On what’s shaping up to be a bittersweet Saturday for Roberto Mancini

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Logic says we should feel sorry for Roberto Mancini in the same way our strings would be tugged by anybody who’s about to be done wrong. But then you remember he’s a grown man. He’s had a hugely successful playing career. Between Inter Milan and Manchester City, he’s had the fortune to manage some incredibly funded and wildly talented teams. And, of course, with his possible exit from Manchester City, he’s brought this upon himself. If Mancini leaves Manchester City, he won’t be done wrong.

Late yesterday, Spanish outlet AS reported Manuel Pellegrini is set to leave Málaga for Manchester, a move that makes sense on a lot of levels. Pellegrini’s been successful almost everywhere he’s gone, including with Champions League-level clubs at Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Málaga. With the Andalusians in financial trouble, Pellegrini’s already hinted he’ll leave, and with Mancini failing to mount a title challenge, a well-respected coach like Pellegrini – one who has never failed to get the most of his talent – would be a boon for an already contending club.

All of which seems harsh on Mancini, especially with reports breaking on the eve of the FA Cup final. If City defeat Wigan (as is expected), Mancini will have produced three trophies in just over three seasons. The club’s now firmly entrenched in Champions League, and with the ability to draw talent like Sergio Aguero, the team has established a certain reputation in world soccer. Mancini’s taken City from a Mark Hughes-level aspirant to a being a major factor.

That, unfortunately, is not enough. City isn’t funded to be merely a major factor, and with the Citizens having failed to mound a meaningful defense of their first Premier League title, other failures come into focus. Mancini has not only failed to make headway in Champions League; their inept performance forces us to look back European struggles at Inter and ask if he’ll ever be able to move the Citizens forward in Europe. Indicting their boss, few players of his players have played their best this season. His tactics are often unduly reactionary, and his new ideas (this year’s early dalliance with a three-man back) have sometimes fallen flat. Combined with a transfer policy that used this year’s resources on the likes of Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, and Maicon, there are enough criticisms to put Mancini’s future in doubt.

Were we talking about somebody other than a Pellegrini – somebody with a well-rounded, practically unimpeachable managerial record – perhaps you could ask whether the grass would actually be greener with a new guy. But now he’s being compared to a man who took Villarreal to a Champions League semifinal and a top two finish in Spain. He has the best winning percentage in Real Madrid history. He had Málaga within seconds of beating Borussia Dortmund. Compared to that, Mancini looks second best.

Sheikh Mansour has proved patient at Manchester City, giving Mark Hughes a long rope before letting Mancini try to make something out of this season. And with a win today, Mancini just might. But a second FA Cup isn’t enough. Manchester United raced away with the league title, City finished fourth in their Champions League group, while the club’s ownership continues to make Manchester City the most well-funded team in England.

If Mancini had kept up with United, perhaps you could make the argument. If they’d better-competed with Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid (and even Ajax) in their Champions League group, you could argue they just had a tough draw. If the money that could have helped defend their Premier League crown wasn’t wasted on Garcia and Rodwell, you wouldn’t have poor decisions underlying their fall. And if Mancini have a better history with his ultra-talented teams, we wouldn’t be seeing a trend, one that forces us to look at Manchester United’s collapse and the state of calciopoli-ravaged Italy when explaining his successes.

For City fans, there is a sentimental attachment to a man that’s on the verge of a third trophy. But he’s not the only man who could have produced these results. And ultimately, he’s not the best man Manchester City could get. The only reason to feel sorry for Mancini is our discussing this an hour before kickoff.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

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LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

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The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as do Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone

VIDEO: Reus scores stunning winner for Dortmund

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BERLIN (AP) Marco Reus scored his first Bundesliga goal of the season to give Borussia Dortmund a 1-0 win at his former team Borussia Moenchengladbach on Sunday.

Reus, Andre Schuerrle and Mario Goetze started for the first time together for Dortmund, and the three Germany teammates were all involved in the 32nd-minute goal.

Goetze played the ball to Schuerrle, who crossed for Reus on the right. Reus looked up and lifted the ball over ‘Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer to score off the underside of the crossbar.

“It was a good goal. I think he wanted to do that,” Sommer said.

Reus, who returned from a serious knee injury last weekend against Hamburger SV, said he wanted to play the ball further to the left “but the important thing is it went in.”

Goalkeeper Roman Buerki was man of the match for producing a string of saves to deny the home side what would have been a deserved equalizer.

Dortmund moved second, 19 points behind Bayern Munich, while ‘Gladbach stayed 10th after its fourth consecutive defeat without scoring.

Dortmund forward Michy Batshuayi failed to score for the first time in four games since his deadline-day switch from Chelsea, though he wasn’t helped by the poor condition of the pitch. Some players lost their footing as the grass gave way.