So let's have it, Roberto Mancini: do you really think Chelsea will win the league "easy"? It was only at the third time of asking, away from the television cameras in a quiet subterranean corner of Eastlands on Saturday, that the Manchester City boss gave a hint that his eye-catching proclamation about the Premier League leaders might have been made in canniness, not cowardice.
"I am serious that Chelsea are the best team in the Premier League, but once there was, in Italy, a manager who said the opponents [were] a fantastic team..." Mancini said. He hurried off before revealing more, though it is understood the individual he alluded to was the late Nils Liedholm. The Swede is not well known in England but revered in Italy for his blend of wisdom and mischief in a 36-year coaching career, which included four spells at Roma and three at Milan. Significant and, perhaps, fascinating that Liedholm should be a manager Mancini invokes, since he was also one of Carlo Ancelotti's principle coaching influences.
Judging by the rigour which Mancini has injected into City's defence, mischief is not all he might have picked up from Liedholm, a proponent of zonal marking who once remarked, "it is too easy to stop a player by fouling him. Proper training teaches you how to win the ball without committing a foul, which is much more difficult."
A defence against which no Premier League side is yet to create a goal this season – the two City have conceded were a penalty and a mix-up – has been subjected to a mantra, rather than a systematic reorganisation, according to Nigel de Jong, who revealed Mancini "preaches" clean sheets.
The Dutch midfielder said: "The belief is there. I don't want to say the belief wasn't there under Mark Hughes but, with the manager coming from Italy, defence is No 1. He spends more time on the training pitch with the defenders to get them to realise that a clean sheet is holy."
City's players believe they were helped on Saturday by the struggles of Ancelotti's £20m Brazilian Ramires – who spent most of the afternoon thumping the turf having been dispossessed, most critically in the seconds before Carlos Tevez's exquisite 59th minute goal. "Obviously the new lad Ramires will have to adapt to the Premier League – I think you could see that today," de Jong said. "Obviously they were missing Lampard with his creativity."
Yet creativity is the dimension Mancini will be looking to graft on to that defence and his side have not yet displayed much of it on the less challenging engagements which demand it. Graeme Souness suggested that City's defeat at Sunderland and draw at home to Blackburn actually stemmed from poor motivation.
"I agree with that in a sense," de Jong said. "You still have to play the game as well. Despite the momentum you may have after a game like Liverpool, for example, it's always difficult to go to the smaller teams because you're the favourite."
Mario Balotelli will not be available to help for a while. The Italian is understood to be experiencing tenderness in the knee he has undergone surgery on and will not be available for at least another six weeks. But Mancini insists he has created a side who think of more than that "holy" grail of clean sheets.
"We will be [creative]," he said. "City play well. They don't play long ball. They play well – always that is important."
Integral to that philosophy is the return from injury of the attacking wing-backs he is investing much faith in.
Mancini said: "If you want to win you must defend and when you attack you must attack with the whole team. We wait for [Wayne] Bridge, Kolarov, [Jerome] Boateng. With these players we have more chances to change our position in the future; to change everything."
A jocular aside from Mancini revealed he has been spending time watching old TV footage of the story of Sir Alex Ferguson's 2003 flying boot dressing-room altercation with David Beckham, suggesting there are hidden depths to his assiduous study of those managers who have won the Premier League. So, to return to the start, does he really think Chelsea will win the league? "He hasn't put that message across to us as a group," de Jong said. "Obviously you are not going to say that in front of your team. Maybe it is designed to take the pressure off us."
Manchester City 4-3-3: Hart; Boyata (Boateng, 88), K Toure, Kompany, Zabaleta; Y Toure, De Jong, Barry; Silva (A Johnson, 77), Tevez (Adebayor, 86), Milner. Substitutes not used: Given (gk), Lescott, Vieira, Jo.
Booked Zabaleta, Boyata.
Chelsea 4-3-3: Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, Cole; Essien, Mikel (Zhirkov, 68), Ramires (McEachran, 80); Anelka, Drogba (Sturridge, 75), Malouda. Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Ferreira, van Aanholt, Kakuta.
Booked Alex, Ramires, Mikel.
Man of the match Barry.
Possession Man City 43% Chelsea 57%
Shots on target Man City 6 Chelsea 4
Referee A Marriner (Birmingham)
Match rating 7/10.Reuse content