"Will you be taking Alex Ferguson some pizza after the game...?"
What wouldn't Mark Hughes have given to field the last question put to Roberto Mancini yesterday, ahead of the most keenly anticipated League Cup semi-final for decades. Since the last post-match pizza Ferguson received was the one which narrowly missed his head at Old Trafford after the "Battle of the Buffet" against Arsenal five years ago, you could have relied on Hughes for the mot juste for a moment like that. It was City's previous manager, after all, who grinned wickedly ahead of September's thrilling Old Trafford derby and said he was "sure Sir Alex is sick and tired of people sticking a microphone under his nose" asking questions about the neighbours. "He gets a little bit irritated about it, which is quite amusing from my point of view," Hughes added.
A rather perplexed Mancini did not take his pizza opportunity, even though it was served up on a plate. "He likes pizza – Alex?" the manager asked. "I'll bring the pizza if he brings wine – red wine." It was a reflection of how Hughes's departure has taken the sting out of tonight's build-up, though no one should be fooled into thinking that the personal challenge to Ferguson has evaporated. It's just a little different now.
While Hughes, with that rich wealth of experience of how it feels to be Manchester's top-dog as well as underdog, would jab away at his old adversary with suggestions that sky blue would surely be Manchester's predominant colour one day, Mancini just calmly asserts it as an unalienable right. "I hope so – it is possible," he said yesterday, when asked if City could be the top side of the two. "If we work well, then that is possible. Why not?"
He has eased back on the aspirational talk which accompanied his arrival in Manchester, asserting now that the top four – and not top spot – is the true aim. But with Carlos Tevez on his books, Mancini knows he already has one over on the champions, who must be ruing the day they let him go.
Again, the point was not laboured. "I don't know the situation when Carlos played for United," Mancini said. "But now he plays for us and is a top player." But more detail was forthcoming on Mancini's intriguing revelation after Tevez's hat-trick against Blackburn eight days ago that he wanted to sign the Argentine for Internazionale, when the player was preparing to leave Upton Park for Old Trafford in the summer of 2007.
"I watched Carlos on TV often and I liked him because he tries always and scored some fantastic goals and has all the qualities of a striker," Mancini said. "I spoke with the [Inter] chairman [Massimo Moratti] because he liked Carlos and he said if possible we should sign Carlos. But I told him that was impossible and that he played for United and [would] cost a lot of money." Tevez, he added, was the only United player he has ever hankered after.
Some of Mancini's neutrality of tone is attributable to his insistence on answering questions before his interpreter, who is not terribly assertive, intervenes. Mancini often replies without a full sense of what has actually been asked. But there is clearly a more languid strand than anything we observed in Hughes, despite the new man's initial double training sessions and demands for more defensive rigour.
Early signs suggest he won't be languid with Robinho, though the Brazilian certainly didn't look like a man with a substitution on his mind as he sauntered into work at midday yesterday. (Mancini has moved training to the afternoon.) Robinho will struggle for a starting place tonight, with the new manager aware that Jose Mourinho kicked off his Chelsea era by collecting the 2005 League Cup and that this tournament could have the same positive effect for him. Not to mention his club, who have gone 28 years without so much as a cup final appearance, let alone a cup. "For the players when you start to win a trophy you change the mentality," Mancini said. "We want to win the Carling Cup or FA Cup but we must arrive in the top four."
Mancini has vivid memories of the thrilling 4-3 defeat City suffered at Old Trafford in September – "4-3: I was in Bologna, in my house. The first half was balanced and in the second half United played better" – but there is clearly no desire to repeat it. "If we do 0-0 tomorrow and 1-1 then that will be OK for me," he said extolling the merits of a clean sheet. "I don't know if Sir Alex is OK [with that] but I am." Mancini is different, yes, and perhaps more dangerous in many ways.Reuse content