Are Benitez and Mancini Caught in a Battle for Survival Only One Can Win?
Roberto Mancini: Roman gladiator or Renaissance man?
English fans are yet to discover whether the new Manchester City manager is more of the former or the latter. Robinho might be doing his best to test the waters, but so far the scarf-wearing Italian has been a picture of restraint since arriving at Eastlands.
But if the 45-year-old does have a combative side, it might be Rafa Benitez, rather than the mercurial Brazilian, who should be sweating about his future.
It was the Spaniard’s Liverpool side, after all, that knocked Mancini’s Inter out of the Champions League in first knockout round that year.
In the first leg of their tie, Fernando Torres tortured Materrazzi in front of the Anfield faithful, eventually engineering the defender’s sending off and enabling the Reds to grab a late 2-0 win (Kuyt and Gerrard) that the Spanish striker added to in the Guiseppe Meazza to earn a comfortable 3-0 aggregate success.
That defeat, especially the manner of it, effectively spelt the end of Mancini’s rain at the Nerazzurri, despite having successfully steered the club to three Serie A titles (one handed to them in the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal) in his four years in charge.
Such success (which also included two Coppa Italia triumphs) meant little when what chairman Massimo Moratti craved above all was Champions League success.
Using an emotional outburst from Mancini in the aftermath of the Liverpool defeat (where he announced his intention to resign at the end of the season, before retracting it a day later) as a reason for dismissal, at the end of the season Moratti engineered Mancini’s exit and oversaw the arrival of Jose Mourinho—a man with experience of winning the European game’s biggest prize (with Porto in 2004).
Such was the messy nature of the split, Mancini remained on the club’s payroll, on gardening leave, until October 2009.
Ironically, Mancini would find himself on the opposite end of a similar situation as he was called in to replace the unlucky Mark Hughes soon after his departure from Inter was formally completed. Embarrassingly for his new employers, Mancini admitted in his first press conference that they had contacted him about taking over at the club over two weeks before Hughes was surprisingly sacked.
Now, armed with the unrivalled spending power of the club’s Middle East owners, Mancini nevertheless finds himself with an opportunity the envy of almost all others in Europe.
And he has not been slow to publicise his credentials when sections of the insular English press have sought to question them:
“My job is to work hard every day to try to improve the team and to win more games than Mark did,” Mancini said on arrival.
“I had four years at Inter and I won seven trophies. I want to win every game I play. That is my philosophy and mentality.
“I want to stay here many years and make a big contribution by winning many trophies.”
But if conflict confrontation is part of his personality, pursuing that main aim might also present him with the opportunity to get even with the man who put the final nail in the coffin at his last post.
Mancini's Manchester City and Benitez's Liverpool are—with all due respect to Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur—the two main contenders for the sole Champions League place that is still up for grabs.
Benitez has long been on uncertain ground with the club’s American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who reportedly even offered his job to Jurgen Klinsmann in a clandestine meeting that occurred just months before that clash with Inter.
Deliciously, it has even been suggested that Mancini was another proposed replacement for Benitez:
“It is naive to think that clubs are not looking at their options,” said Garry Cook, Man City’s chief executive, last month.
“Of course they are. Do we think that Liverpool just talked to Klinsmann? I am sure they also spoke to others, and I have no doubt Roberto Mancini was one of them. Of course he would have been.”
But, now under the most sustained period of pressure he has experienced at Anfield, last month Benitez (perhaps unwittingly) raised the stakes considerably by assuring the club’s owners and fans that they would achieve the minimum expected of them—Champions League qualification.
"I am sure we can do it because I know we are better than the team you are seeing on the pitch," the 49-year-old stated, before uttering the 10 words that might eventually make or break his tenure:
"I can guarantee we will finish in the top four."
That statement might well come back to haunt him. If he fails to deliver on that promise, especially if the manner is suitably pathetic (as it was for Mancini), he could well be pressured into heading out of the exit door.
With rumours this week linking the former Valencia boss to the manager’s role at Juventus, it looks like an escape route from Liverpool’s slowly sinking ship is already being planned.
Mancini finds himself as obvious candidate to deny the Reds fourth place and thus force his rival to walk the plank—although he has professed that is far from a priority:
“Am I angry? No, that is all in the past now,” Mancini reflected, when asked about the circumstances surrounding his departure at San Siro.
“I was happy at Inter, we won a lot after a lifetime [without winning]. Then when you leave a side, you naturally are upset at that moment. Would I do it all again? Yes.”
Arguably he is in no position to allow sentimentality to be involved. Having laid down his own lofty targets when arriving at the club, Mancini has put himself under just as much pressure—possibly more—than Benitez.
“My target is top four this season and I think that is possible, but next season, I want to win the Premier League title,” Mancini stated, to some raised eyebrows, on his appointment.
“I believe in my ability and I believe I can do a good job because we have good players. So I think I can reach the targets set because my squad always plays to win.”
But Mancini’s three-year contract is reported to include a "severance clause"—allowing the club to dispense with his services at the end of the season if results are not up to scratch.
Like Benitez, failure to qualify for the Champions League could see his employment come to an abrupt halt.
Perhaps it matters little then, whether Mancini is of a similar or more confrontational ilk than his thoughtful opponent.
Because either way it looks increasingly likely the fate of one will be inextricably linked to the success, or otherwise, of the other.
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