Roberto Mancini will not be pleased to have conceded such a sloppy goal to Napoli, but he will be happy with the way his City side fought back on the biggest stage
No Italian manager really minds a 1-1 draw, even more so when the result is achieved against Italian opposition. But Roberto Mancini will be reflecting with mixed feelings on his encounter with Walter Mazzarri's polished and confident Napoli on Wednesday night.
His new all-singing, all-dancing Manchester City had made their return to Europe's top club competition 43 years after Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee, Neil Young and their colleagues experienced an unexpectedly swift elimination at the first time of asking in the European Cup. Whereas Joe Mercer's team had anticipated moving directly from a league title to something even more remarkable, Mancini's squad may be thinking in terms of missing out the intervening stage, or perhaps even of completing both simultaneously.
The draw with Napoli exposed one or two flaws in the design but was by no means the worst of introductions to the realities of the modern Champions League, a very different competition from the one into which Mercer led his players. After two years of rebuilding under new ownership whose riches would make Croesus jealous, City now possess all the components they need to achieve their ambitions, and in Mancini they have a manager who, as we saw again here, seems to have moved beyond the conservatism of his first season and a half to embrace a more positive approach.
The Italian reached the European Cup final as a player with Sampdoria in 1992, but his record as a coach in the Champions League is less distinguished. Despite considerable resources at Internazionale, he could do no better than elimination by Milan and Villarreal in two consecutive appearances in the quarter-finals, followed by defeats at the hands of Valencia and Liverpool in the round of 16. The last of those reverses, in February 2008, was to cost him his job at the end of the season. His new employers will expect him to go further at the first time of asking with City than he managed in four years at San Siro.
Faced with Italian opposition on Wednesday night, Mancini showed no sign of reverting to the safety-first stereotype that until recently appeared to comprise his default mode. With Sergio Agüero and Samir Nasri added to Edin Dzeko and David Silva, and with Carlos Tevez simmering on the bench, there could be no excuse for anything other than a commitment to attack, particularly when confronting opponents themselves rich in attacking talent, with a forward line led by Edinson Cavani, the tall, long-haired Uruguayan who was Serie A's top scorer last season, with 26 goals in 37 league appearances.
The two sides contrived a free-flowing game that was consistently exciting and often a treat to the eye, even if three members of Napoli's defence – Christian Maggio, Paolo Cannavaro and Salvatore Aronica – contrived to collect bookings before the interval, the first of them being Maggio, who quickly tired of being run from here to eternity by Silva and responded by crunching into the little Spaniard.
Until they fell behind City were patient, with the neat combinations of Silva and Nasri aimed at creating a decisive opening for Agüero or Dzeko, but there were signs of over-elaboration as they attempted to plot a course between or around Napoli's three central defenders. "I think we played very well in the first half," Mancini said. "Maybe one touch too many." City's supporters will be fervently hoping that Nasri has not imported with him the defect, familiar from Arsenal's recent seasons, of superfluous interpassing with no end product.
It was Napoli, making the most of every chance to mount a rapid counterattack, who almost took the lead with a shot from Ezequiel Lavezzi that struck Joe Hart's crossbar, although Agüero emulated his Argentinian compatriot later in the first half. Napoli had the next clear chance, shortly after the resumption, when Vincent Kompany blocked Marek Hamsik's shot on the line, and perhaps City had allowed themselves to forget how lethal the visitors could be on the counterattack when Gareth Barry played a wretchedly loose backheel a few yards outside the Napoli area. He could only watch as Maggio broke away at top speed before playing a simple ball into the path of Cavani, whose finish left Hart helpless. Six minutes later, however, just after Agüero had again hit the bar, Aleksandar Kolarov brought the scores level with a beautifully struck 30-yard free-kick.
Facing a stern test from opponents relying on a well‑grooved approach that made them the most invigorating sight in Serie A last season, City were not the swarmingly inventive force of recent league fixtures. To have surrendered a goal so cheaply was cause for self-examination, but to stage an immediate fightback at least allowed their manager to feel that his players had passed a test of character.