Stoke stalemate deepens Mancini’s Blues

ROBERTO MANCINI’S coolness could not have been in starker contrast to the wide eyes of chief executive Garry Cook as the Italian was unveiled as Mark Hughes’ replacement, but the air of uncertainty and potential for chaos is lingering at Manchester City.

Mancini is here to win football matches and win trophies and, while a record of eight wins and three defeats in 12 matches is decent, it’s hardly one to shout from the rooftops about.

The former Inter coach was commended for his 2-1 win over United in the Carling Cup semi-final first leg but his other wins have come against Stoke, who were not the same opposition back at Christmas, Wolves, Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Scunthorpe, Portsmouth and Bolton.

So far, so what? And he has already lost more games than Hughes lost his job for.

Whatever the club say, there is still uncertainty about how long Mancini is here for. His poor English was blamed for him claiming he was in England for “six months and three years” but the suspicion remains that he could be dumped as soon as this summer.

If his English is an issue with the press, how can his communication with his players be any better?

The next couple of weeks will bring answers to those questions.

They head to the Britannia in the Premier League tomorrow, host Liverpool on Sunday, then it is back to Stoke for their FA Cup replay, off down to Chelsea and then home to Tottenham.

These are games against stern opposition but the two games at Stoke will tell us plenty about the direction City are travelling under Mancini and whether they can learn to deal with the long throw of Rory Delap, who set up Ricardo Fuller for Stoke’s equaliser on Saturday.

“You’d love to be top of the League and winning trophies but we are not at that stage yet,” Shay Given said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and these things take time. The next two weeks are very important for the whole club. I don’t think the defence has done too badly, apart from the long throw, but then we’ve seen that happen to a lot of clubs. We’re working on the defence.

“We did that with the old manager and we are doing it with the new manager but there is no magic wand you can wave over these situations. We just have to keep working at it. I think the zonal system has worked well but the long throw is a different thing to defend altogether. They have been using it for a couple of years and it has been very successful for them.

“But, certainly, if we want to win the FA Cup and finish fourth in the League then we’ve got to come out on top of that long throw and deal with how they play.”

While it is easy to criticise Stoke, City could also do with looking at their own playing style. Without Craig Bellamy and Carlos Tevez, there is a lifeless feel to them that was starkly evident on Saturday as they simply ran out of ideas.

For all he has been through in Angola, Emmanuel Adebayor has put himself forward for selection and did not try a leg against Tony Pulis’ side, while Mancini was trying to restore the advantage with a four-man midfield, including Nigel De Jong, Patrick Vieira and Gareth Barry.

There was little movement, no guile, and, ultimately, no second goal, and Thomas Sorensen was not even stretched as City did their best to avoid a replay.

What baffles even more is that Mancini was desperate to sign yet another holding midfielder – either McDonald Mariga or Fernando Gago – before the transfer deadline, while a defence that cost £64 million looks far from comfortable.

As always, Given can not be faulted but Pablo Zabaleta and Bridge are no more than decent full backs, Kolo Toure has merited the criticism that has come his way and Joleon Lescott has been completely stripped of confidence.

They even required a helping hand to take the lead, when Stephen Ireland found Shaun Wright-Phillips, who chipped over Sorensen, before Ryan Shawcross swung at thin air and then, lying on the floor, the ball hit his head before Wright-Phillips rolled into an empty net.

But the second goal never came and Stoke did to City just what they did to Arsenal in the previous round. Delap launched the ball in and Fuller slipped away from Ireland to glance in.

Delap explained: “If I am playing we use it [the long throw], if not, we don’t. It is the same as if Liam Lawrence plays because his delivery from set-plays is brilliant. My throw is just another set piece.

“City are a really good side, with good players, and I’m sure they will be pushing all the way for fourth but we’re not going to make it easy for them and roll over.”

REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg (Newcastle) 6. One booking speaks to a decent control of the game despite its physicality and generally let play run well.

MATCH RATING: **

Not a classic and what little good football there was came mostly from Wright-Phillips, but an absorbing and unpredictable tie, nonetheless.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Shaun Wright-Phillips (Man City): In the absence of Tevez and Bellamy, nobody on the City team had the pace, directness or appetite to attack a Stoke back line that looked shaky at best – with the exception of Wright-Phillips.


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