After a flying start to the 2011-12 Premier League campaign, Manchester City has struggled since the December 12th loss at Stamford Bridge to Chelsea. In that match, the bad luck that has dogged the Citizens reared its ugly head. With City leading 1-0 early in the match, a penalty shout was missed when David Silva appeared to be taken down inside the 18-yard box. Later in the match, Gaël Clichy was sent off, and Joleon Lescott was called for a handball.
Chelsea’s 2-1 victory was reminiscent of recent Blues wins against Manchester United. For all of Chelsea’s character and experience, it appeared that once again they had been the beneficiary of several controversial officiating decisions. However, Chelsea’s positive relationship with match officials in England is a recent development. After all, this is a club that was the victim of the single worst officiated game in recent memory, the 2009 UEFA Champions League semifinal 2nd leg against Barcelona. Prior to that Champions League semifinal, Chelsea often found itself to be on the wrong end of a number of decisions domestically or when facing Liverpool in European competition. The Blues also were faced with hostility from the press, opposing fans and elements within the game due to their fortune at having been the beneficiary of a big money takeover.
The discussion of Chelsea is not simply a digression from the topic of Manchester City circa 2011 as much as it is a focus on where the Citizens may be headed. Chelsea bore the brunt of resentment by both supporters of entrenched clubs and those who supported smaller sides in the 2003 to 2009 time period. This resentment ultimately led to a degree of skewed media coverage against the Blues and in several cases questionable officiating decisions. While some may question whether this actually happened, I see the narrative repeating itself in the form of Manchester City.
Victimization among football club supporters is a complex that develops slowly but in many cases for good reason. As an example, Leeds United fans, unruly as they tend to be, had good reason to believe their club was being unfairly targeted after the 1973 UEFA Cup and 1975 European Cup Finals, both of which saw the Whites defeated by dubious officiating decisions in major continental finals.
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea took the victimization complex, which justifiably was permeating the Blues supporters’ base and club hierarchy, and channeled it into brilliance on the pitch. The Chelsea side under Mourinho’s leadership won six major domestic trophies in just three seasons.
Now, Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City team is feeling the pinch much like Chelsea did in the early Mourinho era. But does City have the character and will to respond in a similar fashion?
Chelsea pre-Mourinho had emerged as a top tier club. Despite some awful times in the 1980s, Glenn Hoddle revolutionized the way Chelsea played and the types of players they signed in the mid-1990s. Cup successes followed and while the Blues had not won the league in five decades, the club was more established than Manchester City was when Mancini took over in December 2009.
But following FA Cup success in 2011, and an unprecedented offensive outburst in the first few months of the 2011-12 season, it appeared City was now among England’s “elite.” Nonetheless the reality is nothing comes easily when trying to overturn an established order and City are not only outsiders, but unlikeable outsiders due to the heavy spending of the club’s Abu Dhabi based ownership group.
Despite media assumptions to the contrary, Manchester City does not have a particularly deep squad . Were the Citizens to have faced an injury crisis similar to Manchester United or Arsenal at any point this season, their title chances could simply have been written off, and Champions League qualification would likely be in doubt.
The departure of the Toure brothers (particularly the influential Yaya Toure) for the Cup of African Nations coincided with a dip in form, a controversial suspension to club captain Vincent Kompany, an injury to David Silva, another suspension to Mario Balotelli and elimination from both domestic cup competitions. Simply put, Manchester City has not been able to overcome most of the adversity they have faced since that loss to Chelsea. The title credentials of City’s starting XI are unquestionable. But the squad lacks depth, and to this point in the season a degree of resourceful character needed to win a title.
Carlos Tevez’s continued transfer saga hangs over the club at this time of remarkable adversity. Mancini’s side, bereft of proper squad depth to compete for the title, is further thrown into turmoil by the spectre of a player who last suited up for the club in September and is advised by one of the most disreputable men hovering around English football. Yet, when given the opportunity to cut the club’s losses, City rejected a generous swap with Liverpool for the under-performing Andy Carroll, a player that despite his recent poor form could really help the Citizens hold off United in the title race, by adding valuable depth and a target man on set pieces.
The challenge for Roberto Mancini with a depleted squad that cannot seem to get the breaks to go their way is to channel his inner Mourinho. The City manager has done a great deal of whining in the press the past several weeks. What he has not seemed to be able to accomplish yet is the mentality Chelsea had between 2004 and 2006. With the deck seemingly stacked against them time and again, Mourinho rallied his side to channel their anger and sense of injustice into winning football under adverse conditions. Chelsea’s manager constantly wound up the opposition, the media and his own team with tales of victimization and unfairness. However distasteful, it worked and Chelsea has remained since an immovable force in English football.
Mancini has proven as City manager to be tactically adept and at least a decent man manager. He has taken a squad with a bloated payroll and substantial ego who were clearly underachieving under Mark Hughes and delivered City’s first major trophy in 35 years as well as a top 3 finish. But overtaking Manchester United and the post Mourinho Chelsea are substantially more difficult than eclipsing Arsenal and Liverpool, as Mancini is now learning.
In context it is difficult to imagine another club captain of a top of the table side being sent off and suspended the way Kompany was for a questionable challenge in the FA Cup versus Manchester United. The Citizens dropped a controversial New Year’s Day decision to Sunderland on a clear offside goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Following a first leg Carling Cup semifinal loss largely due to injuries and suspension (David Silva was injured, Kompany suspended) penalty decisions and 50-50 calls all seemed to fall Liverpool’s way in the second leg at Anfield. Instead of rising above the adversity, Mancini’s Citizens simply melted in the euphoria of the Reds first Wembley trip in sixteen years.
The return of Kompany, the Toure brothers and Balotelli will no doubt help bolster City’s ranks and title hopes. But the key to winning the title for an outsider club as Chelsea proved is psychological belief and a will to overcome perceived injustices. To this point the Citizens have not proven they can replicate Chelsea’s model and until they do, winning the title may in fact be a bridge too far.