MANCHESTER // Surveying his lengthy injury list, Roberto Mancini resembled less the manager of a football club preparing for a clash with Chelsea and more an overworked doctor at a particularly busy hospital. Yet, among the familiar array of hamstring, knee and ankle problems, the Italian was especially eager to avert an outbreak of another ailment. English footballers appear especially vulnerable to too-much-too-young syndrome, brief glimpses of promise producing the dangerous cocktail of fame and wealth that can lead to laziness or arrogance.
Those are not accusations that tend to be levelled at Adam Johnson, 23. However, he was a surprise inclusion in an otherwise second-string Manchester City side who were eliminated from the Carling Cup by West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday. It suggests that, while the first 11 were rested, the winger will rank among the substitutes for today's meeting with the champions. This is his manager's chosen prescription, a reminder that, after being anointed the saviour of English football for scoring in successive internationals earlier this month, there is scope for him to advance further.
"Adam is a young player who can improve a lot," Mancini said. "Sometimes when young players reach the top, they are finished. Adam has a good attitude and quality but when you arrive at the top you must stay there, always. I think Adam can have a top career but he must work hard." It is the voice of experience. Mancini debuted in Serie A as a precociously gifted 16-year-old striker for Bologna but played for two decades.
He attributes his longevity to two managers at Sampdoria. "When I started my career, I didn't work hard," he said. "I thought if you have good quality, you can play for a top team and at the maximum level. But if you don't work every day, you don't improve. I worked with Vujadin Boskov [the Serb who won the 1991 Italian title with Sampdoria] and Sven-Goran Eriksson [the decorated Swedish manager] for many years. These two managers changed my mind."
The tough love shown to Johnson is typical; Mancini's double training sessions have become part of City's culture. Recently, however, they have been attended by a decreasing number of players. A host of absentees means the composition of the back four is a problem. "We have no defenders," said Mancini. It was not much of an exaggeration: Wayne Bridge, Aleksandar Kolarov and Micah Richards are out, Joleon Lescott - not fit to play 90 minutes, according to his manager - and Jerome Boateng, who is yet to make his debut, are doubts. The Italian has ruled out deploying a midfielder such as Gareth Barry or James Milner as an auxiliary defender; instead, should they be required, a rookie like Dedryck Boyata or Greg Cunningham will be trusted.
"Our players are not worse than Chelsea's players," Mancini said. "We have only one problem; we have many players injured." The battle of the nouveau riche on the field is a meeting of old friends off it. Mancini and Carlo Ancelotti were rival managers in Milan but teammates for the Azzurri before then. "It is a great relationship," the City manager said. "I played with Carlo in national team many times. He is fantastic. His character and his behaviour are always very calm but he understands football very well."
He hopes, too, that his treatment of Johnson will demonstrate his own understanding of the demands the game places on young players. firstname.lastname@example.org