How Roberto fell in love with Manchester

For Mancini, it is just like Milan – he even likes the weather. Now his remaining ambition is to knock Sir Alex off his perch – starting with victory in the FA Cup tomorrow

Some of Roberto Mancini's memories of the 6-1 demolition of Manchester United are indelible – he recalls especially how tired Sir Alex Ferguson looked when they encountered each other afterwards – but Manchester City's manager will also tell you that the experience of bringing the gladiators from across town crashing down to earth was not an entirely unique one for him.

The date – 23 October, 2011, at Old Trafford – felt like the pinnacle of any managerial career but 28 October, 2006, at San Siro, was actually the day when he acquired the taste of tearing down the foundations of a more illustrious neighbour. Mancini's Internazionale side were, again, the "away" team that day: up against AC Milan, whom they had not beaten to the title without the help of another side's points deduction for 19 years. They raced into a 3-0 lead five minutes into the second half, Hernan Crespo, Dejan Stankovic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic wreaking the kind of havoc that Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko did at Old Trafford four years later. Things didn't run quite as smoothly as they would in Stretford: Mancini was the one who got a man sent off – Marco Materazzi, whose goal celebration when he made it 4-1 earned him a second yellow card. But the narrow 4-3 scoreline belied an Inter display as dominant as the one which dispatched United and Mancini felt the tectonic plates shift beneath his feet.

The challenge posed by Sir Alex Ferguson's United, whom he encounters again in the FA Cup third round tomorrow, has absorbed and sometimes mesmerised him – just as Carlo Ancelotti's AC Milan did – across the last two years. Consider one of his first utterances at the chaotic press conference where he was introduced as manager. "Sir Alex is a big manager who wins lots of trophies, but we want to do better than Manchester United," Mancini said. "Manchester is the same as Milan. The weather is the same and you have two big clubs fighting against each other."

Four days later, he was talking Manchester United once again – "that's a big club, a big manager" – and just 48 hours ago he was at the subject once more. Mancini's flat rejection of Ferguson's suggestion that Tottenham are the division's form side came with courtesy as artificial as that assertion, which he is particularly fond of making, that United are "five yards", or "one yard", ahead. The calibration Mancini offered this week was that City are now two years behind.

"In one or two years we can catch them up," he said. "United have had that mentality for 25 years. We can be like them but not now. It's impossible."

An ill wind was howling outside as he spoke and two years ago he might have reflected that this was the inhospitable Manchester his friends had told him to expect. When he took the job here, some of them informed him that Manchester was a fairly awful place to be; cold, austere and hours away from the bright lights of London – the place in England where a self-respecting Italian needed to live. Mancini wanted to take up residence in the city centre, in keeping with the lifestyle he had enjoyed in Milan and Genoa, but the lack of amenities led him out to Alderley Edge instead.

The countryside has its benefits, though. Alderley is a far more civilised village than the reputation millionaire footballers have given it. Bucolic Mottram St Andrew, where Mario Balotelli has sought sanctuary, really is out amid the green fields, and though Mancini knows that moving the striker in with him would probably be the best answer, he jokes that he would need a sealed basement.

It is from this distance that Mancini – whose prior knowledge of Manchester City was pretty much limited to what Trevor Francis had told him at Sampdoria – has come to develop an affinity for Manchester which appears to surpass anything he felt for Milan, a city he never adored in quite the way he does Rome and Naples.

The Manchester cold was no worse than Milan, he found, and it didn't stop him getting his hair cut short for the first time in 10 years before the start of last season. He has discovered food which enables him to educate others in his country's finer points, which as a proud Italian he likes to do. The gnocchi, prawns and Neapolitan pizza at San Carlo are favourites and there is a good local supplier of Pinot Spumanti, from his native Lombardy, with which he raised a toast to success in the New Year among journalists two weeks ago.

It's been a two-way process. He did not expect a new Little Italy to develop around him but City fans chanting his name to the tune of Domenico Modugno's Volare has particularly delighted him. Mancini has the tattoo of a pipe-smoking sailor – the symbol of his beloved Sampdoria – inked on to his right leg. He has not excluded the possibility of something similar for the left one for City, if a title is won and United eclipsed. The real test of a manager's relationship with his environment comes when he is struggling, of course, though the scrutiny in Manchester is certainly as intense as it always was in Milan and – as yet – he does not appear uncomfortable with it.

Perhaps the absence of fluent spoken English has been for the best. Some of the Italian observers who have heard him in full flow speak of a different Mancini, who told El Pais in 2008 that Italian television journalists "don't know what bullshit to come up with at night, so they concentrate on things that cause chaos". A chulo (an arrogant) some have called him.

The absence of newspapers on his side of the breakfast table might also be for the best. He insists that the only one who reads them is his wife, Federica, for whom they help with English lessons.

All this insouciance is less familiar to the City players who encounter him at work across the fields of Carrington. "When you're in, you're in, when you're out, you're nothing," said one who knows Mancini's methods well, and that impatience is born of his own extraordinary standard as a player.

"A genius," is how his No 2 David Platt described him, years before the two were reunited at City. "He could put the ball where he wanted, whenever he wanted." It was also Platt who provided The Independent with the vivid image last year of how, from their seats on the bench, he will be first to hear Mancini's frustrations with players lacking the peripheral vision the Italian once displayed. "We'll sometimes have a [goal chance] and [Mancini] will think: 'Why hasn't he passed there'?" Platt said. "He'll turn around on the bench and say, 'He only has to knock it there'. I put myself in the player's position sometimes. I know that as a goalscorer my sole focus would narrow, that I would not see anybody else around me and I would just try and score the goal. But he was the player who had all the vision and I think sometimes he still sees the game from his playing perspective. He sees it peripherally. To him, what [a player has just tried] is alien."

This might explain Mancini's leniency with Mario Balotelli, though the parallels between his own early years and the striker's have much more to do with it. Il Mancio's fury with referees are legend, not to mention his coaches. Renzo Ulivieri, at Bologna, and Eugenio Bersellini, at the start of his Sampdoria career, were on the receiving end. Mancini's chroniclers in Italy will also tell you that the reason why he only played 36 times for Italy is the great Enzo Bearzot's vow never to play him again after the then 20-year-old went for an unauthorised night out to New York's famed Club 54, with Marco Tardelli and Claudio Gentile, during a friendly tour of the Big Apple in 1984. Bearzot kept his promise. Tardelli and Gentile were never reprimanded.

Manchester and Mancini will know even more about each other by tomorrow evening after an FA Cup tie which, should City preserve their one-year unbeaten home record and win, would leave United's season in a very desolate place. Already, his side look like one in which some of United's players might struggle to command a place, though it took him a while on Thursday to formulate a diplomatic response to the question of how many actually might do so. "[United] is a strong team with a strong mentality. They are a fantastic team and for me, now, they are top," he said. Asked once again to answer the question, he replied: "I am happy with my players but if you ask me how many top players do United have I can list them. Nani, Rooney, Giggs, Ferdinand, Carrick, Valencia. Great players."

The unmistakable impression, though, is that he senses the opportunity of rewriting a football club's history in Manchester just as he did in Milan, where that 2006 win led on to a scudetto. "Milan were on the top for many years and won the Champions League and the championship," he concluded this week. "Before I arrived, Inter had not won for 19 years and for us this was very, very difficult because Milan won the Champions League, and the championship. I think here we have the same situation.

"It is clear Manchester City doesn't have the same history. But when you arrive and start to build a new team, a strong team, and afterwards it becomes as strong as the other team, for me it is the same."

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