By Tom McKeown
On a wet, miserable Tuesday evening in the north-west, Roberto Mancini endured one of his more depressing nights as Manchester City manager, as the Premier League champions slumped to a thoroughly disappointing League Cup defeat at the hands of Aston Villa.
In seven games so far this season, Mancini’s side have conceded 13 goals, and they are clearly struggling to maintain the fine defensive form that helped them win the title last season.
It was not a first-choice City side, but neither was it a weak one. Yet the players were sluggish, there was no real zip in their play and they never really got on top of the game. The visitors were never out of it and in the end were able to take advantage of some poor defending and less than confident goalkeeping.
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There were boos from the home fans as the referee blew the whistle to move the game into extra-time, but they were short-lived. There was, however, a distinct feeling of frustration from the fans that this second string side made up of a host of internationals could not beat an Aston Villa team that has only taken four points from five Premier League games.
When Mario Balotelli fired City ahead just before the half-hour mark it looked like Mancini’s side would take charge of the game and run away to victory. And even though they were pulled back by an own goal, Aleksandar Kolarov’s sublime free-kick was surely the catalyst to inspire the home side to see out the victory.
But in the end, it was some more sloppy play that saw Villa not only equalise and force extra-time, but also take the lead after an unconvincing parry from Costel Pantilimon went straight back into the area, and Charles N’Zogbia showed more desire than the City defenders to reach the ball and roll home.
The underlying problem was that the home side kept making mistakes, especially in midfield, and Villa were able to catch City on the counterattack.
After winning the FA Cup in 2011 and then the league in dramatic fashion last season, the fans are starting to get used to the taste of success, and they of course want more. That first Premier League title will always be the sweetest, but Mancini is quickly learning that the fans will not settle for just the one.
City have yet to keep a clean sheet this season, and it is something that is becoming a growing concern for the manager. After the game, he said that conceding goals and throwing away leads is becoming a real problem, and the coaches “need to work with our defenders because they don’t work well at this moment”.
He also added: “We don’t play well, and our play is not quick. We want to take a touch more every time. We can only understand our mistakes and how we can do our best for the future.”
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In the post-match press conference he then launched a bizarre attack on other Premier League managers, claiming they like to argue with him but will not challenge the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson.
If City want to challenge for silverware on more than one front this season, the defence definitely has to be more watertight. Mancini was clearly unhappy and disappointed to go out of the only domestic competition he has not won in England.
But it is hardly a crisis yet; indeed if Mancini had to choose his lowest priority it would have been the League Cup. However, after a devastating late defeat in the Champions League to Real Madrid, City host Borussia Dortmund next in the competition needing victory to avoid the prospect of crashing out of another competition earlier than expected.
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