Pressure Drop

Before the weekend Roberto Mancini publicly said that the title race would be over if Manchester United were to beat Queens Park Rangers at home as expected, and Manchester City would then go on to lose at The Emirates later in the day. The look of City’s play suggested their players believed it was fait accompli even before they had kicked-off, with an abject performance that had all the ambition in their approach of a mid-table team with nothing to play for, combined with an indiscipline more befitting a team fighting relegation. City have looked vulnerable to pressure at times this season, and they have recently heaped much of it upon themselves.

At the end of March Patrick Vieira, City’s Director of Football Development, decided to share his opinion with the BBC that Manchester United benefit from refereeing decisions more than others; there is a sizeable list of Clubs who have had more bad decisions against United than City in the last twenty years, and the stones that skimmed towards Salford from a glass office in Manchester seemed sly considering the leniency Vieira himself received in his own playing career, escaping punishment for cheating himself. More significantly, the comments would clearly pressurise officials for both sides in the title run-in, despite him later retreating his position But when Lee Mason blew his whistle, pointed to the penalty spot and showed Shaun Derry a red card after Ashley Young fell with little apparent contact at Old Trafford, from a starting position cameras showed to be clearly offside, Vieira may have conversely given his own players a readymade hard-luck story as an excuse.

City themselves have had a few big decisions in matches go for them this season, including both Mario Balotelli and Joleon Lescott escaping red-cards in the key 3-2 win against Tottenham Hotspur, a result that was vital to momentum and a six-point swing for both clubs. And they have had a few generous penalties awarded at home, such as when Adam Johnson has gone down without being fouled. British players exaggerating the laws of gravity is not a new phenomenon as anyone who saw Robbie Savage play will remember. (Savage was last night playing the retired old crook turned officer on MOTD2, condemning Young’s fall, reminiscent in analytical style to Paul McMullan commentary on countless current affairs debates since last summer on phone hacking).

On the first Sunday in March at White Hart Lane, with game still scoreless between Tottenham and Manchester United, Ashley Young also theatrically threw himself to the ground in a pretty embarrassing way, a foretaste of yesterday’s penalty incident. Gareth Bale, who has twice been booked for simulation this season, later noted that when he himself goes down in avoiding a foul, it is still a foul, as his movement is affected to avoid injury. Young’s fall yesterday certainly wasn’t one to avoid studs down a shin, and a sign that despite his talent he could do with reminding about the difference between competiveness and gamesmanship.

Evidence of Bale’s argument regarding the dangerous side of the game came in the later Easter afternoon kick-off when Balotelli provided the worst assault on a Song on TV outside of a Saturday evening talent show with a nasty studs-up knee high challenge. It was unseen by the referee and by the time he was finally sent-off for a second yellow card at the end of the game, he could have already received five yellows and two reds had Graham Poll been officiating, such was his indiscipline.

His behaviour though deflected attention both during the game and in post-match analysis from City’s very real failure this season. Mancini spoke before the game of needing “three more players” to having a squad to win the title, as if he has been short of funds and options up until this point, more like a habitual criminal asking for one more chance, rather than a Manager with the best resources in Western Europe.

When teams such as Napoli and Villarreal have taken the lead at the Ethihad, City have struggled to break them down, while when really under the kosh, such as away at Bayern Munich, and even when playing poorly yesterday, Mancini has reacted with negative substitutions. And it was the one in Germany that first annoyed Carlos Tevez. The decision to recall Tevez may well have been forced by the practicalities of him being allowed to terminate his contract were he not being given a chance to play, but the practicalities of team selection, with him sitting on the bench, demanded he was introduced earlier then he was yesterday, if at the very least to spark some life into a poor City team. Surely, as well as being a potential match-winner, he would have been more effective coming in from the left than Balotelli, who had already showed plenty of signs before half-time of being a firecracker ready to go off in the wrong place.

Perhaps with such little faith in his team, Mancini left him out on the field as a distraction to a faltering project; he readily hung him out to dry in his post-match interviews, just he did with Tevez after being outplayed in Munich, and Balotelli, rather than the very real prospect of a trophy-less season, dominate today’s football headlines.

It was pointed out to Mancini that United could now clinch the title at City, which he said he hadn’t considered. Every football fan who has followed the Premier League will have realised it was possible for the last few weeks though, and City fans will certainly have feared it. If that does happen, the pressure will increase not on the City team so much as on Mancini himself.

As always when a big job vacancy looms Jose Mourinho is touted as a replacement, and as he nears the end of a second campaign with Real Madrid with apparent disharmonies between him and senior figures in the dressing-room and the Board publicly speaking about the wealth of talent at his disposal, he may feel it is time for a change. But if Barcelona were to win La Liga now, and Real Madrid were also to fall short in the Champions League, it may be a timely reminder to all that no one has a divine right to success, however a brand name is cultivated or however much money is spent. Like a couple of City’s big earning strikers, no money-back, no guarantee.