Mancini must conquer new frontier
On May 13, Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United had their 13th Premier League title in their grasp for 13 seconds. During that time, Sergio Aguero was careering towards ending that sliver of hope with the type of finish a £38 million signing should deliver. It was a climax as thrilling as any in the Premier League era, and only added to the opinion that this had been the greatest of all seasons. Well, since football began in 1992 anyway.
Perhaps that cool finish was the moment that consigned the phrase "typical City" to the dustbin, chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak suggested. The old Manchester City did not have £930 million to spend on a "project" to bear the fruit of victory in first the FA Cup and then the Premier League. And they did not have a manager like Roberto Mancini.
Though he understandably lost his cool when all seemed lost on Sunday, Mancini's self-assurance has been City's guiding light. Al-Mubarak suggested that "what Roberto did magnificently was to take the pressure off the entire team". In opening himself to ridicule by playing down his team's chances at every turn, Mancini played the situation beautifully.
He has led the club with the autocratic air of a man who has been a prince of Italian football since he was sold for £2.2 million as a teenager by Bologna to Sampdoria in 1982, a time when that fee dwarfed any that had been paid out in English football. A sense of self-worth has been apparent since he involved himself in the selection of Sampdoria managers while still a player in his 20s.
Mancini's handling of the twin terrors of Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez is the type of man-management that Ferguson once patented. Bridges were burned but then rebuilt when both were still of use, and both strikers played their part in a run of six successive wins to overhaul stalling United. Tevez has a skunk-like ability to stink out any occasion, as shown by his moronic brandishing of that "RIP Fergie" banner, but he is a footballer of genuine quality, and with experience in a title run-in too.
It should not be forgotten that it was Mancini who revived Inter Milan's fortunes in Serie A. A club that had spent big, sacked manager after manager and been mocked by more successful rivals was converted into a major force - sound familiar? The club that had not won a Scudetto since 1989 lifted three in a row under him, before he was sacked as Jose Mourinho hoved into the gimlet eyes of Massimo Moratti.
Mancini and Inter fell out of love when he could not realise Moratti's European dream. His father, Angelo, had been the president during the club's 'golden age' when two European Cups were lifted. Exit from the Champions League at the hands of Liverpool in February 2008 was the catalyst for Mourinho to be called upon. Mancini is still yet to master the continental game.
City's four-year plan has yielded optimum results so far. Its next frontier is Champions League success. A repeat of the group-stage exit of this season will not be good enough. Having taken Manchester City to the next level, he must now lead the club to a level of achievement that is unfamiliar to both of them.
With the relegation of Owen Coyle, the Barclays Premier League has lost a prime brand ambassador. Premier League managers are said to receive a regular SMS text message telling them to refer to the division by its full name and Coyle rarely let a press conference go by without performing that duty. The PR and Marketing department at the nPower Championship will be most glad of his arrival.
Bolton's demotion is something as a hard-luck story. When Lee Chung-Yong's leg was broken at Newport County in pre-season, to follow Stuart Holden's snapped cruciate knee ligament, it robbed Coyle of his creators. Then Fabrice Muamba's cardiac arrest in February completed the removal of the previous season's first-choice midfield.
By then, Bolton were in deep trouble. Luck is one thing, but rank bad form is another. Coyle's team have simply not played well enough after a 4-0 opening-day defeat of QPR. By contrast to the likes of Burnley and Blackpool in recent seasons, Bolton did not get relegated with the admiration of the football purist on their backs. Coyle's polished sheen did not transmit to the pitch and a team lacking in options was also bereft of the craft and spirit required to pull itself from trouble.
While not quite the chicken-in-a-basket case of fellow Lancastrians Blackburn, Wanderers have problems. A debt of £100 million is owed to benefactor Eddie Davies, while a full team of senior professionals are out of contract this summer. A glance at this season's Championship scene sees West Ham and Blackpool playing off to be the sole club returning at the first time of asking from Premier League relegation. Coyle faces a hardy challenge to be parroting the name of a bank and not a power supplier during the 2013-14 season.
And so to Munich, where Chelsea have the chance to achieve Roman Abramovich's heart's desire with possibly the worst squad he has paid for since Claudio Ranieri was his manager.
Home advantage clearly favours Bayern, and they have thrown much at getting to a final at their own home. But the record of teams in their own backyard on such occasions is mixed. Real Madrid's all-conquerors of the European Cup's early years lifted the trophy in the Bernabeu in 1957 and Helenio Herrera's Inter won at San Siro in 1965, but Roma lost to Liverpool in the Stadio Olimpico in 1984.
Aside from its obvious gravitas, this will be no normal home game for Bayern. The "UEFA Family" of sponsors, media and neutrals will make up a high proportion of the attendance in the Allianz Arena, and those home fans lucky enough to get a ticket are bound to be wracked by nerves.
And one of football supporting's great cliches is that the away fans make the most noise anyway. Chelsea fans, there by hook or by crook perhaps, have the chance to roar their depleted heroes to an unlikely victory.