Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager, made the unexpected declaration yesterday that Chelsea, whose first serious test of the season comes at Eastlands this lunchtime, will "probably win the Premier League easy".
Mancini, whose deference to his old friend Carlo Ancelotti included the observation that City were "lucky" in their 4-2 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in February, also suggested that his club cannot yet be regarded as Chelsea's equals, despite a £130m summer outlay. "I think that we must work for this because to beat the strong teams we must improve year after year, match after match," he said. "But I think we have good players. When all these players are together we can change everything."
City's Adam Johnson has not yet reached his potential, Mancini believes, and his comments on England's new prodigy yesterday reflected a view that the winger must not get carried away with his meteoric rise, fine though his club and international form have been. "Adam is a young player who can improve a lot," Mancini said. "I would like him to understand that sometimes it is important for a player to play for the team."
Asked if Johnson needed to keep his feet on the ground, Mancini replied: "Yes. I think so. Not just for Adam, for all young players that sometimes think they have arrived at the top and it's finished. When you arrived at the top it's very difficult. It's easy for a player like Adam who has good quality to arrive at the top. But when you arrive there, you must stay there always. You can go behind. To prevent this he must work better than before."
An examination of Mancini's relationship with Ancelotti shows how the City manager, perhaps like Johnson against Liverpool last month, did not always take well to being substituted. Ancelotti was assistant to Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi in March 1994 when Sacchi decided to take off Mancini at half-time and replace him with Gianfranco Zola. Mancini, already understudy to the absent Roberto Baggio, was incensed and told Sacchi he would never play for Italy again. Ancelotti, who saw the outburst coming, attempted to head it off, but failed. The 2-1 defeat to Germany in Stuttgart was to be Mancini's 34th and final cap.
"He has this [authority]. His behaviour is very calm but he understands football well," Mancini said yesterday of his compatriot. "He played football at the maximum. We had a fantastic relationship and he is a very, very fantastic person."
The two managers' friendship was cemented in the Italy side at Euro '88 in Germany and the World Cup two years later. They have faced each other as club managers 18 times so far, Ancelotti enjoying eight wins to Mancini's seven, though the City man has grounds to feel he is in the ascendant. Last February's victory at Stamford Bridge made it four wins in five games against Ancelotti.
Mancini is ruing an injury list which sees Shaun Wright-Phillips joining Alexander Kolarov and Mario Balotelli on the sidelines with a knee injury. Emmanuel Adebayor is fit to resume a relationship Mancini admitted in an interview yesterday was tempestuous, disclosing that "it is true we argue and I know he is not happy".
Mancini also remarked on how "if a player is playing you are the best manager, if he is not playing you are the bastard manager". Given the competition in his squad, he can be grateful for an afternoon in the company of a fellow Italian with whom he is never known to have had a touchline spat.