Roberto Mancini did what he could yesterday to take some of the sting out of what is effectively a Champions League qualifier against Tottenham tonight. "It's one football match, not war," he said. But in the next breath came another assessment which revealed the true meaning of a match on which all the aspirations of Abu Dhabi now depend. "It is a chance to make history," Mancini added. "We want to change the history of the club."
The pressure is arguably more on Tottenham than City, given that this might be a one-off last chance to take a leap into the big league, taking the money that comes with it. City, given their wealth, will be in the Champions League soon enough, perhaps next season.
But of the two managers Mancini, rather than Harry Redknapp, is in the unenviable position. The Italian made a throat-slitting gesture yesterday when discussing the insecurities facing Serie A managers. "In Italy, it's different because if you lose three or four games, you are finished. Sacked," he said. But his own place will only look secure by 10pm tonight if City have emerged with the three points which may still leave them needing a win at West Ham on Sunday to reach their goal.
Mancini is clearly not resting on his laurels where his future next season is concerned. He has still not settled his wife, Federica, and daughter Camilla in Britain. "She can't move now because my daughter is at school; it is difficult," he said. Neither has he met the club's owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, five months after taking over the reins from Mark Hughes.
But his strategy ahead of tonight's fateful encounter was to reduce the temperature, despite the burning morning sun which made the press room uncomfortably warm as he sat down to talk. "I don't think the players have pressure at this moment. I don't have pressure at this moment," he said, reflecting that he has experienced occasions as formidable as this – such as his last game at Internazionale against Parma in 2008 which took them to a Scudetto.
Mancini related the story of his success at Lazio, when he was pushing to secure a Champions League place seven years ago. "We had the same situation with Lazio," he said. "They are not a big team but got fourth position, even though we were competing with Inter, Juve, Milan, Roma and lots of other big teams. So we did a fantastic thing." Lazio beat Brescia to secure the fourth Champions League place ahead of Parma seven years ago and then overcame Benfica 4-1 in a qualifier, only to finish last in Group G and miss out on a Uefa Cup spot after Christmas that year. The City manager's recollections of that time at Lazio were slightly selective though, given that his push for the Champions League the following year saw his side fall short, finishing sixth after winning only two games in six during the run-in.
The big difference between then and now was that Mancini did not have such a lavishly assembled squad in Rome. Their Champions League qualification actually followed the departure of Hernan Crespo and Alessandro Nesta for a total income of €66m (£57m) during a summer in which Lazio spent £55m less than they earned.
Little wonder Mancini has posited the carefully nuanced argument in the last five days that he is operating largely with Mark Hughes' team and not his own. "Mark Hughes worked here for the first five months of the season and worked very well," Mancini said yesterday. "And I think if we get fourth he deserves 50 per cent of the credit. I've worked for five months; he's worked for five months, so the season has been split between us." There is a symmetry about Tottenham being the side on which the future depends. It was City's abject display at White Hart Lane in December which presaged Hughes' dismissal a few days. Victory tonight will enable Mancini to argue that City have developed under his watch.
Mancini, who has Gareth Barry and Wayne Bridge back, believes victory will give him a 70-80 per cent chance of fourth, given that Spurs' visit to Burnley on Sunday looks easier than City's to east London.
Of course, there's nothing to say that City won't perish in August's third qualifying round if they finish fourth – Martin Jol's Ajax, Sampdoria and Zenit St Petersburg are three clubs they might meet there. But by then, City's summer transfer business will have been concluded and the prospect of life in the continent's elite tournament will add vastly to their lustre for those – Fernando Torres included – who may consider joining the club.
And Mancini expects he will be along for the ride too, too, though when asked if fourth place guaranteed he would be at Eastlands next season, he replied with an enigmatic smile. "I don't know about this," he said. "It's not important now. It's important we concentrate on these two games. I work because I enjoy doing this job, I like football, I like it when the squad play very well, when the supporters are happy after we win. But the future? I don't know. I don't know what will happen in the future."