James Lawton: Sergio weaving Diego magic at Manchester City
WHAT was Sergio Aguero supposed to say when asked if he can work the same kind of transforming magic for Manchester City his father-in-law Diego achieved for Naples, another historically underachieving team wearing blue shirts?
With even less aptitude than Fabio Capello for the routine English platitude, he was obliged to say, pretty much, yes.
He was quite right too because it is already happening.
Aguero has done more than inject a beautifully sharp talent into the play of his new club — and strike up a potentially sublime playing relationship with the hugely gifted but previously too often exasperated David Silva.
He is doing precisely what his father-in-law did and so far without so much as a hint that he is carrying anything in his baggage to put the city's police force, tax inspectors, paternity lawyers, drug dealers and all-round underworld hustlers on full alert.
Maradona's existence in Naples, as it did largely before and after, lurched between heaven and hell on an almost daily basis but there was the same constant implicit in all that his son-in-law has pulled off in just four Premier League games.
It was the overwhelming evidence that however carefully a team is assembled, it must await the vital catalyst of a player supremely confident in his ability to influence the course of events.
It means that as the Champions League cavalcade this week reclaims its gaudy place in our lives, surely nothing is more compelling than the question of Aguero's ability to extend his astonishing impact to the highest level of club football when Maradona's old Napoli team step out at Eastlands tomorrow tonight.
The Italians, under the clever prompting of their midfield playmaker Marek Hamsik, will no doubt ask quite a few more questions than Aguero's Premier League victims, but on current evidence it is hard to imagine they will do a whole lot better.
It may be absurd that some are already mentioning City, before their first Champions League game, in the same breath as Barcelona, but if this reaction is particularly exaggerated you would still have to be residing on another planet not be drawn into some measurement of City's progress since the landfall of the young Argentine.
It is dramatic enough, certainly, to persuade some hard-headed critics that if Manchester United have brilliantly met the challenge handed down to them by Barca last spring, it is the football of their neighbours which has been the more stunning in its balance and easy penetration.
So far the teams have been performing a hand-to-hand battle for attention that makes Arsenal's appearance at Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea's hosting of Bayer Leverkusen tonight seem like the merest canapes before the main course of tomorrow's City-Napoli and United's visit to one of their most atmospheric battlegrounds, Benfica's Estado da Luz.
For the moment, reality (at least that part of it represented by the bookmakers) says that the Premier League is a two-horse race with United 11-10 to retain their title and City 2-1 to play their way to the top of the English establishment.
Interestingly, Chelsea (at 9-1) are still considered one point stronger than City to lift the Champions League, with United third favourites (at 13-2) behind Barca and Real Madrid.
What the numbers don't describe is the profundity of the change Aguero, from the moment he stepped on to the field as a second-half substitute, has brought to the way we have to look at City.
Naturally, Roberto Mancini's every instinct is to urge caution. “Let's see what happens in May if we are still playing in the Champions League,” he declares, “and if we are in contention in the Premier League. It is still early for us. One year is not enough to change the mentality.”
No one appears to have mentioned this to Aguero or his irrepressible work-mate Silva. It might be argued that relating the early work of the former to the impact of Maradona was both premature and ejaculatory but then it made a degree more sense if you happened to be in Naples when his father-in-law was inducing delirium, when they were flying the club colours to the rim of Vesuvius and even the most sophisticated restaurants were colouring the pasta blue. What Maradona did is what Aguero has been doing since he ran on to the field for City that first time and played with a passion and a freedom that suggested whatever else life brought to him he would always have his football — and the kind of challenge that he faced now.
Mancini is right about the difficulty of re-working quickly the mentality of a big football team.
But then so much depends on the kind of players you have.
In Sergio Aguero he may just have one who has the power to change everything. So, yes, it was a good question — and the best possible answer.