Swaggering City face walk on wild side in Mancini's backyard
Manchester City 3 Newcastle United 1
Micah Richards sent a tweet while still playing right-back in the second half. Well, maybe his people sent it for him, like Diane Abbott's over-enthusiastic assistant last week, while the MP was busy observing two minutes' silence. The idea of Richards holding off Newcastle United while holding an electronic device was not actually beyond the bounds of possibility, though. That's how average the lauded opposition really were.
Richards' performance prompted Joleon Lescott, who was surprised by his team-mate's omission from the last England squad, to suggest he is not far off being "one of the best in the world". But City's flight today to Naples, where victory tomorrow night will see them qualify for the knock-out stage of the Champions League, should put things in a more realistic perspective. They might be sweeping all domestic records aside – 34 points from 36 is a start unmatched in the Premier League – but it has been in Europe that City have been shown up as mere mortals. Positionally, Richards and his sorties up the right were a disaster in the 2-0 defeat at Bayern Munich in September, so much so that Roberto Mancini did not play him in Villarreal three weeks ago, where the going was easier. It is why the manager's talk of Richards needing to "pick up his brain" before heading out to the pitch was a carefully calibrated message to him.
There was nothing in Walter Mazzarri's side's goalless draw against Lazio in Stadio San Paolo on Saturday evening to suggest that the heat of Dante's Inferno awaits City in the Bay of Naples. But the Argentine midfielder Ezequiel Lavezzi – whose representatives Mancini is believed to have met twice this summer before Samir Nasri signed instead – and Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani were excellent. If selected, Richards will face Lavezzi, cutting inside from the left with his dangerous right foot.
There is also some raw emotion about tomorrow. The match takes Sergio Aguero, whose wince as he trudged from the field on Saturday signalled nothing more than cramp, onto the turf trodden by his father-in-law Diego Maradona. (The Napoli legend will not be present, having flown home to Buenos Aires where his mother, Dona Tota, died at the weekend.)
It takes Mancini to the city from which his mother, Marianna, and wife, Federica both hail, for his first serious match back on home soil. "Juventus in the Europa League last season wasn't so important because we'd qualified," he reflected, late on Saturday. And it takes a fool to predict the consequences of placing Mario Balotelli before nearly 60,000 baying Italians in the place where he has appeared recently in a court case against the local Camorra mafia. "I played 20 years in Naples and six years as a manager and I have never had a problem," Mancini insisted. "Mario now is in a good way, I don't think he can have a problem." Balotelli described Naples this summer as "a beautiful city with beautiful sunshine" and seemed to be making eyes at the club. There will be love and hate for him, but much more of the latter.
Mancini's own memories of San Paolo are actually rather fine. Above all, there was his outrageously good second-half volley in the 4-1 win in November 1990 which sent Sampdoria, under Vujadin Boskov, on the way to replacing Maradona's Napoli as champions against the odds that season – the club's only Scudetto. "In the year we won Serie A, we started our run to the championship with [that] against a Naples team that included Maradona. I scored two and [Gianluca] Vialli scored the other two," Mancini recalled. "So I have good memories of Naples. It is one of my favourite Italian grounds. The stadium is big, the pitch is good, the atmosphere is good, the fans are very close."
City carry with them a domestic confidence which is beginning to look formidable, with the psychological benefits of a certain 6-1 win having proved even more profound than we imagined it would be. "Their confidence is very high," sighed the Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, consoled at least by the flashes of brilliance from a restored Hatem Ben Arfa. "You can see a real belief about them. Whether we catch another team in that mode again, I don't know. I certainly hope not." What impresses most is that for a side who play so beautifully, City are so very muscular. The resurgent James Milner is particularly underrated. There is no suggestion that Carlos Tevez will be back this week, incidentally, though nobody cares much any longer.
Napoli will be ready. The Champions League is everything to Italy as Serie A continues to wane miserably as a spectacle. "We left a lot of space in the home game and they are very good on the counter-attack," Mancini recalled. Richards will have his hands full this time.
Napoli warmed up for tomorrow's Champions League visit of Manchester City with a goalless home draw in Serie A against Lazio on Saturday. The Italians held City to a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium in September's opening group game and sit two points behind Roberto Mancini's side in third in Group A.
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