City manager Roberto Mancini out to upset Manchester's established order
It would be inflammatory for him to say so, publicly, at this moment, but Roberto Mancini does have a significant memory of the moment he stood in Sir Alex Ferguson's office in the aftermath of his side demolishing Manchester United 6-1 last October. It is that the Glaswegian looked tired.
The image is a potent one: Ferguson, the wheezy, weary slugger, on the ropes, and Mancini, the young challenger, as lithe as the pipe-smoking sailor – the symbol of his beloved Sampdoria – whose tattoo he carries on his right leg. (He once said he might add the City eagle to his left, when they clinched the title).
The problem with this characterisation, of course, is that Ferguson remains remarkably light on his feet. How typical of his grasp and love of modernity that when a question cropped up last Thursday about financial fair play – the rather grey topic which Mancini has tended to brush away – Ferguson should, minus the legalese, pinpoint what the lawyers call "related party transactions". Some of the best minds in the business agree this could create a loophole around Uefa's system to rein in spending.
Yet as he stands on a threshold today, Mancini has good reasons to believe that he can dethrone the defending champion. His entire footballing career has been predicated on delivering that kind of impact to the established order and it is why he came here in the first place. "One of the things that attracted me to City was the chance to change their history," Mancini said this weekend. "This has always been the way in my football life. I like a challenge. There are some managers who go to a club that is already set up to win, because it has top players, but for me it is different. I have always gone to clubs who haven't won anything for a long time. Winning trophies is important everywhere – whether it is Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester City – but when you win with a club like City you change history as well and that would give me a greater sense of satisfaction. For over 40 years they haven't won the league championship so if we do it, it will be better than at a club that is used to winning titles..."
It was the same at Sampdoria, a club Mancini devoted 15 years of his life marshalling into a European force. Captain, tactician, kit designer, organiser of the legendary team lunches at La Piedigrotta restaurant on the Genoese quayside: he became such a fundamental part of that club's fabric that when Sven Goran Eriksson flew to Monte Carlo to be interviewed for the manager's job in 1992, he found president Paolo Mantovani, Mancini and Gianluca Vialli were all on the panel.
Mancini is, one who has observed him told me last year, "the blue blood who lives as a commoner". That didn't ring quite true last Thursday, as his players were shielded from teeming rain by umbrellas, carried by security guards, as they walked to their cars carrying goods picked up from the Harvey Nichols facility set up for them in the grounds of Carrington. But in a footballing sense, Mancini is challenging the established order.
He picked up a Fiorentina squad drifting to bankruptcy and took them to an Italian Cup, delivered a crumbling Lazio to fourth, and – in a phase which perhaps best reflects his challenge to United's hegemony – tore down AC Milan's domestic ascendancy during his time at Internazionale. Don't even get him started on the topic of 28 October 2006, when Inter, up against Milan, whom they had not beaten to the title without the help of another side's points deduction for 19 years, beat them 4-3 in what he has always felt was a shifting of the balance of power in the year they became champions.
This experience provides the context to why, when it was put to Mancini at the weekend that it would be easier – better, less intense – if the side he was seeking to topple were Chelsea, Arsenal, or someone else at a safer distance, he replied with a definitive: "No." "People say it would be easier if your main title rivals were not from the same city," he said. "But I don't agree. I think it is good to win the title against your neighbours, rather than a team from another part of the country. It is better. I had this in Milan with Inter. It is more satisfying because it is so important for the city of Manchester to have two great teams like City and United."
Significantly, he invoked the memory of Sampdoria, too, and their European Cup final, 20 years ago next month when they almost took the ultimate step in shattering preconceptions about what a side can achieve from outside the elite. Ronald Koeman's free-kick for Barcelona broke Sampdoria in extra time. "I feel the same sense of importance about Monday as I did as a player for that game," Mancini said. "It was so important for Sampdoria. It was the first and last time the club has ever reached the European Cup final. And we were unlucky in that game but today is important because Manchester City won their last title in 1968 and I think also because our supporters deserve it if it is possible."
That final at the old Wembley also tells us something about the Mancini temperament. His protestations to the German official went on for so long that he was banned for several games at the start of the next season. "I'm not sure if he tried to kill the referee!" Eriksson, manager that day, remembered last year.
He shares that much with Ferguson, though if the slugger 23 years his senior has an edge then it is in that ability to nurture when he needs to. The belief from the very top of City is that there is not enough room in the competitive head of Mancini's for the inidividual who needs his arm around their shoulder – Edin Dzeko this season.
Ferguson, however, is increasingly messianic about bringing out the potential in a group of players who have grown up at a club together and will therefore "give their lives" to each other, as he put it last year. There is an "impatience" in Mancini, his assistant David Platt told The Independent last year. "I don't think he wants to live his life where he's not up against it."
Which is why, despite all the platitudes, Mancini will awake today with an acute sense of how he, once again, can lead the commoners in storming the tower tonight. "We talked about the red wine," he said of those five minutes or so in Ferguson's office last October. "No, no, no!" he grinned. He hadn't danced on Ferguson's table. "We did not talk about the game. I am very young and I have a big respect for him, his achievements and Manchester United. But I wasn't embarrassed. I had respect because when you are with a manager like Ferguson who has won everything for 25 years you should have respect. But I was not embarrassed. Why should I be?"
Kick-off Tonight, 8pm (Sky Sports 1)
Odds Man C 6-5; draw 12-5; Man U 5-2
Referee A Marriner (W Midlands)
Hat-trick of crackers: This season's games
Man Utd 3-2 Man City
Community Shield, August
In the season's curtain raiser, the FA Cup holders City raced into a 2-0 lead, but the league champions recovered in the second half, with Nani scoring the winner – his second of the game – in the final minute.
Man Utd 1-6 Man City
Premier League, October
City shocked their neighbours with this ruthless performance over 10-man United at Old Trafford, inflicting their worst home defeat since 1955.
Man City 2-3 Man Utd
FA Cup, January
The previously retired Paul Scholes was a surprise name on United's team-sheet as they capitalised on Vincent Kompany's early red card.
Race for the title
Top two's remaining games
Man Utd Tonight Man City (a); Sun Swansea (h); 13 May Sunderland (a)
Man City Tonight Man Utd (h); Sun Newcastle (a); 13 May QPR (h)