MANCHESTER // As Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers reconvene for the first time since the most astonishing, exhilarating, credibility defying end to a season in the history of English football, it is with two small words providing the subtext: what if? What if Sergio Aguero had not scored the 94th-minute goal that, in an instant, changed City from chokers to champions, transforming Etihad Stadium from a morgue to a party.
What if Paddy Kenny had saved, or Aguero had shot wide or Mario Balotelli had not picked out the Argentine anyway? "Probably you would be talking to another manager," said Roberto Mancini. Perhaps he was joking. His continued employment was never dependent solely on City becoming champions.
Instead, the Italian has signed a lucrative five-year contract. His position has been cemented by becoming the first City manager since Joe Mercer to win the league. Now comes the reunion. "The last game was crazy game," Mancini added. "If you thought before the game that was how it would finish ... impossible." He hopes for a calmer afternoon today. "We had a problem with our heart," he smiled. Heart rates and blood pressure, he hopes, will be lower.
Yet the vagaries of the added-time drama can deflect from the achievement. "We didn't win the championship in the last second. We won the last championship during all the season because we deserved to win it," Mancini argued. The credit belongs with him, too, even if Mark Hughes signed several of the side.
The former City manager spent liberally during his time at Etihad Stadium and has been busy again this summer. QPR return with a radically different side after 10 summer signings. But while Mancini's predecessor is today's opponent, a successor looms large on their fixture list.
The Champions League draw pitted City with Real Madrid, managed by Jose Mourinho. It is the marquee clash of the group stage but, Mancini insisted, about far more than his meeting with an old adversary. "Real Madrid have a big history in football," he said. "This game is not Mourinho-Mancini, it is Real Madrid-Manchester City."
Nevertheless, the Portuguese replaced Mancini at Inter Milan in 2008, winning the Champions League two years later. The credit, Mancini said, should not go his way. "They deserved to win the Champions League but the squad was not the same," he said. "He changed three or four players. He won the Champions League."
There is a coherence to Mancini's argument: he deserves the plaudits for the three Serie A titles won in his time in Milan, but not the two Mourinho subsequently secured. By the same logic, Hughes does not merit the praise for City's success.
Presumably, too, then, he deserves the blame for Rangers' slow start to the season. Hughes is setting about remedying it with a couple of notable additions. Esteban Granero, sold to the Welshman by Mourinho, is available to debut in midfield today, but Julio Cesar, bought by Mancini for Inter, will have to wait to make his bow in goal as he waits on a work permit.
City could field a former QPR player themselves with Scott Sinclair registered in time to appear after completing his £6.2 million (Dh36.1m) move from Swansea City. Maicon, the Brazil right-back, was also recruited from Inter in what amounted to a busy last day of the transfer window for Mancini after a frustrating summer when many of his premier targets headed elsewhere.
"Sometimes it is not possible to take all the players that you want," he said philosophically. He had a frenetic final day and Rangers a busy summer as their scattergun approach to signings yielded almost an entire new team. At least a different defence are spared another encounter with May's match-winner. But even without the injured Aguero, City will be going down memory lane.
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