Soccer: Has the EPL title ever been surrendered so pathetically?

By James Lawton of the Independent

In the long and not always glorious history of football there may have been more disgracefully gutless performances than the one put in by the champions of England at Southampton on Sunday.

There may also have been a more bizarre series of utterances than those which came from the mouth of the man who carried the most direct responsibility, the Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini, but if compelling comparisons are somewhat elusive there is one thing about which we can be certain.

It is that never before can such a miserable example of broken down professionalism, of abandoned self-respect and a total failure to deliver a sliver of value for money (the transfer value of City's starters was approximately 206m pounds, with substitutes James Milner, Alexander Kolarov and Maicon representing another 48m pounds), have provoked less in the way of red-blooded outrage.

Mancini, who before the game lamented the possibility that quite soon very rich men may no longer be able to throw infinite amounts of money at the football team of their choice, did say that "big players" should display rather more convincing evidence that they possess "big balls".

But then given that his extremely expensive team had, in the process of an almost formal defeat by a side whose stars Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert came at a combined cost of less than the year's salary of the missing Carlos Tevez, displayed a collective heart so miniscule the great Bill Shankly would surely have likened it to a caraway seed, it hardly seemed an excessive reaction.

We are told that Mancini will survive at least until the summer, by which time his Abu Dhabi employers might have to conclude that if their rival Roman Abramovich had a well-earned reputation for what might be described as brutal whimsicality, their own had come to occupy precisely the other end of the spectrum.

Sheikh Mansour and his cohorts should have known some time ago that their 1billion pounds-plus investment in City was well on the way to becoming a shocking indictment of an idea nursed so lovingly in the upper echelons of the Premier League. They should have known that they were making a monument not to relentless spending and seamless progress but nightmare entrapment by the prospective demands of Financial Fair Play.

Mancini whined that he had been miserably supported in the summer transfer window and that because of this, rather than a painful lack of evidence that he might be able to develop the force and coherence of by far the strongest squad in the country, his defence of the Premier League title and expansion of hopes in the Champions League had been virtually destroyed.

Another truth was much easier to grasp this last weekend. It is that City have become a parody of a club who might be anywhere near taking their place at the heart of European football. Their dismissal from the Champions League was one shocking development. The tolerance of the Mario Balotelli situation was an affront to professional standards. The reinstatement of Tevez after his Munich mutiny was another compromise to make the flesh crawl. At a vital stage of this season he is absent for family reasons, which are presumably similar to those with which he justified last season's flouting for more than four months of one of the richest contracts in all of football.

After saying that Tevez would never again wear the City shirt, Mancini soon enough agreed that he might well be a powerful asset in the race for the Premier League finish. That, no doubt, helped to deliver City's first title since the one they landed rather more emphatically with the help of Lee, Bell and Summerbee 44 years earlier. But how much should you pay, in money and basic values, for one championship which in less than a year seems as if might have happened in another lifetime?

When Gareth Barry scored his tragi-comic own goal at Southampton he displayed the body language of a zombie. It was also a reasonable way of defining the performance of most of his team-mates. It wasn't a defeat. It was a submission. It was a terrible statement about what happens when a team is separated from any sense that it can still achieve its most basic ambitions.

For many, it was almost entirely the fault of players grossly overpaid and seriously under-motivated. Of course they had their huge responsibilities and it wasn't only Mancini impelled to ask what had happened to the command and the wit of men like Yaya Tour and David Silva? Mancini says: "A player who plays like that should stay at home, not even be on the pitch. I don't want to see a player like we saw on Saturday. Usually, we play well and even when we don't play well, we put everything on the pitch. But we didn't even do that."

No, they didn't, demonstrably not, but then isn't it quite a key part of the manager's job to avoid such disaster. Mancini was recently pictured with his hands reaching for Balotelli's throat. There is another study of him linking hands with Tevez. He is, no doubt, an engaging football man with some notable achievements as both a player and a coach, but this doesn't mean so much now when he has to prove that there is really enough money in the world to make a great football team.

Meanwhile, Sir Alex Ferguson tells us that he sharply strengthened his planned team for the winning game against Everton after watching the City debacle. His reward was a 12-point lead and the latest evidence that his once dangerous rivals surely have to think again.

- THE INDEPENDENT

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