Roberto Mancini's Manchester City will begin the new English Premier League season this afternoon against Tottenham Hotspur, the side responsible for ending the Blues' attempt to break into the game's elite for the first time last season.
Mancini, once a swashbuckling, creative player in Italy's top division, now a suave, besuited manager, scarf tied fashionably around his neck as he patrols the touchline, joined City as manager in December 2009. His appointment followed the dismissal of Mark Hughes, who had watched his expensively assembled side splutter its way through the autumn. Mancini breezed into Manchester brimming with confidence, appointed as City's 12th permanent manager in 20 years.
"At this moment my target is the top four," he said at the press conference to announce his appointment. "Next season we want to win the Premier League. I hope to stay here for many years and win many trophies. City has great fans. I hope we do a good job for them." He made an impressive start, guiding the club to three straight league victories, but the side's form fell away soon after, just as it had under Hughes, and City were finally undone by Spurs in a winner-takes-all match at the end of the season. The London side prevailed by an odd, late goal from Peter Crouch, although in truth, Spurs were much the better side for most of the contest.
Mancini was magnanimous in defeat: "I'm disappointed. We lost an important game. We wanted this position [fourth spot] but ? this is football. We must develop, we can improve, I want to win here and I think we have a fantastic club." His dedication to the game can be traced back to his infancy. Born in 1964 in the small town of Jesi in Italy to a furniture maker and his wife, Mancini was raised a Roman Catholic, his early life revolving around religion and football.
He acted as altar boy for his church and spent his free time playing for the local youth team Aurora Calcio and these two aspects of his childhood clashed only once, when Mancini was eight years old. It was the day his proud father took him to church for his first Holy Communion, an important moment in the Christian faith. Disappointed to be missing a vital game for his team, Mancini dutifully attended the service but towards the end his father noticed his son had gone missing. Upset, he went to say sorry to the priest.
Apologies were unnecessary, however. The priest also acted as the team coach and, after hearing they were 2-0 down at half-time, had dispatched young Mancini to change into his football kit and save the day. In the years that followed, Mancini was to enjoy a remarkable playing career despite spending the majority of his days kicking around at three of Italy's less fashionable clubs. There was also a brief spell in English football too, once again at one of football's lesser lights.
He made his professional debut for Bologna at 16, in September 1981, playing the final few minutes of a league match against Cagliari as a substitute in Serie A, his cameo appearance convincing Tarcisio Burgnich, a tough, uncompromising manager, to make Mancini a near permanent fixture in the side for the rest of the season. The youngster did not disappoint, scoring nine of the team's 25 league goals during that 1981/82 campaign - an incredible record for an inexperienced youngster pitched into an almost universally dreadful side.
A close-season transfer for a staggering fee of 2.5 billion lira took the teenager to Sampdoria of Genoa, where the fans at the Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris soon lovingly dubbed him Bobby Goal. Three year later, Sampdoria won the Coppa Italia for the first time, ushering in a golden era in which Mancini would play a central role. Three further Italian cup wins would follow, as well as an appearance in the European Cup final and, gloriously, the club's only league title in 1991.
These were incredible times, the Sampdoria team - Gianluca Pagliuca in goal, Mancini, Gianluca Vialli and Attilio Lombardo leading the line (with Lombardo now one of City's coaching staff, alongside David Platt, another ex-Samp man) - emerging as league champions when the majority of the world's great players were also plying their trade in Italy: Maradona and Careca at Napoli, van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard at Milan, Klinsmann, Brehme and Matthaus at Inter. This was fantasy football, and Sampdoria were the embodiment of the fairytale.
Yet it was the arrival of the unflamboyant, unflappable Sven-Goran Eriksson as Sampdoria coach in 1992 which was to have the most profound effect on the Italian. Mancini saw his new boss as a master of preparation, considering his attention to detail unrivalled in the modern game, and credited him with helping to develop his tactical nous. The pair became confidants. Indeed, when Eriksson later moved to Lazio in 1997, Bobby Goal followed, bringing to a close his 15-year, goal-laden association with Sampdoria.
His transfer to Rome began an unrivalled period of success for Lazio, crowned by a league and cup double in 2000 and an audacious back heel in a league game against Parma, to finish what many of the club's diehard fans regard as "the most beautiful goal ever scored". Ever the master of timing, Mancini, who also served as an assistant coach to Eriksson, announced his retirement from professional football, aged 35, on the day Lazio swept to the title.
He would remain in exile for little more than six months before being tempted out of retirement by the prospect of a turn in the English Premier League at unfancied Leicester City. Eriksson, by now the England coach, was said to have played a key role in his recruitment. The experiment was to last just a handful of games, a call from Fiorentina, another of Italy's famous but floundering clubs, taking Mancini back to his homeland and into his first management role.
Mancini found the club in financial turmoil, saddled with huge debts and sinking towards bankruptcy, yet still managed to bring the Coppa Italia to Fiorentina before quitting in January 2002. Five months later he was installed as Lazio's manager, where again he was hamstrung by fiscal constraints imposed, ironically, after the free-spending Eriksson years. Once more Mancini proved a master appointment, landing another Italian cup in 2004 before leaving to join Inter Milan later that same year.
It is at Inter that the Mancini story becomes a little more complicated. His four years in Milan are considered by many to be no more than a qualified success. He claimed two more Coppa Italias and, impressively, three successive league titles - including Inter's first for 16 years, succeeding where many more experienced candidates had failed - but disappointed in the Champions League, Europe's premier competition. Famously, Jose Mourinho, his successor at Inter, won Europe's top prize earlier this year.
It should be noted, of course, that those title wins were conducted against a backdrop of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Mancini's critics will say that Inter could hardly fail to win a race from which the majority of the club's traditional rivals had been either removed via the punishment of relegation or saddled with an insurmountable points deduction. Mancini left Inter in 2008 and spent 18 months in the football wilderness before answering City's call. He was by then already familiar with the club's set-up: his son Filippo spent a period on loan at City without ever making an impact on the first team when Eriksson was briefly the club's manager.
Mancini inherited a club anxious to break into football's elite. Both he and his predecessor have been strongly supported in the transfer market by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, the club's owner, and Khaldoon al Mubarak, City's chairman. This summer Mancini has spent an estimated £79 million (Dh455m) on four new players, with the promise of at least a couple more to come before the transfer window closes. Other managers can only look on with envy.
"They are creaming off some of the biggest players in the world," says Unai Emery, the manager of Valencia, the Spanish side who were beaten by City in a final pre-season friendly last weekend. "On a worldwide scale the only comparison has been Real Madrid, but City have even gone beyond that now." Such comparisons carry huge expectations and mask the reality of City's history - the side has not won a major trophy since 1976 and has not appeared in a major cup final for 30 years. Mancini will be expected to improve on last season's fifth-place finish in the league this time out and make a decent showing in all three cup competitions the club will contest.
If the Italian is feeling burdened, he is a master of deflection, perhaps all that time spent with Eriksson helping him to appear calm before the storm of the new season. "It's going to be a big year for us," he told the Manchester City website earlier this week, "I hope we can start well on Saturday. It is a big game to open with," before playing down any suggestion of this curtain-raiser offering an early chance to strike back against Spurs.
"Revenge? No, not revenge but we have to start the Premier League as well as we can. We must have the right mentality, and I want us to play the same way, home or away." * The National