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May 13, 2013

Man City gamble with Mancini exit

Roberto Mancini was never going to go quietly. Complaining about his employers' refusal to back him publicly marked his last act as Manchester City's manager. By then, he knew his fate had been sealed.

Some 32 hours before City's limp failure in the FA Cup final, the outspoken manager was asked if winning a fourth trophy in three seasons would be just the start for him. His reply was unexpectedly revealing. "I won seven trophies in four years at Inter and they sacked me," he said. "This is football."

It is one of the Italian's catchphrases, but this is indeed football as Mancini knows it. He understands the realpolitik of a dirty business.

• Marcotti: Halted progress
• Brewin: No defence
• Pellegrini denial

Even as Mancini won his third Serie A title at the San Siro, Jose Mourinho was being lined up to replace him. Mancini himself rather embarrassed then-chief executive Garry Cook by announcing on his unveiling as Manchester City manager that they had met weeks before, when Mark Hughes was still manager.

Now Mancini, once again, knew the identity of his successor before his departure. Director of football Txiki Begiristain had been seen weeks ago lunching with Malaga manager Manuel Pellegrini's agent, Jesus Martinez. "I hope they had a good dinner," Mancini said jokingly at the time.

Such humor endeared him to the fourth estate. A problem was that the charm he displayed in public was less apparent in his private dealings. Mancini made too few allies and burned too many bridges at City. Samir Nasri and Joleon Lescott are unlikely to shed too many tears over his departure. Joe Hart certainly won't -- indeed, before a recent interview with the goalkeeper, journalists were pointedly told by City's media officials, who were fearful of Hart's response, that there would be no questions about Mancini.

Rather than massaging egos in the dressing room, Mancini was unafraid to criticize them. Blaming captain Vincent Kompany for playing for Belgium when his manager had hoped he would be recuperating from injury was particularly needless. Perhaps his smarmy sidekick and assistant, David Platt, was supposed to play good cop to his bad cop, but the Englishman didn't. Mancini could be diplomatic, as his dealings with Carlos Tevez in the past 12 months show, but all too often he wasn't.

Careful as he was to praise owner Sheikh Mansour and chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the balance of power had shifted to Begiristain and CEO Ferran Soriano. The exiles from the Nou Camp may aim to recreate Barcelona in east Manchester; Mancini, conditioned by decades in Italian football, has another ethos. Years of working for super-rich owners such as Paolo Mantovani, Sergio Cragnotti and Massimo Moratti led Mancini to believe that appealing to billionaire businessmen to make superstar signings was a profitable approach.

He appeared ignorant and uncaring of Financial Fair Play regulations, seeming to think the answer lay in the checkbook. Much as Mancini was right to argue City's failure to win the Premier League title this season was the result of its inability to land his prime targets last summer, Robin van Persie, Eden Hazard, Javi Martinez and Daniele de Rossi would have cost eye-watering sums. Matija Nastasic apart, his finest signings -- Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, David Silva -- were proven world-class players. He wanted to sign still more of them this summer, seemingly regardless of cost.

Soriano and Begiristain arrived with a more organic approach. Barcelona developed players. Pellegrini is accustomed to working uncomplainingly within smaller budgets. Crucially, he has done more in La Liga with lesser resources than Mancini has in the Champions League.

Mancini's record on the continent, never outstanding, has gotten worse with back-to-back group-stage exits, albeit from the toughest of pools. Initially negative, he became more cavalier as he found a way to win in England, but the appropriate balance between defense and attack eluded him in Europe. His controversial flirtation with a back three backfired, in particular against Ajax, although Mancini's incessant tinkering led to many a triumph on the domestic front.

Nevertheless, Pellegrini, pushing 60 and untried in England, is not the obvious choice for the future. There is something dogmatic about Soriano and Begiristain's desire to implement a Barcelona-esque 4-3-3 formation; the system is not necessarily superior. And, after Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement at Manchester United, there is something strange in City dispensing with a manager who proved capable of taking a title from the Scot.

The reality is that a week ago the Manchester clubs were led by men who had secured 20 league titles in Europe. Now their successors have a combined total of none. While money played its part, Mancini smashed through a glass ceiling at City. The previous 17 managers had failed to bring silverware to the club, including the Community Shield. Mancini secured it in each of his full seasons. His league title, clinched in the 94th minute of the final game of the 2011-12 season, was unforgettable.

So, too, was his greatest triumph, the 6-1 demolition of United and humiliation of Ferguson at Old Trafford and his willingness to go toe-to-toe with Ferguson on the touchline in the April 2012 derby victory.

They are reasons why, no matter who disliked Mancini within the club, he was wildly popular among the supporters and why sacking him represents an almighty gamble by an owner who had not taken a false step until now. The risk is that City will become Chelsea, with its hire-and-fire culture, Mancini as the Mancunian answer to Roberto Di Matteo, the popular Italian sacrificed on the altar of ambition, and Pellegrini the Chilean Rafa Benitez.

"You can stick your Pellegrini up your arse," the City fans chorused at Wembley.

And so this is about more than just a manager. Above the halfway line at Etihad Stadium is a banner that reads: "Manchester thanks you, Sheikh Mansour."

The blue half (City fans), whose hero has been fired, might not be thankful. The red half (United fans) might end up grateful, because Man City is now starting out with a new manager.

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