Mancini's father flies in to witness the City revolution
You could tell what the Champions League means to Roberto Mancini because he brought his dad along to watch Manchester City's final preparations for the tournament they were built to join.
Aldo Mancini is 75 and tonight's encounter with Napoli will be the first time he has watched Manchester City live. He was meant to have come to Wembley to see their FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United but he was too ill to make the journey.
“I love the English game,” said the man who saw the young Roberto turn from an altar boy to a professional footballer. “At the moment it is better than Italian football and not just because Roberto is here. This is the football that matters and at Manchester City they are building a fine squad. He is working with serious people. I don't expect him to come back to Italy soon.”
He will, of course, return to Italy in November to face Napoli in their own San Paolo Stadium, where he scored arguably his greatest goal for Sampdoria in the season they won the 1991 Scudetto.
“It will be a special moment,” he said of Manchester City's debut in the Champions League. “Not just because my father will be there but also because Napoli were always an important team when I was a player.”
Napoli when Mancini was a footballer meant Diego Maradona, whose son-in-law, Sergio Aguero, is likely to lead City's attack in new lime-green boots, with the name of El Diego's grandson, Benjamin, stitched into them.
As Aguero began training in the September sunshine there was a feeling that the second phase of what their fallen chief executive, Garry Cook, called ‘the project' was about to begin. The stakes are suddenly higher.
They are part of a group that contains Bayern Munich and Villarreal, one Mancini describes “where you can finish first or fourth”. However, it is a rule of thumb in the Champions League and especially in World Cups that teams who qualify from “groups of death” tend to travel a long way, perhaps because they have been toughened up early.
When Manchester United won the European Cup in 1999, they fought their way through a group that contained Bayern and Barcelona. The last three English newcomers to the competition, Leeds, Newcastle and Tottenham each made it through the first stage.
Tonight, City may be without both Gareth Barry and James Milner because of injury while Mario Balotelli is suspended because of the chest-high assault on Dynamo Kiev's Goran Popov that accompanied their exit from the Europa League.
Though he reached the final as a player, Mancini's failure to make any real impact in the Champions League as a manager cost him his job. The fact that Internazionale won the European Cup the season after his sacking tended to prove the club's president, Massimo Moratti, right.
“It could be that I have a point to prove,” said Mancini. “But the Champions League is like a domestic championship, only one team wins. I want to do better but the Champions League is a very strange competition. If you get past the group stage, the top teams in Europe are waiting for you and then anything can happen.”