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May 19, 2013

Man City stuck in the past

Many a visitor to the Etihad Stadium is greeted by the images of an unforgettable day. Blown up to colossal proportions are pictures of the final day of the 2011-12 season: a semi-shirtless Sergio Aguero, removing his top as he celebrated the goal that won the title; a jubilant Vincent Kompany lifting the trophy.

The last game of the 2012-13 campaign was rather less memorable. While the outside of the Colin Bell Stand reflected events a year ago, the inside gave an indication of the feeling now. Draped from the upper tier was an Italian flag reading: "Thanks Roberto, you gave us our Man City back."

Whether it remains 'their' City is a moot point. Had they, the supporters, been consulted, Mancini would still be employed. A staple of the Stamford Bridge songbook is "we want our Chelsea back" and the parallels should concern the hierarchy at the Etihad Stadium. A billionaire owner sacks a popular, trophy-winning Italian manager and foists his successor upon the fans? It has been an unlikely recipe for success at Stamford Bridge but it has brought division. Before Manuel Pellegrini's appointment at City is ratified, it has already led to dissent.

• Curtis: City curtain comes down - with railing attached
• Davitt: Norwich relish proving Prem Lge doubters wrong

One lonely Chilean flag, hanging from the East Stand above the half-way line, hinted at the future under Pellegrini. There were rather more mentions of the past and, in particular, of Mancini. One, displaying excellent Italian said in the former manager's native tongue: "Thank you Mancini for all the memories. We are always in your debt."

The message at one end of the ground was "Grazie Mancini". At the other, its English translation: "Thank you, Bobby Manc." Neither, it is safe to say, was prepared by his players. Both reflected the supporters' views. As ever but incongruously, a banner reading "Forza Mancini" was a matter of metres from another saying "Manchester thanks you, Sheikh Mansour". Six days after the Italian was dismissed by the Emirati, Manchester was rather more inclined to praise the manager.

"I understand the cheers for the boss," said acting manager Brian Kidd. "He would have been disappointed if there wasn't for what he did here. It has been an emotional week." The choruses of Mancini's name were scarcely deafening, but they were frequent. One, in the 61st minute, was an oblique reference to the 6-1 win at Old Trafford.

Manchester United provided the context, too, as Norwich became the first visitors to win at the Etihad Stadium since Sir Alex Ferguson's side in December. This game, like that, finished 3-2. So, indeed, did the final home match of last season but, separated by 12 months, City's campaign has concluded with unforgettable and insignificant matches.

While Norwich, playing with the handbrake off, displayed an attacking and adventurous side they have kept concealed for much of the season, could savour the match, it was a subplot in this tale of two Cities. Carlos Tevez was substituted to a standing ovation; the Argentine reciprocated by applauding all four stands, giving the impression his tumultuous four years on this side of the city have come to an end. Perhaps it is goodbye to Manchester. "I think that was just his appreciation to the crowd," said Kidd, showing a caretaker manager's innate ability to downplay anything.

Yet when the FA Cup was secured two years ago, Tevez became the first City skipper since 1976 to lift major silverware. At a club with a tradition of failure, he, like Mancini, brought long-awaited success. Divisive characters' place in City folklore is secure.

Aleksandar Kolarov's may not be. Some City fans turned on the Serb, not so much for his inability to play left-back as allegations were made he swore at them; others responded by accusing Kolarov's barrackers.

The absence of three of Mancini's preferred back four - Kompany, Matija Nastasic and Gael Clichy - was a contributory factor as Norwich secured their first away win in Manchester since a triumph at Maine Road in 1993. That helped them to third place and, under Chris Hughton's low-maintenance management, they have now mustered their highest finish since then of 11th. "I am absolutely delighted with that," said Hughton.

Victory was "massively satisfying", Norwich's goals hugely impressive. Anthony Pilkington curled in the first after Bradley Johnson dispossessed Yaya Toure and Grant Holt converted Robert Snodgrass' cross to complete a terrific team move for the second. The winner was a wonderful solo strike, Jonny Howson slaloming forward from the half-way line to finish adeptly.

Joe Hart, a player Mancini had alienated, was defeated three times. Jack Rodwell, one he championed, scored twice, levelling with excellent finishes. The latter, when he broke beyond the Norwich defence to meet Toure's perceptive pass, was a welcome and belated reminder of his potential.

He may yet have a part to play in the future, but this was about the past. It includes both Mancini and the man in the middle. There was generous applause for the retiring Mark Halsey, the cancer survivor who has brought a congenial approach and common-sense officiating during his long career.

City fans had long had a soft spot for Halsey, who refereed their 1999 play-off final against Gillingham. It was their most dramatic end to a campaign until last season. Until the moments that made Mancini a City legend.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Robert Snodgrass - With Howson and Pilkington impressing, there were several excellent performances in the Norwich midfield but Snodgrass was involved in everything.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Below par. It was a sloppy performance, one to invite suggestions that they were already on their holidays. Except, of course, that they have a post-season tour of the USA first. For several players - Tevez, Joleon Lescott, Edin Dzeko, even Samir Nasri - it could be a farewell to City. If so, it was an undistinguished one.

NORWICH VERDICT: Criticised for being negative for much of the campaign, they have now scored seven goals in back-to-back wins and could have managed more than three on this occasion. On a day when they could have finished anywhere from 11th to 17th, coming top of the bottom half earned them an extra £4.5 million in prize money. It will be intriguing to see if Hughton plays such progressive football again next season when the pressure is on.

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