At this exact stage last season, Manchester City had scored a remarkable 36 goals in 10 games. This season, it’s 18 in 10. And, while that ratio is still impressive and has kept them within touching distance of the top, it is a stark 50% drop-off that has started to have an effect. City have only scored once in their last two games, including a 0-0 draw at West Ham on Saturday. For their manager, it may be at the root of even bigger problems too.
In an Upton Park corridor, Mancini gave a surprisingly long and frank elaboration on his team’s issues, but in a markedly casual manner. Remarkably, as his team approach their fourth Champions League game badly needing a win against Ajax tomorrow to stay in the competition, Mancini claims they are “not ready” to win Europe’s elite competition. While all of this may just be a motivational tool similar to his comments during last season’s title race, the nature of his argument suggested something deeper.
“I don’t think we are ready to win a Champions League. If we say [we are], we are not honest.
“It’s clear that, in the Champions League, incredible situations can happen during February, March but we’re talking about the group, like last year. We played a very poor game against Borussia [Dortmund] and Ajax we played so-so. Also, [at Ajax] when we were 1-0, we missed two incredible chances to close the game. In the Champions League, if you don’t score, the game is open.
“We need to improve, to play better, to score when we have a chance.”
Such wastefulness was evident in a slightly different way at West Ham. Despite starting all of Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko in a front-loaded formation before then bringing on Sergio Aguero, City barely managed to fashion a clear chance out of 22 shots. When they did, they missed them.
“If you want to win a title again, we can’t lose a point like today,” Mancini said.
Yet, despite criticising his players for not clinically taking opportunities, it was somewhat ironic that Mancini appeared to be asking for repeated chances in Europe. In elaborating on his team’s Champions League issues, he brought up Chelsea’s decade-long evolution.
“I think we are a good team. We are not ready like other teams. Chelsea for how many years tried to win the Champions League when they were probably the best team in Europe? And they won after 10 years, probably when they didn’t deserve. We are not ready to play, to win a Champions League properly.”
Whether City’s big-spending owners agree will be interesting, particularly after a week in which Mancini’s future and his links to Monaco were discussed at length.
On Saturday, of course, he was facing a manager who has finally given up his hopes of managing an elite club. Sam Allardyce, however, illustrated he can still make things very awkward for them. Out of 15 career games against the Premier League’s defending champions, this was his eighth point. With a supreme defensive display that also gave City considerable trouble and saw a Kevin Nolan strike narrowly flagged for offside, West Ham followed his instructions to the letter.
“They arrive as champions of the Premier League and you set out your game plan to first earn the right to play them,” a satisfied Allardyce said. “I think, from start to finish, we did the best we possibly could. In the end, it was a well-deserved draw.”
For City though, it was a frustrating one — not least for Balotelli, who appeared to mouth abuse at Mancini when substituted. The manager didn’t so much criticise him for this as for missing chances.
Having handled Balotelli well on the pitch though, would Allardyce enjoy managing him off it? “Well I’ve managed Dioufy [El-Hadji Diouf]. He’s similar, isn’t he? It’s all about personalities. If the talent far outweighs the difficulty, you’ll manage them all day long.”
On Saturday, City’s talent had plenty of difficulty. Tomorrow, they’ll face even more.
WEST HAM: Jaaskalainen; O’Brien, Reid, Collins (Spence 83), McCartney; Benayoun, Diame (O’Neil 70), Nolan, Noble, Jarvis; Carroll (Cole 77).
MANCHESTER CITY: Hart; K Toure, Kompany, Nastasic, Clichy; Nasri (Sinclair 89), Y Toure, Barry; Dzeko, Balotelli (Aguero 67), Tevez (Garcia 83).
Referee: Howard Webb.