14 April ~ I miss Manchester City. You know, the old, clumsily aspirational yet inoffensive City whose name was inevitably preceded with “typical” and a shrug of the shoulders, a roll of the eyeballs and an arch, knowing smile. A club whose chairman once memorably stated “if there was a cup for cock-ups we’d win it every year” then brought in Alan Ball as manager as if to prove it. Self-deprecation became a trademark of the club and its fans and bought them some friends beyond Manchester; “everyone’s second club” would certainly be pushing it, but they were seen as approachable – particularly by the media – and certainly represented a friendlier face of football when set against the unsmiling ogre across the city.
But that was then and this is now. Good humour has been in short supply at Eastlands in the lead up to this weekend's FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United, much as it has been for a couple of seasons – the pressure of expectation has taken its toll. Saturday's match comes on the back of two desperately poor away performances at Chelsea and Liverpool that have thrown doubt over both Champions League qualification and manager Roberto Mancini’s future at the club. His expensively assembled squad are failing to deliver when it matters and knives are being sharpened in Fleet Street and beyond in anticipation of another failure.
Rather tellingly, Mancini also seems to be running out of luck. Any joy that he may have harboured over Wayne Rooney missing the semi-final due to suspension has been quashed by an injury to his talisman Carlos Tevez which looks certain to rule him out of the match. Whereas United will doubtless replace Rooney with Premier League top-scorer Dimitar Berbatov, the weight of City’s goalscoring possibilities will be perched tenuously on the drooping shoulders of Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko. Recruited at a cost of over £50 million, the lack of both impact and desire shown by these two has cast a shadow over Mancini’s reputation and given further ammunition to those who see the Khadoon al-Mubarak regime as a byword for ridiculous extravagance.
In Dzeko’s case this may be slightly harsh as he came to the club with an excellent strike rate in the Bundesliga where even Steve McClaren couldn’t stop him scoring. However bringing in the moody, erratic Balotelli, whom Jose Mourinho as much as admitted he couldn’t handle at Inter, seemed to many at the time like a major conceit on Mancini’s behalf and nothing since has happened to seriously challenge that viewpoint. Galvanising these two into meaningful action remains vital to Mancini’s plans for the rest of the season, and if either of the players has a genuine desire to turn round their tarnished reputations in double-quick time then Saturday’s the day to do it.
City’s zealous over-expenditure on players has certainly dissipated any positive “underdog” support that they may once have expected from the general public for a game like this; indeed any non-partisan interest will realistically lie in which team people would most like to lose. An arm-wrestle between Piers Morgan and Jeffrey Archer would generate more external goodwill than this match, but therein lies a lesson that all concerned with Manchester City need to heed, particularly when looking at the opposition dug-out on Saturday: if you’re not going to be popular at least comfort yourself with success. This semi-final will go some way to showing if City are anywhere near ready to take a step towards it. Tony Curran