Roberto Mancini's job in doubt as Manchester City lose ground at top of table
Roberto Mancini's Manchester City future is not guaranteed beyond the end of the season and the club's chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, will review whether the Italian's abrasive management style is helping to move the club forward, if they lose out to Manchester United in the title race.
The relationship between Mancini and Al-Mubarak has always been a good one and the manager's more ruthless mentality than his predecessor, Mark Hughes, is perceived to have been a vital asset by the Abu Dhabis, with whom Mancini has established far closer direct relations than Hughes ever did. But Mancini's determination to stick with Mario Balotelli in a season when he has publicly challenged other players is having an increasingly divisive and toxic effect in the dressing room and damaging the manager's credibility with his squad.
Narrowly losing out to United may be acceptable to City's owners – who had targeted this, their fourth season of ownership as "the year we were going to go for it" and "win the league". But a more substantial deficit on United – six or more points, perhaps – and further evidence of the internal strife that has left James Milner as the latest disgruntled squad member may force a rethink. Mancini, who has spent £240m on 16 senior players and is at serious risk of ending the season with no silverware, has 12 months remaining on his current £3.5m-a-year deal, so the cost of parting company with him would not be substantial. He will get a new contract if he stays.
If Mancini can re-impose a sense of order – which Nigel de Jong tweeting from the airport en route to Amsterdam and Pablo Zabaleta flying to Barcelona yesterday did not exactly add to – he could be able to argue that he has finished the current Premier League campaign with the most points of any second-placed side. But despite Abu Dhabi's delight with the season until February, Mancini's personal relationships with those in the dressing room and beyond are under question. Ahead of a summer in which a certain amount of rebuilding will be required again, the question for Al-Mubarak appears to be whether Mancini can bond a team to take the next step.
A key factor may be the availability of Jose Mourinho, whose future beyond the end of this season at Real Madrid is by no means guaranteed and who, if he brings them the Champions League and La Liga double, may decide that he can take the club no higher and leave. If Mourinho only wins the domestic title, he may stay for one more tilt at the top European prize. Madrid's ABC Punto Radio said last week that Mourinho had already negotiated a deal with City, though he denied this. As yet, there is no distinct impression from Roman Abramovich that he wants Mourinho's brand of football back at Chelsea.
The substantial advantage to City of hiring Mourinho is that he would bring with him Jorge Mendes – his agent and a deal-maker who would like to see Mourinho at City. Atletico Madrid's Colombian striker Falcao, a Mendes client, was linked to City in the Spanish media late last week.
City, who will also be aware that Guus Hiddink has a contractual clause allowing him to leave the Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala this summer, are certainly likely to be in the market for a striker during what may be a busy summer, despite the stipulations of Uefa's Financial Fair Play regime. Balotelli's unpredictability may lead to his sale – whatever Mancini might say – while Edin Dzeko has not developed as the club had hoped. He, too, might go – along with Carlos Tevez, whose eagerness to return to the fold is in part motivated by a desire to make himself attractive to Milan. Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz, on loan at Tottenham and Real Betis respectively, must also be offloaded as City seek funds for a new striker. A substantial offer will be required to make Arsenal go back on Arsène Wenger's vow not to let them have Robin van Persie.
De Jong may have done enough to be in contention for a new contract offer and to be more realistic than when he turned down the club's proposal last summer, though the general need for more pace through the side may make Eden Hazard, Lille's attacking midfielder, another target. A central defender is also a top requirement as last summer's £7m gamble on Stefan Savic from Partizan Belgrade has not paid off. City have received a number of inquiries from Italy for the player and are likely to get their money back if they sell rather than loan out a man who is perceived to need experience in a less rarefied environment. Last summer's calculated gamble on Owen Hargreaves has not paid off either and he will also leave.
Such is the size of the task with which Abu Dhabi must decide whether to trust Mancini.