Manchester City v Leicester City: Happy anniversary Signor Mancini?
This evening sees Leicester City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson pit his wits against one of his oldest friends in football. Roberto Mancini and his Manchester City team will provide gargantuan opposition for the Foxes in their quest to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup.
But, as Ryan Hubbard explains, if it wasn’t for the former England boss and the Championship side he currently manages, Mancini may never have even stepped foot inside the City of Manchester Stadium.
In the 1999/2000 season, a thirty-five year old Mancini was battling away for Serie A top dogs Lazio, helping them to the Scudetto and Coppa Italia. But after his twenty games failed to produce a single goal, the man from Ancona announced his retirement from the playing game and joined Sven’s management team as the Swede’s assistant.
The Italian had spent fifteen years at Sampdoria, with the last five under Eriksson’s guidance, and this is where the two forged a great friendship. After Eriksson left the Genoan club to join Lazio, it didn’t take long before Mancini followed him to Rome.
But after only six months in his new position, Mancini was forced to move on as Svennis took the job as England manager. Despite the Italian’s long-term goal of managing in his home country, a move over to England with Eriksson was looking highly likely.
Even though he had previously retired, Mancini ideally wanted to carry on playing while training for his coaching badges. And it was after a chat between Eriksson and his England predecessor Peter Taylor that the ball started rolling.
Taylor had previously been the caretaker manager of the national side after Kevin Keegan’s resignation and had recently stepped into Martin O’Neill’s rather big shoes at Leicester. After the new England boss witnessed Leicester’s 2-0 loss at Ipswich Town, Eriksson recommended that the club approach Mancini to bolster their attack.
Mancini, it turned out, was keen on the idea of playing in the East Midlands. Knowing the club from his time at Chelsea, former Sampdoria and Italy strike partner Gianluca Vialli had also recommended the club to him, claiming that the Foxes would provide a good challenge.
On 18th January 2001, it was confirmed that the Italian had put pen to paper on a month-long contract with a view to extending the arrangement until the end of the season.
Many believed that, in addition to his playing duties, Mancini would also act as an advisor to Sven and the England management, though this was quickly denied. However, due to the pair’s close relationship, it would be very naïve to think that conversations between the two didn’t take place, with Mancini recommending players that he had opposed in the league.
Only two days after signing, Mancini made his debut in front of a near sell-out crowd at Filbert Street. Arsenal were the opposition and having won the Boxing Day encounter at Highbury with a commanding 6-1 scoreline, they were expected to make short work of the Foxes.
But Leicester were providing a much sterner test in front of their own fans and, even after Matt Jones’ first-half red card, the Gunners – who had current Manchester City man Patrick Vieira in their midfield – still couldn’t break down the Leicester defence.
A few decent chances fell Mancini’s way, but good goalkeeping combined with the striker’s lack of fitness kept the score sheet blank. He was replaced in the 73rd minute by £5million signing Ade Akinbiyi (still the Foxes’ most expensive signing and biggest flop).
Leicester hung on to claim a point. They could even have taken all three had fellow debutant Dean Sturridge not been fouled by Sylvinho when through on goal.
A week later, Mancini still appeared not to have adjusted fully to the rigours of the English game. He lasted just 72 minutes of the FA Cup fourth round tie at Aston Villa, but did pick up his first win in English football as the Foxes progressed with a 2-1 victory.
Both teams were reduced to ten men when Villa’s Darius Vassell and City’s Callum Davidson were dismissed in the first half. Mancini was clearly showing signs that he was a quality player. However, it was Akinbiyi and his Icelandic replacement Arnar Gunnlaugsson who netted to send City into the fifth round. Coincidentally, one of the players charged with containing Mancini was a young Gareth Barry – one of his current players at Eastlands.
Four days later, the Foxes faced a long trip to The Dell to take on Glenn Hoddle’s Southampton in the league. In a game more infamous to Leicester fans for marking the debut of lanky catastrophe Junior Lewis, the home team’s starting line-up on the day contained the current Leicester City club captain Matt Oakley and another of Mancini’s current Manchester City crop, Wayne Bridge.
And it was from Bridge’s 79th minute free-kick that Romanian veteran Dan Petrescu slotted home to condemn the Italian to his first defeat in England. Despite again going close on a couple of occasions, Mancini only lasted just over an hour, making way for Dean Sturridge fifteen minutes prior to the goal.
After only a three-day break, Champions League-chasing Chelsea were the next visitors to LE2. They returned home pointless. In what some people see as the Italian’s finest game in a Leicester shirt, the silver-haired striker helped the Foxes take the lead, through a strike from Muzzy Izzet, before being withdrawn on the hour mark. Despite an equaliser from Dutchman Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Leicester quickly restored their lead through ever-present full-back Gary Rowett.
Despite having played well against Chelsea, Mancini was clearly struggling to keep match fit. The number of games in such a short space of time was taking its toll on the ageing striker and the following Saturday saw Peter Taylor drop him from his starting line-up to face Everton at Goodison Park.
The first half saw the Toffees gain a 2-0 advantage and at the break Taylor introduced all three substitutes (including Mancini) to try to salvage something from the game. The changes helped City get back into the game through a Dean Sturridge goal, but despite some great chances they failed to get an equaliser before time ran out.
The game in Liverpool proved to be Mancini’s Leicester swansong, and also his last game as a player. Allowed time off by the management citing “personal issues”, he headed back to his homeland with Taylor expecting him to return for the forthcoming FA Cup tie against Bristol City. However, three days before the fifth round game, Taylor received a phone call from Mancini informing him that – after only four weeks at the club – he would not be extending his contract.
Billed as the highest-profile signing ever made by the club, Leicester never got to see Mancini in full swing. At 36 years old, he was most likely way past his best and struggling for fitness in what is often regarded as the quickest league in the world. The trequartista’s month at Filbert Street saw him failing to complete a full 90 minutes, making five appearances without scoring.
Return to Italy
Less than two weeks after leaving the East Midlands, it was announced that special dispensation had been received from the Italian FA for Mancini to become a manager without his coaching badges. The same day, he signed a contract to take the recently vacated hot-seat at Fiorentina.
Mancini joined Fiorentina at the beginning of the 2001-02 season, at a time when the club was in an extremely precarious situation. Having had to sell influential players, Mancini was unable to produce results on the pitch and he resigned in January 2002 with the Viola sitting second bottom of Serie A.
A few months after leaving Fiorentina he would take control of Lazio, again coming in to rescue a club in financial crisis following Sergio Cragnotti’s ignominious running of his food enterprise. Mancini again had to make do with a squad without its best players, talisman Alessandro Nesta having left for Milan and Hernan Crespo leaving to join Inter.
Despite the horror show taking place behind the scenes, Mancini was able to steer Lazio to a UEFA Cup semi-final, where they were battered by eventual winners Jose Mourinho’s Porto, and they finished fourth in Serie A in his first season.
The following season, still in a volatile financial state and under the control of Capitalia, Mancini was able to lead Lazio to victory in the Coppa Italia and a 6th place finish. He would leave the Rome club at the end of the season to go to Inter, taking with him a swathe of Lazio’s best players including Dejan Stankovic and Sinisa Mihajlovic.
Mancini would earn plaudits in Milan for winning three titles (one gifted by Calciopoli) and starting Inter’s domination, despite the aforementioned match fixing scandal. Following a short break after leaving Inter, Mancini returned to football with Manchester City.
Despite having scant impact on the English game as a player, it certainly left an impression on Mancini. Indeed, he maintains that his time at Leicester proved to him that he wanted to manage in the Premier League and he may never have accepted the job at Eastlands had it not been for his time in the East Midlands at the beginning of the decade.
In a strange twist of fate, tonight’s FA Cup third round replay takes place exactly ten years to the day since the Italian signed for Leicester City. The anniversary of Mancini’s first arrival in England is expected to be a happy one.
However, Sven Goran Eriksson and his rejuvenated Foxes will be hoping to make it an anniversary to forget by plotting the downfall of former protégé and player. And in a competition where scripts are regularly thrown from the window, anything could happen.
With thanks to Rocco Cammisola.