x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Mancini gets hard part out of the way for Manchester

Winning a trophy at Manchester United was a promise that the Italian manager has delivered because that is the first step towards improvement, he says.

Mancini celebrates the spoils for his hard work.
Mancini celebrates the spoils for his hard work.

LONDON // Roberto Mancini stood good to his promise. Ten months ago, in the bowels of an unglamorous Major League Soccer stadium, the Italian vowed to bring Manchester City two things from his first full season as manager: Champions League football and a proper trophy.

He did not specify which trophy it would be. Perhaps a domestic cup, possibly the Europa League. But this defining season would not end without one. In the space of one memorable May week the Italian has lived up to a bold prediction.

On Tuesday, they beat Tottenham Hotspur to clinch Champions League qualification. Yesterday they saw off Stoke City, winning 1-0 to lift the FA Cup.

By doing so, the stylish leader of a noisy neighbourhood pack has forced Manchester United to tear down that banner that counted up the 35 years City had endured since winning their last trophy, a League Cup.

"It was time for it to go," said Mancini, who having eliminated United in the semi-final with another 1-0 Wembley victory need not suffer arguments about the ease of passage.

"We have improved a lot this season as a team. I think we need to make another step and improve more but it's important to start to win because when you start it becomes easier.

"The first is the hardest."

This was the mantra chiming round City's ranks: the first one is the most difficult; the first of many. Micah Richards talked of "the most important" trophy.

"It's exciting times," the defender said. "We've got to build from this. We'll spend in the summer and we'll get better each year."

Typical of his own personal mania, Mario Balotelli had his own unique way of capturing the moment. Granted the sponsor's man-of-the-match award for a performance of far greater maturity than the tearaway Italian has displayed for most of his first season in the English game, Balotelli used an expletive on live television when describing how poorly he had played this season before asking: "Can I say that? Today maybe I played more for the team. That was important."

He added: "I'm happy. I said to the guys before the game that we are better than them. You have to go on the pitch with respect but you have to give everything. I said 'If you give everything we are going to win.'"

Signed on Mancini's request last summer, City's manager had threatened the forward with eviction from his squad after a senseless red card contributed to City's exit from the Europa League.

Here, Balotelli followed his manager's instructions to the letter, riding some early aggression from Stoke's defenders without a hint of retaliatory anger.

"This is difficult for him," Mancini said. "But I said to him before the game, 'If I see that you are nervous and you don't think about the game, then you will come off. Even if you've only played 15 minutes you will go out of the pitch.' I think it is important now that now he can understand he has a big talent and he can't waste this big talent."

He added: "I think this trophy will be important because I think it will help him to improve as a man and a player. Now it depends on him ."

Though only Yaya Toure's 74th-minute strike separated the teams in goals, City were dominant in territory, possession and chances.

Tony Pulis wondered whether his team might have had a penalty for a first-half Vincent Kompany handball and how the game would have developed had Kenwyne Jones beaten Joe Hart on the hour mark.

Yet nearing the end of the most impressive of Stoke's three seasons in the top tier of English football, their manager conceded that his players had failed to replicate the form that had brought them to the club's first FA Cup final.

"The six or seven weeks prior to the game, our performance levels have been excellent," Pulis said. "It is disappointing today that we haven't reached that level.

"Against the quality of depth they have got, you need to bring your 'A' game to the table. When you think they had a £35 million (Dh209m) [actually £27m] player on the bench [Edin Dzeko] who never came on, it is pretty frightening. Maybe we had run out of a bit of depth. Ricardo Fuller is injured, who is a game changer for us, Danny Higginbotham, too. And then having the two injuries, Robert Huth and Matt Etherington, very close to this game.

"I have nothing but congratulations for Man City. They were the better team … And it is difficult for me to stand here and say that. Where do I go now? To hide in some bunker for 48 hours."