x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Manchester City: Substance, style and a will to win

Sheikh Mansour's decision to appoint Roberto Mancini as manager triggered a shift in mentality and results, culminating in their Premier League triumph, writes Richard Jolly.

Yaya Toure was an important piece to the Manchester City championship puzzle being solved.
Yaya Toure was an important piece to the Manchester City championship puzzle being solved.

Amid scenes of celebration and jubilation, there was a coronation.

Forty-four years of hurt came to an end for Manchester City, crowned champions of England for the first time since the Swinging Sixties.

For much of the intervening period they have seemed the court jesters; now, once again, they are the kings. Queens Park Rangers were defeated on Sunday, Manchester United deposed.

For the first time in a Blue Moon, City reign supreme.

Yet as many of those at the Etihad Stadium, whether bouncing along to the Poznan or savouring the occasion in rather quieter contemplation, may have reflected, City are no strangers to final-day drama.

In May 2005, with a place in Europe the potential reward, the manager Stuart Pearce decided to replace Claudio Reyna, the midfielder, with the reserve goalkeeper Nicky Weaver, sending his first-choice shot-stopper, David James, into the attack.

That was City: unconventional entertainers if nothing else.

In 2008, a Uefa Cup spot was again the reward. City began the last day high up in the league - the Fair Play League, not the actual standings - and knowing the importance of behaving well. Richard Dunne, the captain, was soon sent off, City capitulated 8-1 at Middlesbrough but, ignominiously, were given a European place anyway.

That was City: even supposed triumphs contained an element of farce.

Not now. There is the same name, the same long-suffering fans but there are different personnel and, in many respects, this is a different club.

The transformation began three months after the thrashing on Teesside. On a surreal night, City smashed the British transfer record to sign Robinho as Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed completed his takeover. Manchester's poor relations were swiftly dubbed the world's richest club.

Yet while money can purchase players, it cannot buy titles. That requires other ingredients: organisation and determination, teamwork and resolve. Or, to use the word Roberto Mancini repeated ad infinitum last season, mentality.

City have displayed theirs repeatedly: a club that once had an inferiority complex when United were mentioned, let alone seen, defeated their neighbours by an aggregate score of 7-1 in the two league derbies.

The 6-1 at Old Trafford was United's heaviest home loss for 55 years, a historic high in a momentous season. The end-of-season surge that yielded six successive league wins enabled a side that were eight points behind with 18 to play for to win the league.

There are moments that illustrate both the team's winning mentality and individuals' capacity to make a difference.

Think of Vincent Kompany, towering to head in April's derby winner. Or Yaya Toure, pushed farther forward in a bid to make the breakthrough at Newcastle United, getting both goals last Sunday.

Remember Carlos Tevez, with the deft reverse pass, and Samir Nasri, with the assured finish, combining for the late decider against Chelsea.

Don't forget Aleksandar Kolarov, who lost his place after the 3-3 draw with Sunderland, but who thundered in the 86th-minute equaliser to preserve City's unbeaten record at home.

Above all, it is important not to overlook the manager's contribution. Mancini has made a series of telling substitutions - bringing Nigel de Jong on and shifting Toure into a more advanced role at Newcastle, sending for Tevez against Chelsea, introducing the match-winner Mario Balotelli versus Tottenham Hotspur, seeing two of his replacements score in September's victory over Everton - but his influence stretches far beyond that.

For perhaps the first time in a quarter of a century in Manchester, Sir Alex Ferguson has a rival he cannot bully, patronise or ignore.

Mancini has held his own in the mind games and, when the furious Scot subjected him to a blast of invective on the touchline at Etihad Stadium two weeks ago, he did not back down. He has a charming veneer and a steely centre.

The Italian's predecessor, Mark Hughes, branded him an autocrat in October. It is not quite right. He has authority, and he has imposed it on an unruly club. He has an iron will, but he has compromised in the club's interests.

When, after a five-month stand-off, Tevez apologised for his refusal to warm up against Bayern Munich, the Argentine was reintegrated into the fold. He formed a prolific partnership with Sergio Aguero to give City fresh impetus in the season's final weeks.

It took Jose Mourinho to turn Chelsea from nouveau-riche club into champions and it required Mancini's appointment to emulate him at City.

Hughes was dismissed in December 2009 when City sat sixth and, when asking supporters where they would be now had the Welshman remained in charge, the answer sometimes proffered, part facetiously, part seriously, is sixth.

Rather, Mancini's is a side who have advanced year by year. The 35-year wait for silverware was ended in the FA Cup last season, but without much flair or many flourishes.

Another dimension was required and City provided it in a transformation from defenders to attackers. A team once branded boring became only the third to score 90 Premier League goals in a season. They were the autumn adventurers, David Silva elegantly bisecting defences and Aguero, Balotelli and Edin Dzeko applying the finishing touches.

But substance, more than style, is essential at the business end of the season. This is where others have excelled: Toure, whose influence is even bigger than his sizeable frame; Kompany, the division's best defender this season and a genuine leader; Joe Hart, whose late saves to deny Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa equalisers are a major factor in City's success.

Unheralded figures have flourished, men such as Joleon Lescott, who was failing to justify his price tag when Mancini was appointed, or Pablo Zabaleta, often the second-choice right-back but a player who seems to peak when it comes to the major matches.

It comes down to mentality, to again borrow Mancini's word. The notion of a dressing room populated by egos is outdated.

In Kompany, Hart and Micah Richards, City are improving the players they possess. In Silva, Aguero and Toure, selfless superstars have been recruited. Tevez, despite the contradictions in his character, can be relied upon to give his best when on the pitch. Balotelli is the genuine maverick, the man who can amuse, bemuse, entertain and frustrate his manager, but his brilliantly catalytic display in the 6-1 win at Old Trafford showed why Mancini has invested so much faith in his fellow Italian.

After his red card at Arsenal, it was asked if Balotelli had cost City the title. Now, perhaps, the question should be rephrased: would they have won it without him? City's striking favourites have always been a bit different. Rewind to 1999 and, while United were European Cup winners, City just extricated themselves from League One. Their top scorer then was the ungainly, awkward but effective Shaun Goater. During the decisive derby two weeks ago, their beloved Bermudan was on the pitch again, making the half-time presentation and receiving a rousing reception.

No matter how many world-beaters arrive, their crowd are unashamedly nostalgic for the man who saw off Gillingham.

In the crowd that night, and presumably utterly unaware of who Goater is, was Aguero's father in law and arguably the greatest footballer of all time, Diego Maradona.

A glance at the team sheet shows City are more Maradona than Goater these days but a much-changed club still have their soul: he is part of their DNA, part of the essence of a club with pride in its past and reasons to rejoice in the present.

They are Manchester City; champions of England again.


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