By Greg Stobart at Eastlands
Roberto Mancini has spent much of the season swatting away questions about his future, denying dressing room rifts and living with the day-to-day expectation of being in charge of the richest club in the world.
It was understandable, then, that the Manchester City manager betrayed more than a hint of relief in his post-match interview following his side's 2-1 home win over West Ham on Sunday.
The win takes City seven points clear of fifth-placed Liverpool and Tottenham in sixth, and with four games to play they are almost certain to qualify for next season's Champions League.
“Everything is in our hands,” said Mancini after the win. “We've been between first and fourth position all season. After what we've done, we deserve to be in the Champions League.
“The Champions League was our target at the start of the season and we are in a good position.”
The Italian is right. Soon enough they will achieve their primary goal for the season by finishing fourth. After a rocky ride for much of the season, the campaign could be set to end in surprisingly sedate fashion, with just one win needed to get the job done.
Mancini's side have, ultimately, been more consistent and more reliable than their rivals for fourth; largely thanks to the goals of Carlos Tevez, the dynamic attacking flair of David Silva and a defensive rock in the shape of Vincent Kompany.
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The football has been functional for much of the time, often leaving the City fans frustrated with the lack of adventure and the commitment to playing two holding midfielders. They can still seem like a bunch of stellar individuals rather than a cohesive unit, but there have been signs in the last two weeks but they are building towards becoming more of a team, both mentally and in their style of play.
Spurs boss Harry Redknapp is eager to remind us at every opportunity that City's Abu Dhabi owners spent the best part of £150 million improving the squad last summer after they missed out on the Champions League last season.
But that guarantees nothing, especially at a club that has no recent history of success.
City owner Sheikh Mansour would have been almost certain his investment had paid off in the opening months of the season, as the team stormed to the upper reaches of the table and were being considered as genuine title challengers at Christmas.
They stuttered and spluttered after the New Year, with the excuses coming thick and fast from the City staff, including Mancini as he regularly complained about the fixture congestion caused by the club's Europa League campaign.
At the time, it was interpreted as an unnecessary moan and poor man management to offer his players ready-made excuses for failure, but Mancini was probably right. The fact that City were knocked out of Europe by Dinamo Kiev in March appears to have worked in the club's favour and they have been able to concentrate on the big games in the league and the FA Cup, the end-of-season matches that can make or break a season.
“We've been between first and fourth position all season. After what we've done, we deserve to be in the Champions League"
To do it, that ambition off the pitch will probably have to be reflected in a braver approach on it.
For all City's effectiveness, they have been difficult to watch for much of the season, stodgy in midfield due to Mancini's obsession with playing two holding midfielders even against the weaker teams.
The anticipated summer signing of Alexis Sanchez from Udinese will offer the sort of bums-off-seats wing play City need to improve their attacking potency, particularly to enable them to counterattack in tight away games.
Against West Ham they stormed into a two-goal lead within the first 15 minutes thanks to wonderful 30-yard strike by Nigel de Jong, his first goal for the club, and a second from Pablo Zabaleta after Lars Jacobsen could not keep out the Argentine's goal-bound effort.
It looked like it could be five or six – that's certainly what Manchester United or Arsenal would have done in the same circumstances against a ragged, bottom-of-the-table West Ham side.
But City took the foot off the gas and were nearly punished, Demba Ba pulling a goal back to ensure that Eastlands was a tense, nervy place for almost the whole of the second half as the home crowd feared the visitors would complete the comeback.
The Champions League will be an exhilarating yet challenging experience for this team, but most of City's first-team players have experienced Europe's elite competition at previous clubs and will not be daunted.
The harder task will be for Mancini, who will have to make full use of his squad to make sure that City do not experience the same hangover after Champions League games that has been seen with Tottenham so often in their debut season in the competition.
The futures of players like Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli will also be concerns heading into the summer, but they will be easier to address with the prestige of Champions League football at the club, especially in light of Uefa's new financial fair play rules.
Having the oil billions from Abu Dhabi owners makes life far easier when trying to crack the top four in England, but it brings with it a sideshow and pressures that City have found unwelcome this season.
Supporters of other clubs look on City with a negative slant while the dressing room egos and training ground spats have led to the impression that the squad lacks harmony, that the players are there only for their mega paychecks.
It has not been an easy ship to steer, but Mancini and Manchester City are almost there. It is no less than they deserve.
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