Second place 'not good enough' for Manchester City
For Manchester City, it will be silverware or bust. Overtaken by the relentless march of Manchester United and facing elimination from the Europa League this evening, neither the manager nor his senior players will take any comfort from finishing second, a height the club has not scaled since 1977.
Both Roberto Mancini and Nigel de Jong argued that after all they had achieved this season, finishing without a trophy would be tantamount to failure. Neither man was prepared for the easy argument that a second-placed finish would still represent progress.
"Our target is to win a trophy; our main goal is to win the Premier League," said De Jong before tonight's encounter with Sporting Lisbon, where City will try to overturn a 1-0 deficit. "The only way we can succeed this season is to win one of the prizes. After we won the FA Cup, everybody became hungry for more. That has to be the ambition of this club."
Nevertheless, Mancini and his rival, Sir Alex Ferguson, have both conceded that playing matches on a Thursday and a Sunday, as the Europa League schedule demands, would disrupt their drive for the championship. Asked if he wanted Manchester United to go out to Athletic Bilbao this evening, Mancini replied, very definitely, that he wanted United to stay in the competition.
Mancini had drawn criticism by choosing to remain in Portugal after defeat in the Jose Alvalade Stadium and flying his squad directly to Wales from their base in Estoril, arriving on Saturday evening. "You have got to be mentally strong," said De Jong, discussing the defeat to Swansea that followed. "It is a long season, we are still in two competitions and it takes a lot from the players.
"But we brought players in for a reason – to make the squad bigger and stronger. We cannot have any excuses at the end of the day. It [playing Thursdays and Sundays] means you don't have so many options to do training sessions. If you have two games, one after the other, it is hard to get everybody in shape for the next one."
Of the two Manchester clubs, City would covet the Europa League trophy more and have a better chance of staying in the competition, even a goal down to a side that has never been knocked out by English opposition. Their 4-0 demolition of Porto, a far better team than Sporting Lisbon, in the last round demonstrated what City are capable of at the Etihad Stadium. In this competition, Sporting have won one of their five away fixtures.
Despite the fact he was not declared as part of Manchester City's Europa League squad, Carlos Tevez did train with the men whom he once thought never to call his team-mates again yesterday. This could be the last match in which the Argentine is a shadow on the sidelines, though, with Mancini confirming that he may be fit enough to play some part against Chelsea on Wednesday. "It depends on him," said Mancini. "If he is OK, then probably, but it depends on a lot of things."
There are too many comparisons with the late arrival of Rodney Marsh at Maine Road, the move that was to fatally unbalance City's title ambitions in 1972, for anyone to be entirely comfortable with Tevez's return. There will be a centre forward who will have led the line while Tevez was sulking in Argentina who will have to make way for him, and the impact that might have can be imagined,
However, De Jong argued that if it meant the difference between Manchester City winning the title or failing, it is an experiment that should be tried. "Of course, he has had his difficulties with the club but he is here now and we want to look to the future not the past," said the Dutchman.
"Everyone can make a difference; everybody knows his qualities – he has never lost them. It is not about being fair. Everyone knows the problems he has had with the club but for us the main goal has been to win the Premier League and nothing should distract us from that. If that means Carlos is part of things for the last few games of the season, then so be it."