The City manager has so much in common with his United counterpart whom he faces in the FA Cup on Sunday
The strange thing is that when it comes to the business of identifying and appointing someone with the hard-nosed judgment and firm beliefs to become the next England manager the name of Roberto Mancini rarely, if ever, crops up. Perhaps it is the perception that he is out of reach. Or maybe it is because of the campaign for Harry Redknapp and the perceived preference for an Englishman.
Either way, it is surprising that a man with three scudetti on his CV does not feature more prominently, particularly when there is a good chance he may just have won Manchester City their first league title since 1968 by the time the vacancy becomes open.
Mancini is intrigued about the idea of following Fabio Capello, even if a couple of appointments down the line is more realistic, and even though it has taken a little time there is definitely the sense now that English football is beginning to cherish his presence and recognise a genuine leader of men.
Part of the revulsion that was felt when Mancini brandished an imaginary card during the 3-0 defeat of Liverpool on Tuesday was that the watching public were not fully prepared for these kind of histrionics from a man whose own website introduces him as campione di classe. Mancini, in truth, has done this before; it was just this was the first occasion the television cameras had picked it up. Every time, there is the same sense of feeling let down – like getting to the bottom of a nice, cold beer and finding an old fag butt.
The truth, however, is that this edge has always been there with Mancini and this is a man so driven, so repulsed by failure and desperate for the fix of winning, there will probably always be moments when the lines between what is acceptable and not become blurred. "Obsessed" is the word Vincent Kompany chose recently but behind the scenes at City, where Mancini can often be seen as standoffish to the point of being unapproachable, they use other descriptions, too. "The hardest bastard you'll ever meet," is one phrase that sticks in mind.
It is said with respect rather than any form of malice or begrudging because, in football, being cold, detached and ruthless is not necessarily a bad thing for a manager. Sir Alex Ferguson, for one, appears to have a rare level of respect for the man 23 years his junior. Mancini, he says, is a manager of "absolute authority". His handling of the Carlos Tevez affair "distinguished him in managerial terms". Ferguson has struggled sometimes to praise managers who represent a genuine threat but has found it easy with Mancini and it was the same again at his press conference ahead of Sunday's FA Cup tie and the latest instalment of Manchester's own classico.
On the face of it, the two men can seem poles apart. Mancini is all Don Johnson and George Clooney. Expensive watch, tailored suit, handkerchief showing in the top pocket, just at the right angle. The perfect man, you could say, for fronting a club where Harvey Nichols sends a mobile shop to the training ground and the menus are put together by Marco Pierre White and John Benson-Smith.
Ferguson is not interested in that kind of stuff. He is not on first-name terms with the maître d' at San Carlo Cicchetti, the Italian restaurant where City's manager recently clinked wine glasses with the Manchester press pack Ferguson dislikes so intensely. He wears a sensible coat, nothing too flash, and has his hair cut for a tenner. Mancini is into tennis, cycling and sunbathing. Ferguson's interests start with jazz, wine and horseracing. Take football away and they are two men of vastly different lifestyles, backgrounds and interests.
Except it is football that makes sense of their lives and the similarities are striking: the passion, the control-freakery, the refusal to suffer fools and, if necessary, the old-fashioned willingness to roll up their sleeves and ask whoever it may be, whatever shape or size, to step outside.
Mancini has fallen out with City's now-deposed chief executive, Garry Cook. He has isolated and moved on multimillion-pound players without as much as a backward glance. He has gone toe to toe with Tevez. The more we see of him, the more we learn of his need for the control and power that have served Ferguson so well down the years.
And, like Ferguson, he does not give an inch. At one point last summer Mancini went into a meeting to talk about the signings City needed to become genuine title challengers. Two months earlier, he had submitted his list. Now he found the club wanted him to look at Junior Hoilett of Blackburn Rovers and Ashley Young of Aston Villa. Mancini knew little of Hoilett and did not rate Young highly enough. His relationship with Cook was never the same again.
Mancini was willing to take on the man directly above him because he knew his own position had been strengthened by winning the FA Cup. Plus he had already established a strong relationship with the chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, and the owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, and established a direct line into the Abu Dhabi royal family. Mancini, as Cook found out, made a formidable opponent.
In Italy, none of that will be a surprise when they remember his political edge at Internazionale and the earlier parts of his career, as a player at Sampdoria, when he wielded a level of power that was uncommon in the extreme. At 27 Mancini sat on the interview panel that selected Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager. When it was time to choose the new kit, Mancini ticked it off. He often delivered the team-talk. He attended board meetings and had a say in transfer business.
Take this story from David Platt's 1995 autobiography, Achieving the Goal, about the day he played at Sampdoria for Bari and, lining up in the tunnel, became aware that Mancini was looking his way. "I thought nothing of it until he asked me, very matter-of-factly, if I was staying at Bari. Outright he asked if I wanted to join Sampdoria. Mancini had been at the club years and was almost a son to the president, Paolo Mantovani." Mancini kept in touch when he moved to Juventus and eventually helped bring him to Sampdoria.
At that stage Mancini had established himself as the most powerful voice in the Blucerchiati dressing room but, even as a teenager, he was not someone who liked his authority being questioned. Trevor Francis signed from Manchester City in 1982 and, aggrieved that his place was under threat, Mancini ended up picking a fight with him on the training ground. He was 18 at the time, taking on a man 10 years older.
Nor was this a one-off. A similar thing happened with Liam Brady, this time giving away eight years. Juan Sebastián Verón tells the story of swearing in Mancini's direction during an argument about a badly taken corner. After the match Mancini had stripped off to the waist and was waiting to fight him. "He is not an easy person, you know," Verón says. "He has this complicated personality."
Mancini tends to grin a little sheepishly when he is reminded of this past. He was banned for six matches after one X-rated tackle on Internazionale's Paul Ince when, in the same incident, he had to be dragged away from the referee and ran to the touchline to tell Eriksson he would never play football again. Eriksson remembers a striker who combined beautiful subtlety on the ball with a temper that went from 0-70mph in milliseconds. "As a person everybody loved Mancini. But with referees? Oof. He was awful. He couldn't control himself." Plus Mancini knew every trick. The thespianism, for example, in 1991 when Sampdoria played Legia Warsaw, Mancini tried to get the ball off the opposition goalkeeper, Maciej Szczesny, and then threw himself to the floor, clutching his face.
A lot of this is difficult to reconcile with the man we see now. Mancini's players are under instructions not to dive. He does not harangue referees. He has learned, after upsetting Arsène Wenger over the Samir Nasri transfer, that managers in England do not like their players being discussed as potential targets. He is polite, respectful and has taken great care never to say anything even mildly derogatory of United. Mancini even began his last press conference of 2011 by wishing Ferguson a happy 70th birthday.
But his is a tough regime. At City they talk of someone who treats out-of-favour players with callous indifference. Mancini is not the kind of manager a footballer would approach if he was having marital problems (his advice would be: get a marriage counsellor) and, whereas Ferguson rarely criticises players in public, the Italian can be unflinching about hurting people's feelings.
He is hard to please, just as his father, Aldo, was when the young striker was setting out on his own career. When Micah Richards limped out of the 3-0 defeat of Stoke City last month, Mancini was asked about the defender's injury and tapped his glass. "Cristalli," he said. "He's fragile, every game." There was mild impatience in his voice, a reminder that absentees get no sympathy. "He hates injured players," the ostracised Wayne Bridge said recently. "He will be like: 'No, they should be out training, it's not as bad.'"
Then there was the time Sergio Agüero scored a hat-trick against Wigan and his team-mates took turns to sign the match-ball. Standard stuff: "Magnifique!" from Nasri, "Don't need to speak English to score goals," from Gaël Clichy, and a wide range of congratulatory messages. Mancini's contribution was left at "not bad".
The softer-focus Mancini can be a man of great charm and wit. At other times the people who know him best find him so infuriatingly stubborn they could drop a flowerpot on his head. But the regime is successful and, whatever Ferguson says about Tottenham Hotspur playing the most attractive football in the league, the popular vote would be City, 5-1 winners at White Hart Lane in August.
Ferguson, a man with previous when it comes to doubting the word of Italians, is now questioning whether City might be pulling a stunt pretending Yaya Touré will miss Sunday's match. Except a quick check under the sauce shows that it is genuinely pasta on Mancini's plate. The Touré brothers have already said their goodbyes, leaving for the Africa Cup of Nations, and the impression it leaves is of a manager who might, deep down, be a little rattled about what is happening under Mancini's watch.
The most revealing moment occurred at Ferguson's 25th anniversary celebration dinner in November, 11 days after what is known now in Manchester as simply "the 6-1". An interviewer asked Ferguson if he knew how many City managers there had been during his quarter of a century in the job. He shook his head. "Fourteen," came the answer. Ferguson didn't hesitate. "Well, I wish it was 15."