by Ahsan Naeem
It isn’t always easy navigating the aftermath of a defeat at Manchester City. Like many clubs who have trodden the path of elevated expectations but not necessarily favourable outcomes, the post mortems tend to take on hysterical proportions both in the media and amongst the supporters.
Last week saw City take the short trip to Ajax of Amsterdam in what many people had touted in the run up as a must win for both the club and for manager Roberto Mancini. After the heartbreak of a dying minutes defeat at the Bernabau and the ignominy of being outclassed by Dortmund at the Etihad and literally stealing a point, Amsterdam felt like the perfect opportunity for City to get their Champions League campaign up and running and finally put down a marker in the group as to their undoubted class. Alas even whilst being cautiously optimistic, not even the most ardent of City supporter could have expected the comprehensive defeat which followed. A youthful Ajax team full of running made their counterparts from Manchester look like an ageing heavyweight short on both legs and desire.
The immediate aftermath saw hand-wringing and recriminations galore as Micah Richards seemed to suggest City were unprepared for Mancini’s tactical tinkering, whilst the manager somewhat sarcastically suggested it was his own fault Joleon Lescott didn’t jump for the crucial second goal, before spikily batting away criticism of his tactics.
So as City now contemplate another energy sapping Europa League campaign in the new year (the chances of qualification into the Champions League knock out stage in this writers very humble opinion are nil) questions have once again been raised about Mancini’s ability to deliver on the big European stage.
It is without doubt lazy logic to beat Mancini over the head with his European record at Inter Milan and Mourinho’s subsequent success there as proof of anything. I think it is far more relevant to look at Mancini’s record in Europe with City, where despite the insistence of many that the club are relative novices on the European scene, they have played 26 competitive matches under his stewardship. His record currently stands at 13 wins, 5 draws, and 8 defeats, with the only away wins coming at Red Bull Salzburg, Porto, and Villareal.
What should we make of that record? Not very much to be honest. As a City supporter I recall every one of those 26 games, although not in any great detail due primarily to the paucity of quality shown in so many of them by the Blues. The stand out performance in the 26 games is undoubtedly the victory away in Porto in the Europa League last season. It was efficient and although Porto dominated the ball for large periods, City did the kind of job you would expect an experienced European team to do, eventually taking a precious away goal advantage into the home leg. However as with so many of City’s European performances under Mancini, the efficient is rapidly followed by the half arsed, and City were summarily beaten by Sporting Lisbon in the next round.
There are some excuses which the facts simply don’t bare out. The biggest being that City are “new” to Europe and learning its ropes will take time. 26 European matches under Mancini, against opposition from right across Europe’s elite leagues has provided plenty of experience and plenty of different styles of European opposition. Of course it isn’t the kind of experience that giants like Madrid, Munich, or even Porto and Lisbon have, but this is where the squad comes in. The club itself may well be relatively new to the modern European competition, but the players certainly are not. City’s squad can count itself amongst the most experienced and decorated in Europe with world cup winners, champions league winners, UEFA cup winners, all playing alongside each other under a coach who has a decade of experience as a coach in European competition.
It is difficult to know what the expectations of Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoun Al Mubarak are, however there is one rather ominous problem Roberto Mancini faces, and that is the financial implications of twice failing to get past the champions league group stages. Because City are a top heavy squad with one of the largest wage bills in European football, Champions League income is crucial if City are to meet the requirements of UEFA ‘s upcoming Financial Fair Play regulations. Manchester City received around 26 million euros from their inaugural champions league campaign whilst eventual winners Chelsea took home in excess of 60 million euros. This doesn’t even take into account the increased commercial revenue from sponsorship and marketing deals for progressing into the knock out stages, nor the cache success in the Champions League provides when the club are trying to sign players. It is of little doubt to me that had Chelsea not won the competition last season, Eden Hazard would be a City player.
Extra spice was added to the mix over the weekend with the appointment of Txiki Begiristain as Director of Football at City who joined his former Barcelona colleague Ferran Soriano at the Etihad. The two men oversaw massive successes both on and off the field at their former club and no doubt both men will expect on field success to drive off field income at City.
Ultimately you’d have to say that City have underachieved in Europe so far under Mancini. I’ve steered clear of talking about specific matches or specific tactical or team selection issues because the results are the most important thing, and they speak for themselves. I was asked to write a piece about “why” City and Mancini struggle in Europe. The truth is I think there isn’t any in depth post mortem required to answer that question. We haven’t been good enough in Europe in my humble opinion because we have a coach who isn’t up to the challenges of fashioning and motivating a squad to balance European competition with challenging in the Premier League. It’s a sweeping statement I realize and one which could come back to haunt me, but it’s one which Mancini’s European record at City suggest isn’t far from the truth. The question for him is whether this underachievement is mitigated by domestic success, or whether the expectations are higher considering the quality and experience throughout the squad. Time will tell, in the meantime questions about Mancini’s abilities in Europe will continue to be raised as expectations and disappointment make for incredibly uncomfortable bed fellows in football.