Mancini's steady hand key in title race

There has been an inevitability about Manchester City's journey to the Premier League title since Abu Dhabi petro-dollars began flooding into the club in 2008 but they still required a steady hand at the tiller to navigate them to glory through one of the most unpredictable seasons for decades.

Roberto Mancini was appointed in December 2009 as the man to make realise the dream, knocking cross-town rivals Manchester United off their perch, and the former Inter Milan coach proved himself equal to whatever the job threw his way.

Since taking over from the sacked Mark Hughes, Italian Mancini has endured the initial disappointment of failing to qualify for the Champions League in 2010, suffered criticism over his style of football and even quelled mutiny within the ranks.

Importantly, however, even when making a disappointing group stage exit on their Champions League debut this season, there has been no sense of panic at the top.

More than 400 million pounds has been spent on players since Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan bought City as, first under Hughes, they began assembling a squad that is the envy of almost every club in world football.

There is a price to pay, though, for the man in charge of such a shopping list and caressing the egos of enormously well-paid footballers week in and week out has often proved the undoing of many high-calibre managers in the Premier League.

Initially, City's detractors said they were a bunch of individuals, lacking the required team bond that has been the hallmark of United and Chelsea in the past decade.

ALARM BELLS

When Carlos Tevez refused to warm-up as a substitute in a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich last September, an act which sparked a high-profile stand-off between striker and manager, the alarm bells were ringing again.

Mario Balotelli's volatile behaviour on and off the field, including an incident in which his apartment caught light after fireworks were set off inside, also tested Mancini's resolve, as did a post-Christmas dip in away form that let United back in the hunt.

Mancini never took his eye off the ball, however, and his biggest success has been instilling a togetherness and harmony while also managing the expectations of the fans, many of whom still appear giddy at their club's recent rise from the shadows rather than arrogantly expecting silverware.

Despite setting a hot pace for the first half of the season, when they thrashed United 6-1 at Old Trafford, City's age old ability to shoot themselves in the foot appeared to have returned and they trailed United by eight points with six matches to go after a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal on April 8.

Ironically it was that loss that galvanised the squad and at the same time released the pressure that had been building.

Since then City have been ruthless.

As United wobbled badly, City's five-match winning streak, including a 1-0 home victory over their title rivals, put them on the brink of winning the championship.

On Sunday they claimed their first English title in 44 years in barely believable circumstances as stoppage time goals from Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero snatched a 3-2 home victory over Queens Park Rangers.

Throughout a wildly fluctuating Premier League season, among the most exciting in its 20-year existence, one of the constants has been City's reliability.

HOME FORTRESS

Like any self-respecting Italian manager Mancini spent the early part of his tenure making his team hard to beat, impossibly so this at the Etihad Stadium where they won 18 and drew one of their 19 league matches.

That stability was based on the rock-like defending of skipper Vincent Kompany and the emergence of Joleon Lescott as his number one central defensive partner.

With goalkeeper Joe Hart rubber-stamping his England No.1 status, and Yaya Toure a formidable presence in the midfield engine room, City have been able to unleash their attacking threat to the maximum, much of it instigated by the brilliance of Spanish playmaker David Silva.

Up front, Aguero has proved a class act, netting 23 league goals while in support Balotelli, despite his erratic behaviour, and Dzeko also reached double figures, scoring some vital goals.

While some may scoff at Mancini's achievement in finally bringing City out of the shadow of their illustrious neighbours, pointing to the vast wealth at his disposal, he has repaid the faith of the owners to the full.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, whose mind games have failed to rattle Mancini in the title run in, once said the first of his 12 titles with United was the hardest to win.

Since that breakthrough he has produced a succession of sides all blessed with an inner belief that generally allows them to prevail when the going gets tough.

That is exactly what City did this season and now they have reached the top they may take some shifting.


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