a good team but we need to improve. When you play Champions League, every team is a top team, every team is difficult."



Inevitably, he says again, "When you are playing Real or Barcelona you are up against 100 years of history."



No, you are not. You are against formidable teams, of course, but they do not draw their strength from down the decades. They get it from their current level of confidence, their ability to concentrate their minds on what they have to do and what, in optimum circumstances, they have done so often before.



No one understands this better than Mourinho. After Seville, he said he had a lousy team but that he did not believe it was a permanent condition.



For Mancini the pressure of tonight comes with a growing need to make a significant breakthrough in Europe. If last year's accumulation of 10 points would normally have carried his side through to the second phase, the early dismissal was still a brutal addition to his store of disappointment in the Champions League.



No doubt his experiences set the current tone of his voice, even when he announces, "We can win, we can lose, we can draw but our mentality is not to go to Madrid, or anywhere else, for a draw or to lose."



Really? It is certainly not the abiding memory of a City who, despite being demonstrably the strongest team in the land, carried the title by such a fine margin on the last day of last season.



Mancini, for all his other virtues, still seems in need of that quality which oozes from the man he faces tonight. It is the swagger of a natural-born winner, a man who sets his own agenda and, however perilous it may be, sees it not as a plan but a creed.



It may just be that, in his obsession with one aspect of Spanish history, Roberto Mancini has to yet to encounter the famous phrase of the woman who was at the heart of a besieged Madrid in 1936 during the Civil War and long before Real icon Alfredo di Stefano became the apple of Generalismo Franco's eye. "No Pasaran – They Shall not Pass" – she yelled to the defenders. In a more reflective moment, she also said: "It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees."



Perhaps Mancini, with the FA Cup and Premier League title in successive seasons, really believes his team are about to show their stature, in which case what is the harm in letting them know?

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