It was probably unsurprising that Manchester City should choose one of the most extraordinary weekends of the season to trump everybody else. While Liverpool supporters finally seemed to be turning on Rafael Benitez after Liverpool lost at Portsmouth, Manchester United were being given a masterclass in ecomonical football by Fulham and Chelsea were scratching and scrambling their way to a draw at West Ham United, City were playing out another mini-drama at The City of Manchester Stadium against Sunderland and then sacking their manager.
They beat Sunderland in the end, but it wouldn’t have made any difference to Mark Hughes. The rumour mill had already started before they even kicked off. We can only imagine what was going through his head while that match was in progress. With somewhat unseemly haste – and with a public statement rather than a press conference – Hughes was removed by early yesterday evening and replaced with Roberto Mancini. The decision, therefore, had already been taken, unless City are going to attempt to claim that they just happened to have his mobile phone number on speed-dial. Done and dusted, just like that.
What, then, can Manchester City expect from Mancini? Much will be made of the three back to back Serie A wins with Internazionale, but his record is obviously not completely spotless. Two of the aforementioned three championship wins came at a time that most of their serious competitors were crippled by the fall-out of the Calciopoli scandal. He was certainly less than successful in the Champions League even though they were so successful in Italy, and the Champions League is presumably still intend to be in time for the start of next season. The speed with which the decision was made, however, seems to indicate that he was the only man considered for the job.
The timing of the decision certainly seems peculiar. They have five matches in eleven days starting on Boxing Day, including a potentially tricky FA Cup Third Round match at Middlesbrough and an all-important League Cup semi-final first leg against Manchester United. The United match is the key to the extent to which expectations at the club have changed. The League Cup match is City’s first semi-final match in a major competition since their 1981 FA Cup semi-final against Ipswich Town. Getting into the Champions League is clearly their main ambition – the £200m that they have spent on players might start to seem a little foolish otherwise – but for much of their long-suffering support, winning the League Cup wouldn’t be too bad a start.
How, then, do we frame Mark Hughes’ time in charge of Manchester City? To an extent, he was given an almost impossible job. Manchester City have maybe failed to completely grasp the notion that money isn’t the only thing that will bridge the gap between themselves and the Champions League Four. This season, they have wavered between two extremes. Their wins over Arsenal in the Premier League and the League Cup were flashes of the brilliance that their current squad is capable of. However, the fact that they have contrived to concede three goals at home against Burnley, away at Bolton Wanderers and also failed to beat relegation Hull City at home. Their defeat at Spurs last Wednesday was as supine as anything that any of the relegation candidates have managed so far this season.
Quite where Manchester City go from here is anybody’s guess. It will doubtless be tempting for them to go crazy in the January transfer window, and how wise this would be seems unlikely to be a factor in whether they will do it or not. Can a squad that is already filled to overflowing with massive egos cope with yet another influx of celebrity names in the new year? The truth of the matter is that City probably don’t need any new signings in the new year. They have only lost twice in the Premier League this season, which is less than anybody else in this surprisingly unpredictable season. If they can sort out their rickety defence, there is still a good chance that they can get into the Champions League and win a cup.
Don’t shed too many tears for Leslie Mark Hughes, though. The financial compensation from Manchester City will get him through the next few months at least and, with only one other Premier League club having shed their manager so far this season, there are likely to be other managerial vacancies available before even this season is out. He may or may not have been good enough to take Manchester City into the Champions League this season, but he is at worst an average manager, and this will be enough for him to get another opportunity elsewhere, although he will probably never have an opportunity like this one again.
Manchester City, however, remain the eternal soap opera. To their rivals, they are often the gift that keeps on giving. To the more neutral spectator, they remain an enigma. A world of back-stage intrigue in which success, against all odds, is demanded immediately, with the caveat that it has to be the right sort of success. A curious mixture of occasional arrogance masking hidden inner insecurities. The key question for City’s supporters is whether this managerial change at this time will make it more or less likely that they will achieve the goals that their owners crave so much and, at this stage, it is difficult to justify a positive answer to this question.