By Jack Gaughan
Even at the end of a treacherous, Mario Balotelli-obsessed week for Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini, he’ll be a very happy man on Sunday morning.
The Italian saw his side comfortably sweep aside Championship side Watford 3-0 and put themselves in the hat for the fourth round of the FA Cup. That won’t be all that is pleasing him, though.
After the huge training ground row with Balotelli – the angry pictures captured tell the story – City fans could perhaps have been forgiven for directing their rumblings of discontent at the manager, who has spluttered and stuttered through this season with alien formations, odd press conferences and strange tactical decisions.
They instead chose to sell out the Etihad, roar Mancini’s name and contribute to making sure the Sunday talk wasn’t fixated on player and fan unrest at what has been a trying campaign.
Manchester City have – but for a selection of coin throwers and the odd pitch invader – a wonderful band of supporters who remain fiercely loyal to their team. “Where were you when you were s**t?” asked the travelling Watford lot. “We were here,” was the reply. And they weren’t wrong.
The huge attendances at Maine Road that roared City on in what is now League One were comprised of the same folk who now swell this picturesque arena.
Loyal to their team, yes, but also loyal to those who have done them no wrong. In the eyes of City fans, the manager is a magician. To reclaim the Premier League title after so many years, even with the finance available, was a monumental achievement. He therefore deserves total respect when the going gets tough, as it has done recently.
Even winning the FA Cup two years ago was wide-eyed stuff for the blue half of Manchester. These successes have not only bought him time with the owners, but have afforded him the unconditional love of each of his flock.
When you venture outside of this inner sanctity, Mancini is not universally popular. He’s painted as an eccentric loose cannon who cannot control his players and who is incapable of delivering sustained triumphs to a club that so dearly craves to become top dog in Europe as well as England.
The fact that the Balotelli saga now appears water under Joe Mercer Way will be something that raises eyebrows. It has undoubtedly damaged his reputation, but the decision taken showed signs of being vindicated when the striker came on for a cameo on Saturday, looking busy in and out of possession and firing a shot too hot to handle for Marcos Lopes’ last-minute goal.
Whether this was a performance to put himself in the January shop window or not is somewhat irrelevant: Mancini’s choice to allow this episode to blow over resulted in an improved show by the player. If they choose to keep Balotelli, his head seems to be in a better place than previously. If they opt to sell, the price ought to be higher than it was two days ago.
Finite details in how to deal with characters on upwards of £150,000-a-week are not as easy as made out, and certainly aren’t taught when a prospective manager takes his coaching badges. These are delicate matters, which we are not privy to, and Mancini looks to be handling the firecracker better than a collection of his contemporaries could have done.
None of this detracts from a relatively poor season for Mancini personally. Three goals against a decent but uninspiring Watford team isn’t actually that impressive; nor is progressing to the fourth round. But the 48-year-old will see this as an opportunity to keep his trophy haul ticking along. Talking about whether a trophyless season would spell the end for the Italian at the Etihad Stadium is speculatively futile, but notching another competition to his post cannot do any harm.
City are seven points behind Premier League leaders Manchester United, which is not irretrievable by any stretch – ask any City fan – but the way in which their neighbours are performing indicates that dragging back that deficit could prove much more troublesome than it did in 2012.
Not over then, but it’s hardly game on at this point. All of which means that the world’s oldest competition is one Mancini, Platt and co will really want to win.
While it’d be disappointing not to retain the Premier League title, City fans will point to Chelsea and say that they could be much worse off than they are. They don’t want to be a club that roulettes its managers, treating them with contempt. Mancini is to be nurtured, loved and encouraged.
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