Raise High The White Flag, Mancini: In Which Manchester City’s Coach Concedes. Again.
While Manchester City’s on-field form has fluctuated throughout the current English Premier League season, one thing has been constant: Coach Roberto Mancini, the King of the Conceders, has early and often genuflected to City’s cross-town rivals, Manchester United. It’s like he came to England from Italy two years ago expressly to kiss Sir Alex Ferguson’s rings. Rex Ryan he ain’t.
Way back in August, seemingly 100 years ago, Mancini had glowing praise for United, and a pithy prediction for the coming season: “[United] are on the top. They’re a strong team, they won the last Premier League… and at the moment they are over us. We are very close but United have maybe five yards more than us.” To be fair, Mancini said this to a Guardian reporter in the context of the comparative squad size, and how he felt that City needed a few more players to seriously contend. But, still. C’mon. Can’t you have a bit more faith in your team?
Growing up watching North American sports, I have never quite gotten used to this all-too-common tendency toward capitulation by Euro soccer coaches. It’s drilled into us here in the New World: a team is never out of a title race until the mathematics dictate. How many epic baseball collapses have there been in the last half dozen years? Back-to-back Met swoons in the late aughts, Atlanta and Boston last year, both knocked from playoff contention on the last night of the season, within minutes of one another. In the NFL, the New York Giants seemingly either win the Super Bowl, or lose every game in December to miss the playoffs. Shouldn’t these examples give succor to the chasers, to the second-place, second-fiddle teams everywhere in every sport?
Imagine Joe Girardi and the Yankees heading to Boston in September for a four-game series with the Sox, two games behind, say, and imagine Girardi saying something to the effect that the Sox are a better team, and that he doesn’t think that the Yankees will catch them this year. Wouldn’t. Happen. Ever. And yet, in the wake of City pulling within three points of United after last week’s matches, here’s the headline from another article in the Guardian: “United Will Probably Still Win Title, Roberto Mancini Says.” I could expand on this, but the headline really says it all.
If you’ve joined us in medias res, Monday’s clash between Red and Blue Manchester is the 36th game—third to last—in the 38-game English Premier League season. Right from the starting gate back in mid-August, the two Manchesters have duked it out from the one-two spots atop the EPL table. In the third week of the season, a scheduling coincidence had each Manchester team playing a North London side. The Manchesters ran rough shod over the not-too-shabby Londoners, with City crushing Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 and United schooling Arsenal 8-2. The sporting editorials followed fast, loud and thick, about how the center of the soccer world—at least the British soccer world—had emphatically shifted from London to Manchester.
City and United traded off first and second place a few times until the 8th game of the season, when City took over at the top. City held that lead for the next twenty games, until a late-season dip in form saw United pass them again. A five-game span during March and early April was City’s undoing, with the Blues taking only five points from a possible 15, while their Red brethern took all 15. What was worse, United not only vaulted over City to retake the lead, but they added 12 tallies to their goal differential—the deciding tie-breaker should two teams end the season in the same place in the table—while City went a minus-1 in the same period.
So, the only way Monday’s 162nd Manchester Derby could be any more exciting and meaningful, would be if it was the last game of the season, instead of the third-to-last. Still, it’s mostly agreed that whoever wins Monday will win the league, what with only two games left after that. And still, Mancini dismisses the importance of the game, in maddening understatement, saying blandly that he is happy where they are, and that the team have already bested last year by ten points, and that what’s important is that they finish the season well. Granted, reading quotes from a coach on the internet, nuance and purpose get lost. For all I know, Mancini is simply the world’s biggest prankster, and purposely says these vanilla things to get a rise out of journalists; it’s been suggested that he’s really running some sort of reverse-psychology con game, to put the pressure on United.
And, yet, I don’t believe those explanations, simply because of the season-long frequency of Mancini’s undervaluing his team and their accomplishments. As both a neutral observer of this strange surrender-monkey mentality, and as a casual fan of Manchester City, I find it perplexing and negative. Perhaps I am merely displaying the cloying optimism the rest of the world seems to find so endearing and/or annoying in Americans. Though Barbara Ehrenreich (and Christopher Hitchens, god rest his atheist soul) might disagree, a healthy dose of sunny optimism works well with sports.
At least there is a voice of sanity and realism here, in United’s coach Sir Alex Ferguson. After United’s draw with Everton last week—coupled with City’s win—put City back within a win of the top, Sir Alex admits that the turn of events had “given City the initiative” and that it was “game on” again for the title race. If only his Italian counterpart would publicly state the same. Who knows what these mind games are doing to his players.
Realism and optimism can co-exist within a sporting mentality, be you a coach, fan or player. As such, you can look at a seemingly dire situation and understand the challenge perfectly well, yet still think your team has a shot at winning. Like Brad Richards, of the New York Rangers, who after his team lost Game 5 to fall into a 3-2 hole in their NHL playoff series with the Ottawa Senators, simply pointed out that to win a seven-game series, you have to win four games, and neither team had done that yet. (The Rangers won the next two, taking the series in seven games). I laugh to think what these poor soccer coaches would have to endure if soccer played anything close to a seven-game series. If they lost the first game, some of them would undoubtedly throw in the towel.