Jim White

Stakes higher than ever for Mancini

Jim White

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Roberto Mancini is worrying about his coefficients. And you can sympathise with him. If his Manchester City side fail to qualify from the Champions League group of death this season, then next year they are certain to be in the same position. Whether they retain their domestic title of not, an inability to negotiate their way into this season's knock-out phase will stymie their continental ambition.

When City won the Premier League at the death last May, many of their supporters assumed their excellence would be immediately translated into European success. But it isn't as easy as that. Not in a competition as political as this.

A draw placing them with Real Madrid, Ajax and the continent's most progressive team Dortmund was as obvious a public slap in the face as could have been delivered. Especially when compared with the soft rides offered up to Manchester United and Arsenal, the two clubs who finished below City domestically.

But then the Champions League is not a competition designed to offer opportunity to all. It is an old boys' club structured to ensure its long-term associates are the ones rewarded.

Which makes it rather essential City win tonight's game with Ajax. If they fail again their membership of Europe's elite will be further postponed. They need to get in that club as soon as possible. Starting this evening.

Besides, Mancini needs it for his own personal CV. For a coach of such domestic success, his Champions League forays have not offered similar return. Twice a losing quarter-finalist with Inter, and out in the group stage with City last season: he knows that is not a record likely to provide him with frequent mention among the continent's great coaches.

But as he ponders how to make progress one thing he doesn't need to do is change his system.

There was plenty of talk after City's victory at West Bromwich last Saturday — much of it initiated by Mancini's number two David Platt — that Edin Dzeko's excellent brace of goals would be sufficient to propel him from substitute into the starting line-up. Which would certainly go down well with the player himself who, when asked whether he was the latest in the line of strikers like David Fairclough and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to forge a career out of coming from the bench to make winning contributions, looked visibly hurt.

"I am not a super sub," he insisted. "I am a player who has always started. And that is what I want to do." That may be so, but at the moment he represents a brilliant Plan B for Mancini, one which the manager would be increasingly unwise to dismantle.

On Saturday, Mancini started with Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez. The Argentine worked ceaselessly, darting and dashing and quickly whipping up a sweat. The Italian was his usual mix of supreme skill and a hair-trigger fuse, requiring at various points in the first half both Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart to lead him away from talking himself into a red card.

Between them, the problem the pair presented to West Brom's defenders was a complex and tiring one. True, neither scored. But Balotelli in particular came close, denied by Ben Foster from finishing a flamboyant run with a goal.

When Dzeko came on to the pitch he offered something very different: power, physicality, muscularity. Had he been on from the start, the West Brom backline would have quickly worked out how to deal with him. But coming on late, after his opponents had spent more than an hour confronted by something completely different, he found he could immediately punch holes in their waning concentration.

There will be games where Dzeko's power and size is needed from the start. As Platt suggested, he will get plenty of football. But against Ajax, Mancini would be much better placed beginning with Tevez and Sergio Aguero (or maybe Balotelli and Aguero) and bringing on his battering ram once they have mentally worn down the opposition.

If nothing else, having someone as back-up who is absolutely desperate to jump off the bench when required will make a change for Mancini from this time last year when he was faced with a stroppy striker going on strike in Munich.

Indeed it is a nice problem he has given himself. Four excellent forwards all on form simultaneously is something every manager would crave, even if he can use only two of them at once.

Bringing on the Premier League's most potent forward with 20 minutes to go: it should surely, too, be a deep enough resource to help him tonight with his co-efficients.

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