A NEW era for Manchester City began, at the City of Manchester Stadium, in much the same way as the old one had ended with uncertainty and frustration surrounding the future of the club’s mercurial Brazilian Robinho.
With Roberto Mancini at the helm for the first time since his controversial appointment to replace Mark Hughes, sacked and forced into the demeaning act of seeing that dismissal played out in public during the victory against Sunderland seven days earlier, City coasted to a 2-0 win.
Goals from Martin Petrov and Carlos Tevez in the first half guaranteed the victory before the first-half whistle sounded but it was the performance – perhaps “non-performance” would be a more accurate phrase – of Robinho that dominated post-match analysis.
Much had been made in the wake of Hughes’ sacking of his failure to cajole Robinho into consistent performance and effort. The costly 3-0 defeat at Tottenham, which the City owners claimed was the final nail in Hughes’ City coffin, featured a desultory and perfunctory Robinho display. Tellingly, as Hughes realised last week’s 4-3 win over Sunderland was to be his last, the Welshman ensured Robinho was left idle on the bench to which he had banished him at the start of the game.
In the build-up to his first game in command, Mancini himself confirmed a commonly-held view that his ability to motivate the wonderfully gifted Brazilian could well determine his entire fate as City manager.
Robinho started, in place of the always-reliable Craig Bellamy, and played in a variety of roles as City adjusted their formations, seemingly with the sole intention of finding an effective role for Robinho.
Early indications were promising and there was even evidence of the Brazilian showing a willingness to do his share of defensive work. He also had a hand in the opening goal, helping the ball selflessly into the Bulgarian’s path. Yet, as the game wore on, his effectiveness lessened with dramatic effect and it was no surprise that, as City similarly ran out of momentum, he was replaced by Bellamy with 20 minutes remaining.
Post-match, Mancini confirmed he was disappointed with Robinho’s lack of fitness and that Bellamy is likely to start tonight’s visit to Wolves.
To summarise, here was Mancini confirming the conclusion, which Hughes, and numerous neutral observers, have long since reached. Robinho is a €36 million forward who cannot complete a game at home, because of his physical or mental shortcomings, and who is a liability in away games.
Even in the money-no-object stratosphere which City currently inhabit, surely that does not represent a sound investment.
The loyalty and patience City supporters show in Robinho is completely and utterly astonishing. Even though the Brazilian started last season brightly, having initially turned up at Eastlands without apparently realising for which club he had signed, Robinho started last season in impressive form, finishing the campaign with 14 goals.
Yet, he only hit the net three times in the last 22 games of the season and has yet to score in the current injury-ravaged campaign. In short, the calendar year of 2009 is drawing to a close and City’s €32 million forward has three goals in it.
“I think Robinho played a good game today because Stoke is a strong, physical side,” said Mancini. “It is not the kind of game Robinho would have preferred. But for me he can improve every game. I don’t know him very well and he doesn’t know me. Robinho is a great player and I want him to stay with us.”
That was a neat, party line from Mancini, who is still at the point of being able to use his passable but far from fluent English as a shield behind which he can avoid such in-depth awkward questions.
So, too, was Mancini’s analysis of where Robinho will be best employed. “A great player should be able to play in every position – left, right, centre – it is not important,” he insisted.
Strangely, Mancini also claimed not to have spoken to Robinho about his role under new management. “No, that is for the future,” said Mancini. “The important thing for me is that Robinho stays here because he can earn a place in the history of the club.”
What City can draw from the weekend’s events is that the supposed player unrest, which was reported to have followed Hughes’ dismissal, is a thing of the past, if it ever existed at all.
Bellamy, the prime candidate to be disaffected by his mentor’s departure, apparently took his demotion to the bench well and put in a strong 20-minute cameo, almost scoring a third for City.
If only Robinho shared Bellamy’s attitude.
REFEREE: Lee Mason (Bolton) 7: Stoke’s flat and disinterested performance meant there was little to unduly concern the official who did a tidy job of maintaining the game’s flow.
MATCH RATING: ** There were enough moments of quality, from City’s attackers and keeper, and moments of incompetence from their defenders to make this interesting.
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