There's a scene in The Four-Year Plan, Mat Hodgson's wonderful behind-the-scenes documentary about Queens Park Rangers' quest to reach the Premier League, in which then-manager Paulo Sousa meets the owners to explain his team's poor results. Sousa, a double Champions League winner with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, outstretches his palms and bemoans players' individual errors. He is fighting a losing battle.
His excuse was not good enough for major shareholder Flavio Briatore, who sacked him and complained that he, like Iain Dowie before him -- and Jim Magilton, Paul Hart and Mick Harford after -- was "another bloody idiot."
(Talking of idiots, at one stage Briatore demands the names of all the fans booing him, and if not, threatens to withdraw his £35 million investment.)
Earlier in the season, it seemed unthinkable that Roberto Mancini might need to have a similar conversation with his bosses this summer. After Manchester City beat Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford last October, City were five points clear at the top. That gap lasted only five weeks, as it narrowed after City lost 2-1 at Chelsea in Round 15. Since then, there has never been more than three points between the top two and last week, for the first time in 20 weeks, United regained top spot.
After thrashing Wolves 5-0 on Sunday, United are four points clear and now needs eight wins and a draw at City on April 30 to secure a 20th league title, extending its own record for most titles (Liverpool is second with 18). The Premier League title has taken on added spice since both Manchester clubs were knocked out of the Europa League last week; United at Athletic Bilbao and City, more surprisingly, to Sporting Lisbon.
After that game, Mancini gave two insights into what he could tell Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the club's owner, if he ends the season without a trophy. The first, told to match broadcasters ESPN after the game, was the opposite approach to Sousa: "In the first half we didn't play, but I am the manager and it's not the players' fault, but mine - I probably made a mistake. The players did everything, and fought on the pitch."
This is not the first, or even the second, time Mancini has taken responsibility for a City defeat. He did it last season after City lost 3-0 at Liverpool, and then again in January after a league defeat at Everton. As the Daily Mail's Dominic King pointed out, on both occasions, City responded and won its next game: first the FA Cup semifinal against Manchester United; then a league game against Fulham. With the team facing a buoyant Chelsea side on Wednesday night, has Mancini resorted to an old distraction tactic that has worked for him in the past?
In the news conference after the game, the Italian presented a more likely argument to defend himself were City to end the season empty-handed. He compared City's situation to when he joined Lazio as a player in 1997. "I think we can draw parallels with that Lazio and this Man City," he said.
"This team has been assembled in the same way as Lazio in the late 1990s.
This City has a great future though and the fact that we're having to fight with United is something special. We have made mistakes so far, but that's normal for a team that is growing up like ourselves."
In that first season, under coach and mentor Sven-Goran Eriksson, Mancini helped the club change its mentality, its playing style, and end its trophy drought: Lazio won the Coppa Italia for the first time for 40 years (compared to City's 35-year trophy drought), though it lost the Uefa Cup final to Internazionale.
In his second full season, Lazio led Serie A for much of the campaign, and at one stage had a seven-point lead over AC Milan. Mancini was leading the way, and among his 10 goals was a back-heeled effort against Parma, and a similar one against Roma. But on the penultimate day of the season, Lazio drew at Fiorentina and AC Milan overtook it, beating Empoli before winning at Perugia on the final day for a famous Scudetto win. Four days earlier, Lazio had consoled itself with a European Cup Winners' Cup final win over Real Mallorca -- something that Mancini and City, following its Europa League knockout by Sporting, won't be able to replicate.
It was year three when it all came together for Eriksson's Lazio: Marcelo Salas was top scorer while goals from Sebastian Veron (eight) and Sinisa Mihajlovic (seven), helped. Lazio won its last four matches to seal the Scudetto, its first since 1974, in its centenary year. Mancini, incidentally, played 20 games but did not score, though he did net three in the Coppa Italia, as Lazio became only the fourth Italian team to win the double.
"The comparison with Lazio makes sense," Federico Farcomeni, an Italian radio journalist for Radio Manà Sport, told SI.com. "Both were relatively young sides [Lazio's average age was 26.2, compared to City's 25.3] but the challenge Mancini has had at Sampdoria and Lazio as a player, and at Internazionale as a coach, was that all three were the underdogs in their respective cities -- Genoa, Rome and Milan -- when he first joined. By the time he left them, each one had been successful. This season Mancini wants to prove the power has shifted in Manchester and in Italy, the perception of City has already changed: all the sports shows focus on them and they are in fashion now. Everyone in Italy wants to see Mancini and Mario Balotelli succeed in the Premier League."
Soon after Mancini was appointed City coach, he explained that this was why the job appealed to him. "The most exciting thing is to win with a team which has not won for a long time," he told So Foot magazine. That's what he did with Sampdoria: turning down the chance to join bigger clubs until 15 years after his debut, he joined Lazio. He's also done something similar as a coach: "I managed teams that were not winning like Fiorentina, Lazio or Inter and I won with them. I am not saying that I wouldn't like to manage Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Barcelona," he added. "But those clubs win all the time. It's almost too easy."
There will be nothing easy about City's title challenge if they falter against Chelsea on Wednesday. But when it comes to whether Mancini will have to fight to keep his job if City end the season trophy-less -- and all the signs from City, who must surely have learned something from Roman Abramovich's nine Chelsea coaches in as many years, suggest that it prefers the long-term game -- the example he will surely give will be that of Lazio.
The Italian side got it right in year three. Mancini will insist he deserves one more year.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.