To many in Italy, Roberto Mancini was one of those they call baciato dalla grazia–kissed by good fortune; a footballing prodigy so gifted that Sampdoria were prepared to pay £2.2m for him as a 17-year-old 30 years ago. The most that one British club had paid for another at that time was Manchester United's £1.5m for Bryan Robson.
That's not how they view him in Naples, though. It is a city where they like to do things differently – they even have their own Camorra mafia – and in Mancini they see a kindred spirit, a man of integrity who resisted the lustre of Juventus and the Milan clubs to further the fortunes of smaller, sometimes destitute sides – Fiorentina, Lazio and Sampdoria. Rather like a certain little Argentine who delivered Napoli their two domestic titles, in fact. "I've got a lot of good memories of games against him; goals, wins," Mancini reflected of Diego Maradona last night. The best of them undoubtedly being his most outrageous goal for Sampdoria, scored in Napoli's Stadio San Paolo, which helped depose Napoli as Italian champions in 1991.
For all that, Mancini still arrived last night with a point to prove, as well three points to gain if City are to progress immediately to the Champions League knockout stages. His domestic record in Italy speaks for itself: he delivered Internazionale the title that 15previous managers had failed to win over 16 years, and brought stability to a club where the turnover of players had become so great that, so the story goes, their president, Massimo Moratti, recommended signing one player who turned out to be an Inter employee already on loan somewhere else.
Europe was the unticked box, even though he dodged this notion when it was put to him here. "I think it is important to try to win everywhere – in England, Italy, Spain," he insisted. "I don't know if it possible to go very far in the tournament but we want to go to the second stage and after that anything can happen." To say Mancini failed in the Champions League in his own country would be harsh. He led Lazio to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup in 2002-3 (where he was knocked out by Jose Mourinho's Porto) and consecutive quarterfinals in the Champions League in his first two seasons at Inter, when the big money managerial move finally came. He lost the first on goal difference toMilan, after Inter supporters hit the opposing goalkeeper with a flare, and was then eliminated on goal difference by Villarreal. It was from the ashes of a last 16 defeat to Liverpool that he quit Inter, though the machinations behind the scenes at the time suggest that Fernando Torres' goal at Anfield was not the only reason.
Clandestine meetings between Moratti and Mourinho were followed by leaks, days before the season's final Serie A match, of tapped phone conversations between Mancini and his tailor, a suspected drug dealer who had spent time in prison for conspiracy to commit murder. (There was no suggestion of criminality on Mancini's part.)
Little wonder that Mancini is finding the air fresher and less polluted in North-west England, even if the media's obsession with tittle-tattle rather than tactics – as he sees it – occasionally frustrates him. "I have found acountry that loves football," Mancini told Corriere dello Sport last week. "There is criticism like there was in the age of the [great Italian commentator Sandro] Ciotti: but they regard the mistakes of the players and the coaches. The moviola ([Italy's fascination with the replay] does not exist." Mancini last night sought to push away talk of tensions, including the potential violence at the hands of Ultras which has deterred some City followers from being among slightly less than 60,000 fans tonight. "This can happen in every city in every stadium – everywhere," he said, deftly avoiding a diplomatic incident. "Naples is a beautiful city and I hope the fans come here to see a beautiful match and a beautiful city."
This may be optimistic on a number of levels. The Napoli manager, Walter Mazzarri, promised to give City "some bother" yesterday and his side have not lost on home soil in Europe since Eintracht Frankfurt triumphed in December 1994. They went 573 minutes without conceding at home in Europe before Bayern's second-minute goal in a 1-1 draw.
In the city where another of Mancini's tailors – Gianni Marigliano – is believed to have encouraged him to wear his scarf in that trademark knot, the temptation will surely be for the manager to lay on some style of the footballing kind. He knows that it is the effervescent nature of his City's side which has surprised many who have observed him from the seclusion of the Bay of Naples. "Goals, goals, all the time.He has gone beyond the Italian mentality," enthused one Neopolitan taxi driver last night.
But those three points are more important than epitaphs, as Mancini seeks to show Italy what they lost by allowing him to leave for England.
"We've got the guys but I actually think it is too soon to see we are the finished product," he concluded last night. "We grew too quickly probably and we need to [pause and reflect]. At this moment we are closer to Napoli than Real or Barcelona. We can only think about tomorrow."