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Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Man City unbeaten, but uninspiring


LONDON — Roberto Mancini is the last unbeaten manager in the Premier League this season.

Christopher Davies

Manchester City is only two points behind leader Chelsea, yet rarely does a day pass without a new row, controversy, showdown talks or transfer speculation engulfing the Italian.

The beat reporters covering the English champion are never short of stories; indeed they could probably survive just on Mario Balotelli. Mancini, comforted by the cushion of a five-year contract, has the skin of an armadillo and does not give a hoot what is said or written about him.

Much of what is being written this season is critical. Despite its unbeaten league record, City has been far from impressive, grinding out results and while it has conceded fewer goals than Manchester United or Chelsea, its back-line has looked vulnerable, with center-backs Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott struggling for last season's form.

In the Champions League, City has been poor and porous, conceding nine goals in four games, its hopes of qualifying from a group that includes Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax mathematical rather than realistic.

Three successive Serie A titles with Inter Milan and one Premier League crown, only the second in City's history, may be part of an impressive C.V., but Mancini's record in Europe has inevitably come under scrutiny.

If City fails to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League, it would be the third time Mancini has been in charge of a side that has gone out at the group stage.

Strong domestically, but not good enough to stand alongside the elite coaches in Europe?

Not yet, certainly, but at the same time City would struggle to find a better manager than Mancini, Pep Guardiola excepted, and anyone would struggle to keep the egos of the Etihad dressing room under control.

City plays Spurs on Sunday, the visitors desperate for a win after being booed off following their 1-0 home defeat by Wigan last weekend.

Like Mancini, Andre Villas-Boas struggles in the public relations department, the Portuguese caring more than the Italian, which is not difficult.

The Spurs fans miss the free spirit with which Harry Redknapp's team played, AVB preferring a strict 4-2-3-1, though he has promised to use two strikers "quite often if the time is right."

Apart from Barcelona and Real Madrid, which suffered Champions League setbacks this week, Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk are probably playing the best football in Europe right now.

A richly talented Shakhtar, with Brazilians Fernandinho and Willian sublime, were unfortunate to lose 3-2 at Stamford Bridge, a result that underlined the European champions' ability to be outplayed yet still win.

Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard give Chelsea the attacking style owner Roman Abramovich demanded, but defensively the Blues are vulnerable with David Luiz invariably looking like an accident waiting to happen.

Some say Roberto di Matteo is a lucky manager, though his "luck" shows no sign of running out, and those who doubt Chelsea has had to find new ways to admit it was wrong.

Underachieving Liverpool, which is 12th, travels to Stamford Bridge on Sunday with manager Brendan Rodgers already under pressure five months after his appointment.

Liverpool's squad is "very, very small" according to Rodgers and the Anfield regulars, who have already seen four home defeats this season, have started to voice their frustrations.

The six-part behind-the-scenes documentary, Being: Liverpool (and no, I have no idea why the colon is there), was hailed as "groundbreaking" (albeit by the club) but one critic described it as "stage-managed knuckle-eating embarrassment," another claiming "it's so bad it's good" with the scene where Rodgers threatened to send home Raheem Sterling from the pre-season trip to the U.S. because of his attitude doing the manager few favors.

"You say 'steady' again," said Rodgers, "and you'll be on the first plane back."

Apart from manners, Sterling, who is 17 with three children from different mothers, also needs some other advice.

Manchester United visits struggling Aston Villa for an intriguing game that the leaders should win with Javier Hernandez's impressive form as a goal-scoring substitute presenting Sir Alex Ferguson with "the sort of problem I like."

* * *

UNTIL THE FAT lady sings anything can happen, but it will take a monumental effort for the current bottom three clubs in the Premier League — Southampton (four points), Queens Park Rangers (four points) and Reading (five points) — to avoid relegation.

With a quarter of the season played at their current rate they are on course for a tally of 16 points.

After 10 matches last season QPR had 12 points and survived by the skin of their teeth on goal-difference. No doubt all three will look to strengthen their team in the January transfer window, but history suggests they will need to sign Harry Houdini.

* * *

CLATTENGATE rumbles on as the Football Association finalizes their interviews with all the witnesses.

The longer the saga continues the media are fed a drip-drip of leaks from people who have no idea what actually happened on the pitch when referee Mark Clattenburg was accused of calling Chelsea's John Obi Mikel a monkey during the game against Manchester United.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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