Sometimes football mirrors real life, such as this afternoon when Manchester City host Chelsea at the Etihad.
When corporations don't want to commit to hiring someone on a permanent basis – with all the obligations that entails, from entitlements to redundancy pay to sick leave – they offer a short-term contract. They may suggest that it could turn into a proper job one day, but really it's no more than your high street chains bringing in a few extra hands to help out in December ahead of Christmas.
Hola, Rafa Benitez.
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Or a company may be unsure about an employee. They don't necessarily want to sack him or make him redundant because that would involve a pay-off. Plus, they're not sure there's somebody better on the horizon: the guy they really wanted went to work for a rival German corporation. So they ask him to reapply for his job. Just so, you know, they can evaluate the situation better. Figure out what he actually does. And keep an eye out for better candidates.
Ciao, Roberto Mancini.
Sir Alex Ferguson is going nowhere until he decides to exit stage left. Andre Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers are pretty solid in their current gigs and they fit the omnipresent profile that clubs crave: young, innovative bosses. Arsene Wenger has reiterated that he won't resign and, since Arsenal will tell everyone who will listen he won't be sacked, you have to assume he'll stay at the Emirates. Which means that, among the bigger Premier League clubs, Benitez and Mancini are the two most likely to be replaced. In fact, the rest of the campaign feels much like a three-month audition.
While the ways of Roman Abramovich are infinite and mysterious – rather like that other big man upstairs – it's going to take a major miracle for Benitez to hang on to his job. The man he replaced, Roberto Di Matteo, won 24 points from 12 Premier League games, while Benitez has managed 25 but from 14, and that was with the benefit of Demba Ba, who arrived in January. True, he could yet win the FA Cup and the Europa League, but his performances in cup competitions has been, frankly, horrid.
Chelsea went out of the League Cup after contriving to lose at home to Swansea. They were held by Brentford away and for nearly an hour at home in the FA Cup. And they were outplayed by Sparta Prague in Europe, only advancing because of Eden Hazard's injury-time heroics. Meanwhile, Fernando Torres has shown no signs of improvement (and "fixing" the £50 million man was supposed to be Benitez's unique selling point), the play is no more inspired than before and the fans still hate him.
Benitez is auditioning for a job, though probably not the Chelsea one. Finish the season on a high (win today and they move within a point of City), provide some stability, show some backbone when it comes to John Terry and, hey, someone will take a punt on him at some point.
Mancini, of course, doesn't like suggestions his job might be in jeopardy. "I don't understand it," he told The Guardian on Friday. "Seriously, for what reason? Since May 2011 we have won three trophies, Manchester United two, Chelsea two, Liverpool one. Nobody has won more than us. OK, we made some mistakes, but we have still done a good job surely if, in three years, we finished second, first, second. I have done a good job here."
Fair enough. But understand this. Given Chelsea's dysfunction, Arsenal's tight-fistedness (and Wenger's rigidity) and the long-term building sites that Tottenham and Liverpool have become, finishing second is a bit like being the second-most talented artist in Wham!. And when, on top of this, you get bounced out of the Champions League in the group stage two years running, you won't have much sympathy.
Mancini admits to some mistakes, but also shifts a fair chunk of the blame on to Brian Marwood, the man previously charged with doing the club's buying and selling. He's right, but that doesn't change the fact that – bottom line – City haven't played well. And, while it's true, as he points out, that if they, rather than United, had bought Robin van Persie, they'd be top, they'd presumably also be top if they had bought Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Godzilla and Jesus Christ. But then, so would anyone.
To hang on to his job, two things need to happen. Firstly, nobody whom the owners consider "clearly better" must come along. It's actually a small list, it does not include Jose Mourinho, but it may include the odd left-field candidate. Secondly, and more importantly because it's the bit he can actually control, City need to play well and look impressive. And that's something they've only done in spurts this season.
Barcelona's 2-0 setback away to Milan came as a shock, not least to yours truly, as readers of last week's column will know. It took something of a perfect storm, but, yes, it actually happened. Maybe the warning signs were there, they just went unheeded. Barca have now gone 10 consecutive games without keeping a clean sheet and, once again, we saw that Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique aren't always comfortable with balls hit over the top, especially when they get sucked high up the pitch.
The fact Tito Vilanova wasn't at the game, but watching from a hospital bed in New York City and relaying his instructions from afar probably didn't help either. Barcelona made virtually zero adjustments to Milan's style until deep into the second half. They gave Massimiliano Allegri nothing to think about, apart from their usual, base formation. Even a middling coach would have realised and made some tweaks when it became apparent they simply weren't shooting on goal.
Most of all, we realised, for the umpteenth time, that Messi can paper over many a crack and that, when he's having an off-day – and this was arguably his worst performance in a long time – someone else needs to step up.
But credit Allegri too. It's one thing to design a game plan – deny the space behind, tighten the midfield ("create density" is what he likes to call it) and counter with pace – it's another to get his ragtag troops to buy into it. That takes more than a clever tactician.