Mancini facing long road ahead
Mark Hughes was still in a job, still making his final decisions as Manchester City manager, when Roberto Mancini began to scrutinize the squad he was about to inherit. It is a harsh reality of football, and one that should not surprise us anymore.
Although the manner in which Hughes was dumped may have been clumsy - many would say cruel - City would have been negligent not to have had a new man in place before wielding the axe. Not even a club with their track record for self-destructing would be that reckless.
Mancini, too, could hardly be expected to wait until his feet were firmly under the table at his new office in Carrington before casting an eye over the men who will work under him.The former Fiorentina, Lazio and Inter Milan coach is renowned in Italy for his meticulous preparation, and even those City fans loyal to Hughes would rather his successor knew Vincent Kompany from Vladimir Weiss before tackling his first game against Stoke City on Boxing Day.
But if City's players believe the ruthlessness ended with Hughes' hasty departure, they would be very much mistaken. The ice-cold demeanour Mancini displayed at his opening press conference while the storm over the Welshman's sacking raged around him told us much about the man. You don't survive for seven years in the murky world of Italian football by being soft, and Mancini smiled as the bullets bounced off him. It is a mean streak his players will come to know well. The squad may have cost more than £200 million to assemble but, with the transfer window opening conveniently in just a few days time, Mancini will not hesitate to make changes where he sees fit and Sheikh Mansour will back him all the way.
The most intriguing issue, as ever, centres around Robinho. The Brazilian has never settled in Manchester and clearly wants to move, preferably back to Spain. Hughes would gladly have offloaded him in the summer but the Arabs were reluctant to lose their marquee man and Barcelona's recent offer to take a player who cost City £32.5m on loan hardly represented good business.
It did, however, reflect his dwindling reputation and Mancini must decide whether to try and salvage Robinho's career in England and make him a central part of his plans or test the support of his new employers and look to sell him at a loss. The latter scenario seems more likely but not until the summer when City can find a suitable buyer and save face by replacing him with another big signing.
In the meantime, Robinho will not be indulged in the same way he was by Hughes who never felt his power base was strong enough to tackle the player head-on. Mancini is known to value team unity and discipline above all else, and will not tolerate the sudden escapes to Brazil or sulky departures down the tunnel when his No.10 is substituted. Work-rate, too, is high on the list, and that has never been Robinho's strong point. It will be interesting to see if he is in the starting line-up against Stoke.
An equally uncertain future lies ahead for City's other luxury item, Emmanuel Adebayor. After a dazzling start to his City career, the Togo striker let Hughes down badly with his listless performances, and his cause will not be helped by having to spend a month away at the African Cup of Nations. Another big ego whose lack of effort has not gone unnoticed, Adebayor falls into the same category of player Mancini and his coaching staff will monitor with a critical eye. Just two goals since mid-September is hardly prolific and the £25m summer signing has some work to do in the second half of the season to ensure his first season at City is not also his last.
It was telling that Hughes, aware he was about to lose his job, dropped Robinho and Adebayor to the bench for his final game against Sunderland. Too little, too late, but proof all the same of what he really thought about their attitude. The men who played instead, Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz, were his favourites and the ones who fought to the last for their manager. But that counts for little now.
Not surprisingly, Bellamy has been the most vocal in protesting over Hughes' departure. The rush of blood will pass and he can continue to be a key player if Mancini can bring him onside. Bellamy has been outstanding this season, and just because he has played the best football of his career under Hughes for club and country, it does not mean he cannot excel under Mancini as well. This is where the role of new assistant boss Brian Kidd will prove invaluable - a friendly face who can reassure the likes of Bellamy that the new regime is not so bad after all.
Whether Santa Cruz will feel that way is another matter. There were no rival bidders when Hughes was attempting to sign his old striker from Blackburn, and Santa Cruz 's slow recovery from knee surgery and a poor goal return this season would appear to show why. The Paraguayan's two goals against Sunderland were his first in the Premier League this campaign, having previously only scored against Scunthorpe in the Carling Cup.
While assessing the weaknesses, however, Mancini will not lose sight of the fact that he is taking over a team within reach of the top four. He does not need Kidd to tell him that, in Shay Given, Carlos Tevez, Gareth Barry, Stephen Ireland and Shaun Wright-Phillips, he is inheriting top Premier League players who can be trusted to put in a shift. Nor is he under illusion that a defence which leaked three goals against Burnley, Bolton and Sunderland is in need of change. Mancini is not committed to the typically defensive Italian system, preferring a more attacking style, but there are limits.
Wayne Bridge's days were numbered long before Hughes' departure and Micah Richards remains vulnerable, while Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott - signed for a combined total of £38 million - have not lived up to expectations. Lescott was improving before a knee injury interrupted his season, but Toure has become increasingly error-prone and it would be surprising if he stays beyond next summer.
By then, Mancini's Manchester City will be taking shape. He will not be afraid to make the big decisions. The men from Abu Dhabi can only hope they haven't made a big mistake.