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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

FA Cup win the perfect tonic for Mancini

Roberto Mancini celebrates his side's FA Cup win on Wembley pitch

Roberto Mancini may have been a little optimistic when he said he hoped his players would not drink excessively in celebration of their FA Cup final win on Saturday, but the Manchester City boss was shrewd enough to acknowledge that victory at Wembley provided the perfect tonic for him personally after a testing season.

The Italian greeted the final whistle with a beaming smile as he basked in the glory of ending the blue half of Manchester’s 35 year wait for silverware. Reflecting on the most successful season in his club’s recent history, the joy on his face was clear for all to see.

Well, joy, and just a hint of relief.

Relief because although they rarely threatened, Saturday’s opponents Stoke had defended stubbornly as heavy underdogs for over 70 minutes in the face of a powerful, assertive and yet occasionally plodding City performance.

Relief also because Mancini knows cup success can be a powerful springboard for a team chasing greater glories – just as League Cup triumph was for Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2005, or how victory in the same competition a year later eventually proved for a young Manchester United side containing Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.

After all, as far as trophies are concerned, it never pours without raining a bit first.

But perhaps most of all, relief because Mancini knows just how important Saturday’s FA Cup victory will be in stabilising his position at Eastlands, and how steep may have been the price of defeat.

It seems strange to say in the wake of City securing qualification for the Champions league for the first time in the club’s history but, for much of the season, the common reaction to the club’s domestic performance has been decidedly muted.

At times the displays conjured by Roberto Mancini’s men have left the clear impression of a team coasting towards their destination with the handbrake on, rather than putting pedal to the metal and forcing the issue in a season where Manchester United will finish with the lowest points total of any Premier League champions for ten years.

The City manager himself has often come across as content to fulfil his employers’ minimum requirement of fourth place in the table, in a year when even the best team in the country have seemed vulnerable to anyone brave and capable enough to challenge them. A lack of quality is regrettable, a lack of ambition unforgivable.

Pragmatism in the dugout has inevitably been transmitted onto the pitch, and as a result although City have often convinced they have rarely thrilled en route to Europe’s top table this season – although the situation has hardly been helped by the likes of Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko, who have thus far done little to justify the lavish expenditure required to bring them to Eastlands.

Dzeko and Balotelli have yet to repay the combined £52m it cost City to sign them

Starved for so long of any meaningful success, City’s loyal fans have been willing to accept functionality over fantasy, even on a Hollywood budget, as long as it yields results. The club’s owners, too, have been willing to acquiesce as long as Mancini delivers on his promises.

But in testing their resolve, Mancini was playing a dangerous game.

Fail to finish in the top four – seemingly a very real possibility immediately after a comprehensive defeat inflicted by Liverpool at Anfield back in April, prior to Tottenham’s dramatic decline – and the Italian undoubtedly would have lost his job.

Lose to Stoke in the FA Cup Final and, while Mancini’s time may not have been up in Manchester, serious questions would have been asked, if not of the ‘City project’ then certainly of the manager’s compatibility with it, and the club’s league performance may well have become the subject of greater internal scrutiny.

But instead it is Mancini who is the winner. He will always be the man credited with ending City’s epic trophy drought, and his bond with the fans has been strengthened accordingly.

Chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, who must have been privately willing Mancini to justify the board’s decision to ruthlessly dispatch Mark Hughes in favour of the former Inter Milan boss, now has all the ammunition he needs to rebuff the club’s detractors.

There is no doubt that bigger challenges lie ahead for Mancini. He has a summer to mould a squad capable of maintaining a Premier League title challenge and Champions League campaign, all the while playing the sort of expansive style which will see off any remaining reservations over his suitability.

It will be a tough task. But with the time and faith a trophy has earned him, the City manager has given himself every chance.

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