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Future's unclear for City building project

DAY 514 of the great Manchester City project was one of contemplation.

There was the hangover from the dramatic, but ultimately deflating, night before and there was also the meek departure of Robinho, the £34.2m man whose acquisition was supposed to herald the club's emergence as football's new superpower.

Let us call it the end of the beginning for City under the ownership of Sheikh Mansour. A chapter ended last month with the controversial dismissal of Mark Hughes as manager and his replacement by Roberto Mancini, but, with Robinho returning to Brazil to rejoin Santos on loan yesterday, less than 24 hours after the club had suffered yet more heartbreak at the hands of Manchester United in the Carling Cup semi-final, this was the end of act one, exit stage left, to the familiar sound of catcalls at Old Trafford.

So where do City go from here? The easy answer is a Premier League game at home to Portsmouth on Sunday -- the perfect opportunity to reiterate their ambitions to qualify for next season's Champions League. That, rather than winning the Carling Cup, has become the overriding priority in City's bid to persuade a sceptical world to take them seriously. But Wednesday was a setback.

If stage one in the City project -- as laid out by chief executive Garry Cook -- was to "own Manchester", it is clear that United, despite problems of their own, will not make life easy for them.

For as long as City are kept at arm's length by United and the rest of the establishment, Cook's soundbites are going to be thrown back at him.

Last week, addressing City supporters in a New York bar, it was "not if, but when, we are at Wembley, having beaten Man United yet again" and "this football club is, without doubt, going to be the biggest and best football club in the world".





BOASTS

As a chief executive, Cook has far more to offer than boasts and big talk, but by all accounts his words last week infuriated United boss Alex Ferguson, who was determined to deny City their first significant final since 1981.

City competed well over both legs of the semi-final, but they were beaten by a better, stronger team -- one who knows how to win trophies and are driven by the desire to win more. In their two encounters at Old Trafford this season, City have lost to goals scored in stoppage time. City's supporters can rail about 'Fergie time', but it is no coincidence which of these teams score dramatic late goals in the big matches and which find themselves on the receiving end.

Hughes felt the absence of a "winning mentality" was his biggest problem at City -- along with Robinho, a player whose heart and mind were never in Manchester. It is Mancini's job to solve both those problems and, having first talked of helping Robinho to become "part of the club's history", he has come to the same solution as Hughes.

As for the winning mentality, Patrick Vieira's experience was meant to rub off on his new team-mates, but the 33-year-old ex-Arsenal captain has yet to kick a ball since arriving at the club from Inter Milan on a six-month contract three weeks ago.

There may be some activity before the transfer window closes on Monday but, with lessons learnt from the regrettable Robinho experience, the focus will be on the defence -- apart from the pursuit of the young Middlesbrough winger Adam Johnson.

For now, top-class attacking talents, such as Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, Franck Ribery and Angel Di Maria, remain in the realm of fantasy signings, as does Yaya Toure, the Barcelona midfield player, even if his brother, Kolo, is, for now at least, the City captain.

City will continue to think big -- bruised but unbowed by rejections over the past 18 months in their high-profile pursuits of Kaka, Ronaldinho, John Terry, David Villa, Samuel Eto'o and, if whispers are to be believed, Torres.

But what they need is to achieve Champions League qualification.

With vast resources, an ambitious but unproven club can sign a certain calibre of player -- Gareth Barry, Shaun Wright-Phillips and, to the astonishment of many, Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Robinho, who seemed to have little say in the matter -- but further high-class upgrades will be difficult unless City can offer the incentive of Champions League football at the City of Manchester Stadium next season.





STRUGGLING

With Liverpool still struggling to shrug off their mid-season malaise, an opportunity exists for City to shake up the Premier League's top order and get into the top four.

The FA Cup -- for which they are second-favourites behind Chelsea -- represents another realistic target. But, in the space of 24 hours, one trophy has slipped through their grasp and their trophy player has disappeared to Brazil.

It is not crisis time by any means, but Mancini, like Cook and Mansour, has much to ponder as the much-hyped project enters phase two.