If this is to be the end for Roberto Mancini, then what a desperate one: beaten, quite unexpectedly yet entirely deservedly by Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final. After a morning in which his position at Manchester City was placed in extreme doubt, a horrid performance in the afternoon may have extinguished any hopes he had of remaining at the club.
The day just never felt right for Mancini. Reports of Manuel Pellegrini’s supposedly imminent arrival were ill-timed, casting a cloud over the day; his surprising decision to start Joe Hart instead of Costel Pantilimon, who had been nominated as the keeper for the 132nd FA Cup final, hinted at indecision; and a supine performance from his City side was, on such an occasion, inexplicable.
And as Wigan, inspired by the electric Callum McManaman, cut through City once more, Mancini only needed to let his gaze lift upwards at Wembley, where a huge arch bisected the darkening sky, for a symbolic reminder of football’s soaring highs and plunging lows – the totality of his managerial experience at City which could, and perhaps should, be brought to an end.
Cutting a distinctive slash into the London skyline, sweeping up and down over the home of football like a line on a graph, this steel lattice also served as a reminder of the word that doomed Mark Hughes, and may yet Mancini too: ‘trajectory.’
Mancini was clandestinely recruited in December 2009 when City decided that the ‘trajectory’ Hughes had the club travelling on was insufficient for a club of such wealth and ambition. A slight upwards curve was not enough. Three and a half years later, and after a cup final defeat which ensured a trophyless season, Mancini may suffer a similar fate, with Malaga’s Pellegrini next in the line of succession. Life by the sword, death by the sword. And this felt like a death.
Mancini is beloved by City fans - who chanted his name incessantly during the pre-match pageantry and, rather pointedly, sung “you can stick your Pellegrini up your arse” – but the hierarchy may feel he has reached the end of the line. There was not even the masking agent of a final flourish in May to disguise rank underachievement in Europe and disappointment in the league. City have flatlined this season.
Mancini, though he offered a half-hearted defence of his season by claiming only a handful of clubs have had better campaigns than City, nevertheless admitted, “I am disappointed personally, because I used to play to win every year.”
With Mancini failing to bring the best of out of his expensively-assembled group of players with his famously uncompromising managerial style, it seems those who hold the power at the Etihad Stadium – sporting director Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano - have decided that Pellegrini is the man ahead of the curve, not Mancini.
In a rather fractious press conference, he even criticised City for failing to end speculation over his future – “I don’t know why the club didn’t stop this. I don’t think that was correct” – before admitting that, “if [the Pellegrini rumours are] true, we will see in the next two weeks.” He criticised the press for reporting “stupid things”, yet conceded he himself will look rather silly if Pellegrini is indeed appointed. It made for a muddled picture.
If this is to be his final act as City manager – and he remained adamant that “we did a good job in these three years” - his impact at the club will not be forgotten: getting that banner torn down at Old Trafford after winning City's first trophy in 35 years; the 6-1; a first league title in 44 years. But losing this final will be a bitter aftertaste. City simply didn’t turn up.
Wembley witnessed a first half which showcased the best of Wigan. Lining up in what remains an unconventional 3-4-3 formation, for English football at least, Roberto Martinez’s side displayed far superior intelligence and application. First to every loose ball, they continually troubled City with their clever manipulation of the ball and dangerous movement. Callum McManaman was a chaotic influence on the right, tricking his way past Gael Clichy on numerous occasions and failing to convert with two fantastic opportunities.
Shaun Maloney, operating intelligently between the lines as usual, carved out two chances of his own while Roger Espinoza, patrolling the left, could have won a penalty when he went to ground under a challenge from Pablo Zabaleta after 34 minutes. City only attacked in spurts, Yaya Toure lacking his usual menace at Wembley, though they had greater potency in front of goal with only a fine save from the toe of Joel Robles preventing Carlos Tevez from putting his side in front.
A strangely limp performance from City went unaddressed after the break as McManaman’s reign of terror continued. Having already attracted bookings for Pablo Zabaleta and Matija Nastasic, the winger surged through the middle to draw Zabaleta into a horribly clumsy foul and the Argentine was shown a second yellow to become only the third man to be dismissed in an FA Cup final after Kevin Moran and Jose Antonio Reyes.
That McManaman was the man of the match, by some distance, felt fitting. A youth team graduate, he has had some raw but thrilling performances cajoled out of him by an enthusiastic Martinez. His season will be marked by that awful challenge on Massimo Haidara, but this was a blinding reminder that a devastating player lurks inside him.
As Martinez put it: "I have always said Callum McManaman is one of the diamonds of English football. He doesn't care about wearing the best shoes or driving the best car, but give him a football and he's happy.”
It was fitting, too, that Maloney claimed the assist just as the clock moved over into injury time. Martinez recently said the Scottish playmaker could “play in any team”, and his corner was perfect, dropping onto the head of Ben Watson who diverted it past Hart and inside the far post.
Martinez, who dodged questions over his own future and possible interest from Everton, even had time to pay tribute to the under-siege Mancini. “That’s the nature of being at a big club,” he said of the Pellegrini reports. “I have incredible respect for Roberto Mancini – what he has done in the last three years is remarkable. I only have admiration for him. Whatever happens around the football club is unfortunately what a manager has to accept at a top club.”
Mancini, though, may not have to suffer it for much longer.