By Greg Stobart
Roberto Mancini was hardly convincing in his press conference this week as he spoke of how the unpredictability of football means his Manchester City side can beat Real Madrid on Wednesday and still qualify for the next stage of the Champions League.
The Italian is deeply superstitious but he knows it would take a miracle for City to reach the second round now, with the Premier League champions bottom of Group D - which is completed by Borussia Dortmund and Ajax - on two points.
Yet the remaining two matches, at home to Real Madrid and away at Dortmund, could be pivotal to Mancini’s long-term future at the Etihad Stadium as City slide towards a group stage exit for the second year running.
Mancini is already privately resigned to City’s exit from Europe’s elite competition but knows the importance of the coming matches, firstly to ensure qualification for the Europa League and, more importantly, to show the Abu Dhabi owners that he is capable of taking the club to Champions League glory.
The 47-year-old has never taken a team past the quarter-finals and his European woes led to a frank conversation with new director of football Txiki Begiristain following the 2-2 home draw with Ajax earlier this month.
In the meeting, Mancini was told that European performances must improve and the City boss is under pressure to produce despite leading the club to their first title in 44 years and subsequently signing a five-year contract.
With the Barcelona influence of Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano at the Etihad Stadium, the shadow of Pep Guardiola will continue to loom large.
Guardiola will be looking for a new job next summer and he will not be short of offers, with City and Chelsea constantly linked with the former Barca coach.
Sheikh Mansour, the City owner, is unbelievably ambitious. He has spent more then £1 billion in getting the club to this stage and is plotting global domination and multiple Champions League success is the ultimate target.
With the state-of-the-art Etihad Campus a key component of making the club self-sustaining, City have made little secret of the Barcelona influence on their planning.
|16/1||Manchester City are 16/1 to qualify from Champions League Group D with William Hill|
City are top of the Premier League and Mancini will certainly stay in charge at least until the end of the season.
But he needs to convince the hierarchy that he has what it takes to win the Champions League, however slow the progress in his first two attempts.
If not, Mancini risks the conclusion that he is a Champions League flop and, despite all of his good work, it requires someone like Guardiola to take City to the next level.
Victories over European giants Real Madrid and Dortmund in the final two games of this year’s campaign would go some way to suggesting Mancini has learned from his considerable mistakes, especially where tactics and team selection are concerned.
He admitted as much in his pre-match press conference on Tuesday, declaring: “It was a difficult group when we started and now it is very difficult because we made some mistakes in the first two games, but we have another two important games and we want to play well.
“We don’t have a lot of chance to go through, but it is important for us to do a good job.”
He will not, though, be allowed to take baby steps towards the European title. It is the main goal after winning the English title and success in the competition is a key part of City’s financial planning as they look to comply with Uefa’s financial fair play rules.
An historic victory over Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday would be the first step for Mancini to show he is the man to take City to the top of the pile.
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