There was a fleeting moment of guilty pleasure just prior to 6pm on Sunday night. The pleasure as Mario Balotelli finally, deservedly, saw red and Manchester City’s title bid evaporated at the Emirates. Guilt as a young City fan broke down in tears, live on national television. Inconsolable heart-break played out for all to see in its humiliating indignity.
Oh no. That’s right. It was, of course, pure joy. Every last moment.
Not least because of the £210 million spent over the past two summers under Roberto Mancini’s management; each moment of presumptuous crowing last autumn; and every last reference to United’s apparent demise. “This City is ours,” they cried. Not yet it isn’t.
City’s defeat was all the more fun for the spineless manner in which the Blues caved against Arsenal. In a match Mancini’s men absolutely had to win, coming after United’s victory earlier on Sunday, City was fortunate to escape north London without suffering a severe hiding, so abject was the side’s display.
Yet, if City’s demise has brought joy to United fans, who can now prepare to celebrate domestic title number 20, what machinations must Mancini’s paymasters in back in Abu Dhabi be planning? Half-a-billion pounds investment has earned, if not the title, then a dignified campaign. This has been anything but.
On the pitch City’s autumn form, which brought a string of eye-catching wins – not least that match – disappeared as the year turned. That Mancini’s side transmogrified from the ‘next Barcelona’, to a side that cannot win on the road, and whose collective spirit is broken, can do little else but shock. Not least when placed in stark relief with a United side that has powered to 11 wins in the past 12 Premier League fixtures.
Moreover, while Mancini’s performance is judged predominantly by results, it is off-the-field events that have largely shaped City’s season. These are events in which Mancini is highly culpable.
Carlos Tevez’ refusal to
play warm-up against Bayern Munich in last September precipitated a break down in team unity that has only been magnified by Mario Balotelli’s irresponsible behaviour. Far from the lovable rogue of a thousand articles, the Italian has proven to be little more than a petulant thug with an overbearing sense of entitlement. From training ground fights with Micah Richards and Jerome Boateng, to the disgraceful studs-up challenge on Alex Song at the Emirate.
Mancini may not be the cause of his players’ errant behaviour, but he is certainly responsible. That is, after all, management in a very literal sense. And as a senior City executive – “the most important employee” as Sir Alex might put it – so too comes accountability.
The Italian has shown little to date. Only now when the desperation of his team’s situation is in full bloom has Mancini rounded on Balotelli, claiming that the young striker may never play for the club again. After a similar statement about Tevez, the coach has no credibility left in the bank.
“I like him as a guy and a player,” said Mancini of Balotelli, who signed from Inter Milan for £24m.
“He is not a bad guy and a fantastic player but I’m very sorry for him as he continues to lose his talent and his quality. I don’t have any words for his behaviour. I hope for him he can understand he is in a bad way for his future and I really hope that he can change his behaviour in the future.
“He will probably not play in the next six games. I need to be sure I always have 11 players on the pitch and with Mario this is a big risk. Mario made a mistake and I hope for him – not me – that he can change. He clearly created a big problem, but he has also scored important goals for us this season. He needs to change his behaviour if he wants to continue to play.”
Yet, it is almost unimaginable that Ferguson would have tolerated Balotelli’s behaviour, no matter how talented the Italian. Ravel Morrison will attest to that. So too will a string of former United players who failed to conform to Ferguson’s demand for a unified front.
How Sir Alex must have enjoyed the campaign, despite European failure. The Scot, often at his obdurate worst when discussing the club’s financial situation, has nevertheless taken criticism of his squad’s quality as a personal affront. It has proven to be a key tenet of United’s season.
Many an assessment of Ferguson’s squad is legitimate; structural weaknesses in midfield and defence have been exposed at times this season. Not least in Europe, where the Reds suffered two humiliating campaigns. But Ferguson has forged a side that is, to invoke the old cliché, greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly one whose unity is admirable.
No wonder Ferguson was so sharp in his assessment of City’s public division after Balotelli and Aleksander Kolarov squared up during last weekend’s draw between the Blues and Sunderland.
“I wouldn’t allow it but it can happen at moments in a game,” said the United manager on Friday.
“Peter Schmeichel used to have a go at Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister and they’d give it back. Roy Keane used to do it. There’s a difference, though, a distinction there. The general demeanour of a team is more important. The general atmosphere when a team scores a goal. That’s how you judge it. You need unity if a team is going to win the league.
“Teams are about unity – we have got experience of that. Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs can ensure that’s the case. Young players in the dressing room can look at how they have lasted so long – they are great examples. We take unity for granted here. We expect it – but it doesn’t happen everywhere.
“The unity and spirit you get when players stay together is now coming through,” added Ferguson, who took his side on a three day golfing break to Scotland before United’s victory over Fulham last week. “That trip to St Andrews was fantastic.”
How Mancini could learn something from Sir Alex’ ability to forge a group. The Italian’s brusque style, in contrast to his laid-back public demeanour, has seemingly served only to create tensions among a group of players brought together primarily for financial gain.
Ferguson is often painted as a bruiser, unleashing the hairdryer at the slightest provocation. Yet, there is unlikely to be a United player unwilling to lay everything on the line for the cause this season. Mancini cannot make that claim, which is an assessment that if also concluded in Abu Dhabi, may yet lead to the Italian’s demise.
And despite the frustrations of a campaign that has often overwhelmed, United will come out with a 20th domestic title. Far from the greatest team to don United’s red this may be, but beating the most expensively assembled team in the history of English football is no little feat.
In that there is much joy for United fans, with not a hint of guilt.