Eli­aquim Man­gala shrugs off in­fa­mous TV slur and tells Ja­son Burt how he has be­come vi­tal to City’s cause

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For a player who is so self-aware – and who can be so self-crit­i­cal – Eli­aquim Man­gala has faced bru­tal anal­y­sis since he joined Manch­ester City. It cul­mi­nated in this com­ment from the striker-turned-BBC-pun­dit Chris Sut­ton: “You can­not give some­body a brain and that’s Man­gala’s prob­lem. He can run, he’s strong – but de­fend­ing is all about de­ci­sion-mak­ing.”

Asked about the crit­i­cism, Man­gala says: “I think ev­ery­one has the right to make a com­ment, that’s what foot­ball is all about. But there is a line that you go up to. I think it’s fair to crit­i­cise peo­ple’s per­for­mances on the field but if you re­fer to stuff that’s not to do with on-field ac­tiv­ity then, maybe, it’s a lack of re­spect. When a lack of re­spect is shown then it goes be­yond the nor­mal sit­u­a­tion. That makes it dif­fer­ent.”

Man­gala knows crit­i­cism goes with the ter­ri­tory. He plays for City, he plays for his country, he cost £42 mil­lion. He ex­pects it. He ac­cepts it and does not com­plain about it and deals with it thought­fully. “Be­cause peo­ple ex­pect more when you play for Manch­ester City, when you play for a top team and when your price is ex­pen­sive,” Man­gala says.

“But that does not mean you don’t have re­spect for the player. It’s fine to crit­i­cise the per­for­mance but there is that limit. And that’s it. Every­body has to re­spect what we do. Crit­i­cise for the per­for­mance. No prob­lem.”

Man­gala’s re­sponse, as he sits in­side City’s train­ing ground ahead of to­mor­row’s ea­gerly-an­tic­i­pated Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal first leg at home to Real Madrid, is not said in ir­ri­ta­tion ei­ther. He is clearly and hon­estly – in per­fect English, hav­ing mas­tered the lan­guage within two years of be­ing signed from Porto, only oc­ca­sion­ally laps­ing into French – stat­ing his case.

Just as he has done with his re­cent per­for­mances, not least in the quar­ter-fi­nal sec­ond leg when he played so com­mand­ingly to shut out the Paris St-Ger­main strike­force of Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic, Edin­son Ca­vani and Án­gel di María, and help earn City a clean sheet and pas­sage into the last four of Europe’s most pres­ti­gious com­pe­ti­tion. It felt like a big mo­ment for him, a com­ing of age as a cen­tral de­fender, as well as for the club.

Man­gala took to so­cial me­dia af­ter the PSG match. “We did it! Amaz­ing feel­ing! Al­ready fo­cused on the next game but thank you @chris­sut­ton09 for the mo­ti­va­tion tonight”, he tweeted. There was hashtag ‘clean­sheet’ and a smil­ing face and there are plenty of smiles from Man­gala dur­ing this in­ter­view as he ex­plains the oth­er­wise se­ri­ous busi­ness of try­ing to be the best de­fender he can be.

“It is very im­por­tant to get a clean sheet,” he says. “It’s like a striker scor­ing a goal. The first thing – avoid con­ced­ing. Don’t con­cede. My job is to de­fend my goal­keeper. I can say it’s my life on the pitch and I play for that. OK, I know Joe [Hart] is there but first I have to help make sure he has to make as few saves as pos­si­ble. I have to pro­tect him.”

Man­gala, like a num­ber of lead­ing play­ers, such as Romelu Lukaku, also uses a spe­cialised com­pany – in ad­di­tion to the video anal­y­sis pro­vided by City – to send him be­spoke de­tails of how he has per­formed.

“I have a pro­gramme,” he ex­plains. “They send me clips – clips of my per­for­mances analysing spe­cific things that I do, in­ci­dents.

“When I see my clips, I am fo­cus­ing on my po­si­tions; what I am do­ing, what’s to my left, right, in front of me, how I deal with coun­ter­at­tacks. There are so many things. Of course, it’s what you see af­ter you have time. You can press the pause but­ton. Stop the video and I can see.

“There are so many ac­tions that can hap­pen in foot­ball that you need to an­tic­i­pate. So, I can say to my­self, ‘Ah, I know this ac­tion be­cause it hap­pened then and then’. I can see what I did wrong and right and games later I can re­mem­ber, an­a­lyse and deal with it. It’s im­por­tant to do that af­ter ev­ery game.”

He watches ev­ery game again. “Some­times I watch them twice,” Man­gala ex­plains. “I an­a­lyse what I have to do and I am the first to crit­i­cise my­self. So, I don’t have a prob­lem with other peo­ple crit­i­cis­ing me.”

The in­sight into the prepa­ra­tion and work he does is all the more in­ter­est­ing in that the scru­tiny he has faced – not least from an­a­lysts such as Sut­ton – has cen­tred on his read­ing of the game, con­cen­tra­tion and de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

In­ter­est­ingly, though, Opta statis­tics show that Man­gala’s pass­com­ple­tion rate of 87.76 per cent is the sixth-best of de­fend­ers in the Premier League.

In­jury free and in an im­pres­sive vein of form, Man­gala, 25, be­lieves the best is yet to come and may

even still be a cou­ple of years off for him. “It’s good for me, phys­i­cally and men­tally, but I think for a de­fender the best mo­ment is be­tween 28 and 32 years old be­cause of ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says.

“You have learnt the po­si­tion and are able to tell play­ers to come here, cover there and maybe not to be so in­volved in the phys­i­cal side of it. Twenty-five – I am lucky be­cause I started young. I am lucky be­cause I have played for big teams as a de­fender. Most de­fend­ers in big teams are older.”

Hav­ing started his ca­reer in Bel­gium with Stan­dard Liege, where he made his de­but aged 17, and hav­ing played in Por­tu­gal, Man­gala read­ily ac­cepts that the Premier League is “to­tally dif­fer­ent”; some­thing of a cul­ture shock, in fact, even for a phys­i­cally pow­er­ful player such as him. “For ex­am­ple, if you com­pare the game we played against PSG to the one we played against New­cas­tle [1-1 draw at St James’ Park] on Tues­day – the in­ten­sity,” Man­gala says.

“Against New­cas­tle, I have never jumped in a game so much in my life. Jumped for head­ers, chal­lenges. Ev­ery time. Against PSG it was more tac­ti­cal and it was very dif­fer­ent. Against New­cas­tle it was: fight, chal­lenge, fight. In the Cham­pi­ons League, you have to con­cen­trate more be­cause it is more tac­ti­cal. With one mis­take you can lose the game. In the Premier League you can maybe make more mis­takes be­cause there are more chal­lenges, more en­ergy, the ball comes back more of­ten. But you have to be ready to go from the first minute to the last minute to fight, fight, fight [he punches the palm of his hand].

“I en­joy it, it’s ex­cit­ing to be in­volved in this kind of game as well. You have to adapt, you have to de­cide very quickly and the ref­eree is also not the same. Play on! You think, ‘Oh, that’s not a foul?’ But you get used to it.”

And he has got used to it. Af­ter a dif­fi­cult first sea­son, when he ac­cepts the crit­i­cism of him was largely jus­ti­fied, af­ter be­ing out for long pe­ri­ods this cam­paign through in­jury, Man­gala is fit and thriv­ing.

“I had a few phys­i­cal prob­lems that stopped me a bit from im­prov­ing,” he says. “But now I feel con­fi­dent and I think peo­ple can see that out on the pitch. The truth is al­ways out on the pitch. I feel free, I feel con­fi­dent and I want to help the team to win more games.” City have not done enough of that this sea­son, how­ever. It could still end in glory, with this Cham­pi­ons League cam­paign, but it has been dis­ap­point­ing as well in the league, even if they won the Cap­i­tal One Cup.

“The Premier League this sea­son has been very strange,” Man­gala says. “You think some teams will be cham­pi­ons and then you see what Le­ices­ter, Tot­ten­ham and West Ham have done. They have been bril­liant. But we have had so many key in­juries at the same time and it’s been very hard.

“We have not had the same team all sea­son, which is also be­cause we have had so many games. It meant we could not play prop­erly in the FA Cup be­cause we had to play the Cham­pi­ons League and, nor­mally, the FA Cup is very im­por­tant for our team.

“For some games, also, we have not done so well. To win some­thing we have to be more con­sis­tent – es­pe­cially in the Premier League. We can’t just start well and then not con­tinue that with one good game, one game not. There have been games when other teams have been bet­ter than us. We ad­mit that and it hap­pens. But we have not been as good as we have wanted to be. We have tried but we can do bet­ter. Now we have to be fo­cused on our goal.”

That starts with to­mor­row’s tie against Real Madrid which Man­gala calls the “big­gest game I will have been in­volved in”. “We get ex­cited,” he says of the play­ers – not just the sup­port­ers – as he rel­ishes the tie. “First, it’s like a dream. When you are young, you see the play­ers on the TV. Play­ers in the semi-fi­nal and fi­nal of the Cham­pi­ons League and you think, ‘Maybe one day I’m go­ing to be in­volved in this kind of game’. And now this is a re­al­ity. So, it’s a good mo­ment for me.

“It’s emo­tional as well. It’s very ex­cit­ing to play in the semi-fi­nal be­cause there are so many play­ers who never get the chance to do that in their ca­reers. I’m very happy to say I will have been in­volved in a semi-fi­nal of the Cham­pi­ons League.

“I am here to help Manch­ester City be in­volved in this par­tic­u­lar kind of game and now, in my sec­ond sea­son, it’s a chance for us to reach the fi­nal.”

It is also a chance for City to con­firm their sta­tus among Europe’s elite. “It’s his­toric for the club,” Man­gala says. “For a few years, the team has tried to ar­rive and be among the big teams – Real Madrid, Bay­ern Mu­nich. To be among th­ese kind of op­po­nents at this stage says we are one of the big four teams in Europe.

“We can prove our­selves. We are good enough to say we de­serve to be where we are. So, it’s im­por­tant now that we play for each other, as we al­ways try to do. You have to have the spirit as a team if you want to fight to play against other big teams. Against PSG we played like a big team with big play­ers. A big team. It was an im­por­tant mo­ment.”

Man­gala, who was born in Paris, is well aware of the com­par­i­son be­tween Abu Dhabiowned City and Qatari-owned PSG and their rel­a­tive am­bi­tion. “Their project was a lit­tle later [than City’s] but they have not man­aged to get past the quar­ter­fi­nals,” he says.

“The com­par­i­son was al­ways made that we had started be­fore but had never got to the quar­ter­fi­nal and now we are in the semi­fi­nal. So, now we have just three games to win the Cham­pi­ons League.

“And that is the am­bi­tion. If it does not hap­pen this sea­son it will hap­pen even­tu­ally. If we play like we played against PSG then we can beat many teams … and Real Madrid are a big team with lots of big play­ers who are used to play­ing in the semi-fi­nals and in the fi­nal. They are very, very good on the counter-at­tack with the three for­wards – Cris­tiano, Ben­zema and Bale. So, we have to be ready with the same spirit. As a team, we are very strong.”

Man­gala is now a key player in the heart of City’s de­fence. “My first mo­ti­va­tion is my per­sonal mo­ti­va­tion,” he says. “Then I play for my fam­ily and peo­ple who sup­port me. And then I want to win. I live to win. That’s my phi­los­o­phy. Ev­ery time I go to train­ing. Ev­ery time I am in the gym and when I am out on the pitch. It’s the same thing. I am am­bi­tious.”

‘I have a pro­gramme – they send me clips of my per­for­mances analysing things I do. Some­times I watch a game twice’

Tower of strength: Eli­aquim Man­gala keeps Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic un­der wraps

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