x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Poise and precision define Roberto Mancini's leadership

Autocratic at times, clever and canny on occasion, one thing the Italian guarantees is trophies writes Ian Hawkey.

Roberto Mancini can smile easy now, but he raised his voice when he needed to this season. He also cajoled, pleaded, teased and chastised when he saw fit to as well.
Roberto Mancini can smile easy now, but he raised his voice when he needed to this season. He also cajoled, pleaded, teased and chastised when he saw fit to as well.

Of the six league titles achieved by Roberto Mancini as a player and a manager, it is hard to define which should be celebrated with the greatest fanfare.

Should it be his first Italian scudetto, won while playing beautifully as an inside-forward for Sampdoria, 21 years ago this month?

Samp were relative minnows in the league of a mighty AC Milan and a formidable Juventus at a time when Serie A was undoubtedly the leading domestic championship in the world.

Or what about his other moment in sky-blue heaven, 12 years ago yesterday? Mancini was into his 30s by the time Lazio won their last Serie A title, often used as an impact substitute, a wise, older head in a team of expensively acquired players.

How to compare his distinct managerial championships? The first, an Italian scudetto awarded to Mancini's Inter Milan after the event - because it was stripped from Juventus, who had finished first in Serie A - thanks to the calciopoli scandal, will forever be considered a title by default.

But the next two, over the following two seasons, presented distinct challenges, one a runaway victory, the other achieved on the final afternoon, a nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat affair, though not quite as last-gasp as Sunday in Manchester.

In each case, Mancini the champion has been a mould breaker, a habit changer.

His City have gained a prize that was last theirs 44 years ago. His Inter had been without a league title for 17 years when he first delivered them one. Lazio had waited 16 seasons to proclaim themselves Italy's best. His Sampdoria had never won a scudetto before 1991, nor have they since.

Mancini, when talking about his managerial influences, was once asked why he thought so many players that were contemporaries of his at Sampdoria had gone into senior management - they are legion, from Srecko Katanec, recently the UAE coach; to Marco Branca, the director of football at Inter; to Sinisa Mihaijlovic, lately of Fiorentina - and he replied with one word: "Intelligence."

He was not in the mood for false modesty: Mancini thought his teammates intelligent and he knows he is, too.

He is not so clever he is a soothsayer, able to say that at 2-1 down after 90 minutes and needing three points to become Premier League champions on the final afternoon of a 38-match campaign, he knew City would pull it off, thanks to goals from strikers he had recruited to the club.

No, Mancini is not that smart, but he had handled the month leading up to the melodramatic climax against Queens Park Rangers with a streetwise craftiness that he was entitled to boast about as his team celebrated.

A month earlier, Mancini had declared that, since Manchester United had stealthily planed and sanded away a City lead in the table and established an eight-point advantage of their own, they were champions-elect.

"I was actually sure we would get another chance," Mancini said, "but I wanted to take the pressure off the players for three or four games."

In this Mancini, the intelligent manager, may have learnt an important lesson from his own past.

His last league title before Sunday's had been the 2008 scudetto, achieved with Inter.

Some of the lead-in to that championship has echoes in what happened in the remarkable 2011/12 Premier League season.

Then, Mancini's Inter had a comfortable-looking advantage in the table at the halfway stage of the season, seven points clear of Roma. But they lost form badly, and with it, collective confidence.

Some players blamed the manager, who expressed his worries in earshot of them and dramatically threatened to resign in early March. Mancini stayed but the jitters remained, right up until the second half of their last game against Parma, when they finally scored the goals and won the three points they needed to hold off Roma.

Some Italians suspected the delicate condition of City during various stages of the Premier League run in might lead to another Mancini meltdown. Certainly, there were moments when poise was concealed, to say the least.

He has been anything but a silent statue on the touchline, but there has been a clarity to his recent decision making, both at the level of micromanagement - the altering Yaya Toure's position on the pitch against Newcastle United and the two goals scored by the Ivorian as a result - and to some extent his man management.

Two men who had been declared personae non-grata by Mancini during the season contributed significantly to carrying the team over the finish line.

Carlos Tevez - "he'll never play for the club again," Mancini had said in September after the mutiny by the player in Munich - added his typical on-field gumption and goals to the cause on his recall from a six-month exile; Mario Balotelli - who "will not play again this season", according to Mancini in April - supplied, with determination and from a prone position, the pass that led to Sergio Aguero's title-clinching goal.

Both Tevez and Balotelli had let Mancini down, systematically challenged his authority. In the end he knew how to use them effectively, even if their long-term futures at City remain in doubt. They may have damaged the manager's professional pride, but intelligence can be a strong medicine against a bruised ego.

Mancini has now won very clearly his right to decide whether he wants Balotelli and Tevez on the next roller coaster, or whether they have served their purpose.

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