The Italian's expensively assembled starting line-up found themselves in the eye of a ferocious storm in the first half hour of the Premier League curtain raiser against Tottenham.
In truth, if it hadn't been for Hart's heroics, Spurs could have been out of sight. But after winning the backing of Mancini's countryman Fabio Capello in midweek, the Mansfield-born stopper was in inspired form. Razor-sharp reactions denied Jermain Defoe from close range and every inch of Hart's 6ft5 frame improbably clawed a deflected drive from Benoit Assou-Ekotto out of the top corner. These were just two highlights of a complete goalkeeping display.
In recent history, City have been blessed with some stunning turns from their last line of defence. Tony Coton's performance against Leeds on the opening day in 1993, Nicky Weaver's star turn in 1999's vital promotion clash with Ipswich and Shay Given's debut salvo at home to Middlesbrough come instantly to mind. In the latter game, Given effectively condemned Hart to a year in exile on loan at Birmingham. His colleague duly knuckled down and has returned to Eastlands to reclaim the goalkeeping jersey by the sheer force of his own endeavors.
Whether Given at 34 has the stomach for a similar fight is questionable. His prickly response to questions about his first-team prospects while on international duty with the Republic of Ireland would suggest otherwise. An expected appearance against FC Timisoara in the Europa League on Thursday is unlikely to appease an accomplished performer who will not be short of potential suitors.
The initial results of City's goalkeeping conundrum - a richly gifted youngster hungrily pursuing excellence while a revered veteran contemplates his next move - lay bare the pros and cons of Mancini's job in managing a well-stocked and lavishly gifted group.
Carlos Tevez emerged at White Hart Lane proudly displaying the captain's armband. The clear message to former skipper Kolo Toure was that his years to top-level experience do not make his place in the side certain. Alongside the imperious Vincent Kompany at the heart of City's defence, the Ivory Coast star was spurred on to arguably his best performance for the club.
Mancini's selection in the centre of midfield was less successful. The solution to having a raft of holding midfielders in your squad is not shoe-horning as many of them into your starting XI as is humanly possible. Too often in a sometimes chastening first half, City's central trio of Nigel de Jong, Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry were pushed flat and deep in front of their back four, inviting a constant stream of Spurs pressure and leaving the diminutive attacking talents of Shaun Wright-Phillips, David Silva and Carlos Tevez isolated.
More damningly, adequate cover was not given to full-backs Micah Richards and Aleksander Kolorov as Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale wrought havoc down the flanks for Tottenham. Only when Barry moved to a left-sided midfield position in the second half ahead of substitute Pablo Zabaleta did the wide areas start to look secure.
In the friendly win over Valencia, De Jong, Barry and Yaya were successfully deployed in a midfield diamond. Barry opened the scoring and was joined by Yaya in making a number of penetrative runs into the penalty area, beyond playmaker Silva and Emmanuel Adebayor and Tevez up front. A week on in North London, Tevez was a lone forward, City's attack lacked focus and even when Mancini's side regained their poise in possession after half-time, their attacking play was devoid of a definite pattern.
This is something the Blues' boss will hope the arrival of Mario Balotelli and the imminent purchase of James Milner remedies. But he must also encourage a dynamism and intent that was lacking on Saturday to allow these players and others to realise their potential in City colours.
Tottenham's first half showing displayed the benefits of a thrusting, attacking 4-4-2 style in the Barclays Premier League, just as the well stocked midfields at this summer's World Cup demonstrated the virtues of a possession-based approach in the modern game.
City have the personnel to undertake either system successfully when their new arrivals have bedded in. Mancini must display greater conviction by using both to win football matches.
Rob Manford, MCFCfans
All eyes on Anfield as City look to gain ground
The fact that City’s army of London-based fans have chosen to take the earlier trains to Manchester, even though they are 30 minutes slower than the later trains, perhaps signals that it is not just Mark Hughes who will have his eye on the game at Anfield today. How times have changed.
City entered Mark Hughes’s notional second block of games this season with a draw against Wigan. A good result seen as it ended with 10 men against a well-organised side that always give City a run for their money. Saturday’s results at Wolves and White Hart Lane, alongside the ongoing dropping of points by the so-called ‘top four,’ lend weight to the argument that this will be one of the Premiership’s most open seasons in its’ short history. At last.
Today the world’s press will focus on the game at Anfield, and then no doubt splurge enough predictable, pre-written pap to fill a new landfill site. City fans will emerge from Mary D’s Beamish Bar with a smile on their face if both sides share the points, before taking their seats to see City quietly go about their slow overtake up the inside lane. For at this point in the season, City sits in a sweet spot that suits the club perfectly. Not so high up the table to attract attention, a sneaky game in hand, and crucially in touch with the leaders.
Naturally, nothing less than a win will do today. A draw away to Wigan followed by an interruption to the home record would be seen as the potential beginnings of wheels coming off. City will field a strong team against theoretically tired Fulham who played on Thursday night, so a win should be straight-forward. But Fulham have a tendency to surprise, especially in the face of adversity so the defence will need to be on its’ guard. In fact City should be targeting 9 points from their next three league games in preparation for the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham to come. A strong run to the year-end will confirm what many fans prefer to keep quiet for fear of exciting the demons. Say no more!
On the player front it will be interesting to see whether Petrov is rewarded with a start. The signs are that there could be more goals to come from Petrov, so why not. It’s healthy rotation that keeps others on their toes. In the meantime, it will be a joy to continue watching the likes of Barry (see Observer interview) and De Jong ply their trade. As one friend recently put it, “De Jong is playing the Makelele role better than Makelele.” If anything it is our longer-serving stars that need to come out of their shells somewhat. SWP has been guilty of giving the ball away too cheaply at times, while Ireland has yet to really start firing. Tevez is surely like the first sip of a fine Malbec, the best is yet to come. And a final word on Robinho. Yes we can live without him – but we can also live with him. He will yet prove his worth with the under-rated talent around him.
The Grand Master Plan takes shape
Firstly, a warm welcome to all of the new members of MCFCfans, supporters of Manchester City from all over the world who have been signing up to be a part of a growing global City community. There are many great City fan blogs, and it is the sign of a club with real heart and substance that we should be blessed with so many not-for-profit, well-respected, unofficial sites.
The form book certainly reads in City’s favour today. WWWWW, our form back to the Celtic friendly, is not a sight we have seen for a while. Added to this is the fact that City has not conceded a goal in the last four games. There are certainly some small issues around the edges about one aspect or another of the team, but I would take that start any season.
As Hughes himself has confessed, Pompey presents a somewhat unpredictable challenge. Playing a struggling team away from home, that has just had a major organisational change, is always perilous. In the spirit of light-hearted banter, I think that predicting a tight affair today is the easy option. City should trounce Portsmouth today, make no bones about it. Pompey’s new owner has yet to make an impact at Pompey, and it could be said he needs to prove himself after his outbursts during the City takeover. A lot of quality has left the club and not a lot has come back in the other direction.
There were several aspects that impressed me watching City from the stand on Thursday evening. The one that really stood out though, was the condition of the players. Very few players looked to be lacking match fitness even though we’re at the start of the season. When a ball was being chased by any City player, it was chased with a burst of pace that demonstrated a rigorous pre-season training routine. No longer does Stephen Ireland look like the only player who can run for 90 minutes.
Stephen Ireland’s description in the Telegraph yesterday about a walk in the hotel grounds with Micah and Nedum was enlightening. “We were on a walk at the hotel, me and Micah and Nedum. And we were just saying – Richard Dunne had just left, just before we went on our walk – and we were saying there’s just three of us left, this is mental you know.” It’s happened so fast and yet, so far at least, the manner of the execution of the plan has been excellent.
It’s not difficult to pick out the new players who have made an impact so far. All of them. Adebayor is scoring and has slotted in nicely up front. Barry’s command of midfield is a cut above, although there is more to be done to gel the midfield together. Tevez showed signs of real class on Thursday night. His vision and ability to join up passages of play is something akin to a chess player. Toure and Lescott looked relatively assured. The niggling wing-back concerns persist, and there is a real need to find a way to get the best out of Robinho as the formation takes shape. But these niggles take time.
This is a team that is enjoying playing football together as the grand master plan is implemented. There is a real buzz around the club and the players are feeding from it. The feel good factor could create a big result today. The betting certainly indicates a strong City showing (Betfair: City 1.59 – 1.6, Pompey 7.0-7.2, Draw 4.2-4.3 @ 09.57am, 30th Aug). So I’m long total goals, but have capped my correct score optimism at 3-0 to City (Betfair: 13.5-14.0).
Let’s hear a big noise in the 2,000 strong away end today Blues: COME ON CITY !!!