Reds look to fulfil Mancini's erratic prophecy

Posted by guest on August 26, 2012, 10:48:54 AM

The room remained silent, but the expression of Roberto Mancini was unyielding. "I think Liverpool will fight for the title this year because they bought good players," the Manchester City manager told his captive audience at Friday's press conference. "They have a good manager; they change their style of play." The Italian is gaining a reputation for wild predictions and wacky prophecies. No matter the points difference between his City side and Manchester United last season, the Italian maintained his side were the underdogs in the title race. If you approached him moments after Sergio Aguero's divine intervention in the final minute of the final day, he probably still would have tied red ribbons around the Premier League trophy.

His face remained straight. It always does. That's not to say Mancini did see his side as underdogs; that's not to say he actually believes Liverpool can challenge for the championship in Brendan Rodgers' first season at the club. With just one throwaway soundbite, he transfers pressure on to Liverpool ahead of Sunday's game at Anfield. Maybe Liverpool can challenge for the title, they'll say; a draw isn't so bad for Manchester City after all. A win at Anfield might even be exceeding expectations. The Liverpool manager was in no mood to play along.

"We've got a bit of work to do of course, there's absolutely no doubt about that. I think with all due respect, we're still playing catch up," said Rodgers a day after his side beat Hearts 1-0. "I've been looking at a lot of the squads that have been assembled over the past few years and we're playing catch up."

Manchester City have quite the head start. Though the absence of Sergio Aguero is a blow to Mancini, the pain is somewhat subsided with the reinforcements. £27m striker Edin Dzeko made City believe with his equaliser on the drama of the final day; £24m forward Mario Balotelli, with mercurial madness and unlimited talent, single-handedly took Germany apart in the Euro 2012 semi-final. There's also Carlos Tevez who, with golf clubs in the attic and football boots on, is one of the best players in the league.

The wealth of talent doesn't stop there, which might give some explanation as to why the club have spent just £12m so far this summer – around £15m less than Liverpool. That's a luxury City can afford when they have such a head start over most teams in the division. Mancini will not buy for the sake of spending money, though he might have buyer's remorse after spending £12m on Jack Rodwell, presumably with the sole intention of discovering what he actually does.

But Mancini could have spent more. He still could. Manchester City want another centre back; they want Liverpool's Daniel Agger. Maybe there is some sincerity to heralding Liverpool as title contenders after all. Rumours the club were also looking at Agger's defensive partner Martin Skrtel refused to go away until the Slovakian signed a new contract; Glen Johnson and Lucas would fit nicely into their squad, and no club would turn down the opportunity to sign Steven Gerrard or Luis Suarez. The true gulf in quality lies in the depth of the two squads.

Agger will be suspended for Sunday's game, but the other four will be expected to start after being rested against Hearts. Rodgers knows they will have to be at their best if Liverpool are to make good on the vision he has of Anfield. It's not quite Shankly's bastion of invincibility, but with only six home wins last season, it's time to make Anfield the fortress once more.

"We know if we're going to finish with any sort of success this year, then we want to win as many of them [home games] as we possibly can," said Rodgers. "Manchester City are the benchmark, they are the champions, so we understand it's going to be a really difficult game, but my players are really focused and looking forward to the game. Anfield is somewhere this season we want to make a real fortress and there's no better game to start that than playing the champions at home."

How fickle fate can be, and how much time can change circumstance. Manchester City also provided the opposition for the first home game of another Liverpool manager. But Rafa Benitez did not encounter Tevez, Toure and Kompany in 2004; the class of eight years previous were not the champions. It was Anelka, Fowler and Distin proving troublesome and, after that, not much else: Ben Thatcher was at left back, Paul Bosvelt in midfield, Stuart Pearce in the dugout and only a miracle to the tune of moon turning blue before Manchester City would lift the Premier League title. Enter Sheikh Mansour. Liverpool won that game in 2004 2-1 and would lose only three at Anfield that season. In the first stage of his renovation of the football club, the savvy Rodgers would take both those results right now. He knows how difficult it will be.

"Every game at this level is difficult so you have to be at your best. And that's all we ever ask if we lose a game - we're just hoping the other team had to be at their best to win," he said. "Last weekend, we could have had that day 1,000 times over and it couldn't have worked out any worse for us in every sort of way; the response I've seen from the players for when they come in has been outstanding, they're really concentrated and focused on moving on."

Benitez had one luxury that Rodgers doesn't: the opportunity of winning the Champions League. Fenway Sports Group made it clear this summer that the club's league position is priority; though only two games in, a defeat would see the team at the bottom of the table. The publishing of any table should be banned before November, but there's no accounting for hysteria in the modern game. Rodgers will want the win against the champions on Sunday; three points, two games in, would see them level on points with both City and United. It could even make Mancini think twice about his erratic predictions for the season ahead.


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