Arsenal v Manchester City: Judgment day for Roberto Mancini
Premier League: Arsenal v Manchester City, Sunday April 8, 4pm
Roberto Mancini will head down to London this weekend with his Manchester City team and wonder: How did it come to this?
By the time his players run out at the Emirates on Sunday afternoon the Italian knows that, in all probability, his team will be eight points adrift of Manchester United at the top of the Premier League.
Given QPR’s surprise victory over Arsenal last weekend, perhaps Rangers’ visit to Old Trafford on Sunday should not be taken so lightly – but Mancini won’t be holding his breath.
Having led the table for nearly the entire season, City have gradually seen their lead eroded after a defeat at Swansea last month and draws against Stoke and the error-strewn 3-3 with Sunderland on Saturday.
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Meanwhile United have rolled inexorably on, winning seven of their last eight games and homing in on a seemingly inevitable 20th title triumph.
City have hardly collapsed – their total of 71 points from 31 games would probably see them lead the table in most seasons, but on Sunday it seems a fairly inescapable fact that they are playing to stay in the title race.
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For Mancini, ending the season empty-handed could also cost him his job. Despite ending City’s trophyless 35-year run by lifting the FA Cup last season, City’s powerful Abu Dhabi-based owners want more.
Mancini delivered them Champions League football this season, but their adventure ended at the group stage and was followed by a Europa League defeat to Sporting Lisbon last month.
With their Carling Cup hopes dashed at the semi-final stage by Liverpool, and Vincent Kompany’s early red card contributing to a third-round FA Cup exit to Manchester United, all Mancini’s hopes have been pinned on winning their first title for 44 years.
That now looks increasingly unlikely, even before what was supposed to be the title decider when United visit the Etihad on April 30. If City are beaten at the Emirates, United could even look at clinching the title on the turf of their neighbours.
That was not what City envisaged when they started the season in such devastating form, winning 12 of their first 14 games and not losing until a 2-1 defeat at Chelsea in mid-December.
But Mancini has been fighting fires on and off the pitch all season – literally in the case of the combustible Mario Balotelli’s domestic mishaps – and in the Carlos Tevez saga that has never been far from the back or front pages.
Having said that the Argentinian would never play for the club again, Mancini has had to climb down and pick the striker who so undermined him in September by refusing to warm up as a substitute in the Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich, and then effectively going AWOL until January.
Having also had to deal with Kolo Toure’s drugs ban, the controversial departure of chief executive Garry Cook and the endless issues with Balotelli, Mancini could reflect that if he were to pull off a title triumph – admittedly after assembling possibly the most expensive squad this country has ever seen – it would be something of a miracle.
Instead, the spectre of Jose Mourinho looms larger than ever after City’s chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, confirmed this week that he would review Mancini’s position at the end of the season.
That is hardly the most encouraging of signs for the man who has been trusted with turning the Abu Dhabi United Group’s millions into on-field success.
Mancini will certainly not give up. Victory at the Emirates will keep them in the title race, and they have already beaten Arsene Wenger’s side twice this season.
But the matchwinner in the league game, David Silva, appears to have gone off the boil at just the wrong time, and Sergio Aguero, whose late strike settled November’s Carling Cup quarter-final, is battling to be fit following a bizarre absence due to a reaction to a foot spray.
Such is the lot of Mancini this season, but he will gain little sympathy from anyone in football given the millions at his disposal.
If he wins, he will have bought the title. If he loses he will have failed to deliver it. Either way, he may still lose his job.
Mancini would settle for that and a handsome pay-off if he holds that Premier League trophy aloft on May 13. But unless his side can win on Sunday, he will know that it will be the red half of Manchester celebrating for a 20th time, and City fans will remain as bereft of success as they nearly always have been.
It’s a must-win game for both teams, but both have had big setbacks this week and also won’t want to lose. Are we going for a draw then? You bet. 1-1