Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Manchester City are overwhelmed by waves of doubt

One day soon Manchester City may burst out of the uncomfortable skin they seem to wear whenever the pressure of expectation reaches a certain level.

If they do, it may well also be true that the £3m more Roberto Mancini paid for Edin Dzeko than did Gérard Houllier for Darren Bent will look like the smallest of change.



The "Bosnian Diamond" certainly has the look of a thoroughbred, so rangy, quick and silky at times that his failure to convert a free header near the end only exaggerated the oddity that it was Houllier's investment that had annexed all the glory.



Almost everyone knows the value of owning the rights to Bent's superior scavenging and Houllier's elation was no doubt a pat on his own back for having the nerve to persuade his money-conscious owner, Randy Lerner, to spend so much on such a player after identifying Villa's most pressing need for some kind of consistent finishing, however basic.



Mancini, plainly, is infinitely less obliged to walk the sure-fire value-for-money line, having now paid the best part of £50m for the talented but highly problematic Mario Balotelli and Dzeko to augment the proven scoring touch of Carlos Tevez. But then, nobody needs to tell him his own auditing will come soon enough.



It will not be about the ability of a single gifted player but the capacity of a whole string of them to fuse into a winning team.



While the manager flew home to see his ailing father in Italy, where live television analysis spoke of "Mancini's big defeat", and a failure to seize a "vital moment", his assistant, Brian Kidd, moved swiftly to head off another wave of doubt, saying: "I always thought the title was United's to lose. Our aim is still the top four."



Yet in a season in which such little sustained distinction has been declared by any of the elite, when the crushing victories of United and Arsenal this weekend have been such rare statements of easy superiority, at what point is a squad now costing the best part of £300m invited to believe that any prize can be comfortably assigned to some point in the middle distance?



However rich its resources and depth, no team wakes up one morning with the conviction that it can win everything. It is the result of an accumulation of confidence and desire, though not necessarily in that order.



After the notably cautious approach to the challenge of a United's visit last November, Kolo Touré asserted that City had their blueprint for the title in perfect working order – mop up the points against the weaker teams and make sure you don't lose to the best.



It sounds rational enough until you consider an inherent aspect of such a strategy. It is the concession that you are still some way, even after vast investment, from being able to compete on level terms with anyone you face.



That is the criticism of Mancini that he has still to dispel – and especially on days when the grand plan founders as it did at Villa Park. One reason it did so on this occasion was the extraordinary obduracy of former City crowd favourite, and player of the year, Richard Dunne.



After magnificently remaking his career, the Irishman was ushered away from Eastlands with faint praise and the regret that, for all his competitive qualities, he was never likely to sell a souvenir shirt in Beijing or Kuala Lumpur.



At Villa Park, though, he reminded his old club that he had a tendency to play out of his skin. It is a guarantee some of his most expensive successors have yet to produce.

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