The light was briefly restored to Roberto Mancini’s eyes when, towards the end of a press conference in which he didn’t much look like a man ready to conquer Europe, he was reminded of his youngest son’s verdict on the differences between himself and Jose Mourinho.
"Mi padre sabe mas de futbol que Mourinho," ("My father knows more about football than Mourinho,") the 20-year-old Andrea Mancini had ventured – his current struggle to make inroads into a football career at Valladolid suggesting that causing offence to the Real Madrid manager carries no material risks.
For good measure, the young Mancini also believes that "Mou" lacks his father's experience as a player, and is "more psychological; more of a motivator".
"I think it is normal," Mancini Snr said, not entirely diplomatically, when a Marca journalist put this to him. "If you talk with Mourinho's sons, they say the same. My son has his opinion. I respect his opinion."
The truth is that Mancini needs all the advocates he can get as Europe comes around – even one whose sole senior outing in England was a five-minute substitute's appearance in the Johnstone's Paints Trophy for Oldham, to whom City loaned the manager's son last season before dad ruthlessly released him.
Mancini Snr also said yesterday that City's do-or-die Champions League tie at the Etihad Stadium was "not Mourinho against Mancini, but City against Real Madrid". However, where European competition is concerned it really has been no contest between the Italian and the Portuguese, two years his senior.
Not only is Mourinho's Champions League win ratio 54.5 per cent compared to Mancini's 50 per cent (see panel, below), but the Portuguese was the man whom Internazionale courted in the spring of 2008 after Champions League elimination to Liverpool at the last-16 stage convinced the club's proprietor, Massimo Moratti, that Mancini would never deliver the big prize.
Mourinho delivered it to San Siro within 15 months. There was no sarcasm when Mancini said ahead of Mourinho's 100th Champions League tie as manager in Manchester tonight: "Congratulations to him. To do 100 caps at his age is very important." But there was no warmth, either.
Why has Mourinho eclipsed him? Because being "more of a motivator" is a more valuable asset than Andrea Mancini gives credit for on these big nights. Because there is a feeling that his deep craving for success in the competition exceeds the Italian's.
One of the surprising aspects of Mancini's discussion with the media in the Far East in July, was his disclosure that he considered retaining the Premier League title to be a higher priority than Europe.
Of course, Mancini has had City's poor Uefa coefficient to contend with, pitching him from last season's group of death to this. But since the City manager was eulogising yesterday about Cristiano Ronaldo's extraordinary consistency, it is worth reflecting on the way that City's big names have faded on these big European occasions. Yaya Touré has not been the same force of nature; neither has Carlos Tevez, who made City hostages to fortune by declaring yesterday that Lionel Messi, and not Ronaldo, was the best player in the world.
Mancini might also have expected at least one of his strikers to emerge as a dominant figure on the European stage by now, but Sergio Aguero has done little and while last season's group campaign was dominated by the saga which suggested Tevez's City days were numbered, this autumn provides an increasing sense that Mancini considers Mario Balotelli beyond redemption.
What Mancini said on this subject yesterday was not new but the way he said it was. "Sometimes he doesn't understand what his job is and how his job is important for his life, but I hope for him that he can understand this quickly," the manager said. "Now he is 22 but life can go quickly and I hope he can… understand that to be like [Ronaldo] you should work hard, your mind should be always on your job, not on the other things that are not important. I am very sorry for him for this." A Balotelli back injury was being assessed last night. Gaël Clichy is out with an ankle problem.
Ten minutes after the press conference, one of those games of keep-ball was being staged for the benefit of the cameras on the training ground and when Balotelli, in the course of trying to get the ball back, ended up on his backside, to the wild amusement of his team-mates, you felt by the look on his face that he could easily have got very angry. Gareth Barry wisely defused the situation – "I think he's smiling," he said – and the press visit to training quickly ended, but you saw in that instant what Mancini is up against.
Tevez's presence at yesterday's press conference shows that you never know when there might be a way back, even though the body language between the Argentine and his manager – no eye contact – suggested that this is a relationship of convenience. Mancini, tracksuited and with whistle around his neck, checked his watch as Tevez spoke and looked like a man for whom this appearance was an intrusion on the precious few hours left to prepare. Mourinho, appearing eight hours later, looked like he had all the time in the world.
Champions League: Head-to-head
J Mourinho P 99 W 54 D 25 L 20 Win% 54.4
R Mancini P 50 W 25 D 12 L 13 Win% 50.0