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Aug 9, 2010

Champions League or bust for Mancini

"I don't feel pressure", Roberto Mancini repeatedly said last season as the Manchester City manager got to grips with English football amid a media maelstrom. And that's good news for the Italian, because this term the level of expectation has been ratcheted up to such a level that the burden would crush a lesser man.

Champions League football was the goal for the 2009-10 season. Mancini failed to deliver. Many expected the former Inter Milan boss would be given the boot if he didn't book a place at European football's top table, but the club's billionaire owners saw enough improvement during half-a-season under the 45-year-old to stay his execution.

Amid the divisive fall out that followed the sacking of predecessor Mark Hughes at Christmas, the destabilising effect Robinho's fit of pique had on the club and a series of alleged disagreements with star striker Carlos Tevez, Mancini still managed to stabilise an inconsistent team with an awful away record and eventually missed out on a fourth-place finish by just three points.

The former Lazio boss may have failed to deliver a Carling Cup final appearance, but the semi against arch-rivals Manchester United set pulses racing in the city. The tantalising prospect of City's first cup final since 1981 and chance to show the power-base could shift from red to blue in Manchester even proved too much for some members of the club's board. Gaffe-prone chief executive Gary Cook told supporters that City would get to Wembley "not if, but when, we beat United again". City lost 4-3 on aggregate.

That exciting semi-final tie, which included a 2-1 first-leg victory, and Mancini's justifiable performance in the main event that is the Premier League has earned him another opportunity to bring Champions League football to Eastlands. Failure to do so will not be tolerated.

The margin of deficit was minimal last season and if Togo international Emmanuel Adebayor had not suffered the horror of a gun attack at the African Nations Cup in January, former Everton defender Joleon Lescott had justified a small portion of the £24 million lavished on him in the summer or Robinho had found a fraction of the form that he displayed once shipped out on loan to Santos then those extra few points might have been gained.

In attempting to bridge the small gap to the top four, no expense has been spared. City owner Sheikh Mansour has funded another multi-million pound splurge to rival last summer's £100 million outlay to recruit Spanish World Cup winner David Silva, Barcelona star Yaya Toure and Lazio defender Aleksandar Kolarov. The transfer outlay stands at £82 million and is expected to rise before the transfer window closes.

Spending of that magnitude brings with it huge expectation and media focus. And while City will welcome the press coverage to help boost their profile around the globe the only thing that can really elevate the club and make them attractive to the game's top talent is Champions League football. Participation in Europe's top competition and the successful recruitment of the games top stars, such as the likes of Kaka, who City failed to sign despite a £100 million bid in January 2009, go hand in hand.

But a top-four finish is only the bare minimum required and that is why the pressure is so great on Mancini. Whispers of title success have been heard in the halls of Eastlands and the City boss has done nothing to dampen expectations by adding his own voice to those claiming his team can win English football's top prize.

The Italian is keen to point out that he turned Inter's collection of well paid, costly recruits into champions and survived in the San Siro pressure-cooker for four years - longer than any manager since Giovanni Trapattoni left in 1991. If he can do it there why can't he do the same at Eastlands?

The difference is that Inter had always been among Italian football's big boys, challenging for and winning trophies despite their Scudetto drought. City, who languished in the third tier of English football as recently as 1999, have not won a single major honour since 1976 and Mancini has a much bigger task on his hands changing the culture at Eastlands than he did at the San Siro.

But the club's Abu Dhabi-based owners have done everything they can to facilitate success. As well as spending big, owner Sheikh Mansour is expected to accept a big loss on the club's record-signing Robinho to maintain harmony in the squad and has muzzled Cook - who was branded "mesmerically ghastly" by The Guardian - while always publicly backing his manager.

The foundations have been laid for Mancini and now it is down to the manager to construct a successful team from the expensive building blocks at his disposal. City have the strength in depth to challenge the established powers of the Premier League and will be expected too.

Qualifying for the Champions League and finishing ahead of city-rivals United will do for now. An ultimatum to win the title can probably wait until next season.

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