Inter's Roberto Mancini owes some of his success to former club Lazio
Roberto Mancini will swear Sunday's game against Lazio is just like any other.
When he re-encountered Lazio for the first time after leaving to become coach of Inter a decade ago, the Elegantissimo (very elegant) Mancio said: "I don't feel anything special on facing my old team and I couldn't tell you if they remember be with more anger or affection.
"I was very happy in Rome and have great memories of that period of my life. But now my mind is on other things. I have to think about winning, not about my past at Lazio."
He won't be reflecting on a memorable October night at San Siro back in 1998 for instance. It was Beppe Bergomi's 500th game for Inter, a Calcio classic.
Mancini was playing in the baby blue of Lazio as a forward, his No. 10 shirt a little too big. There was lots of it to grab and pull but no one could hold him back. Escaping the offside trap with a run that was as precise as a Patek Philippe watch, Mancini found himself alone and in behind as defender Giuseppe Favalli's long diagonal ball dropped over his shoulder, for him to strike on the half volley beyond his former teammate, goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca.
At the half-time interval Lazio were 3-1 up at San Siro against Inter. They hadn't lost there in five years and weren't about to this time either. When Mancini was replaced in the second half, it brought no relief. Midfielder Diego Simeone had been sent off for Inter and Lazio's Pavel Nedved would follow but not before he put I Biancocelesti 5-1 ahead. Striker Nicola Ventola, a journeyman-type player Inter's new president Erick Thohir curiously once declared his favourite, did manage to restore face. He came on and scored twice to make the scoreline a more respectable 5-3.
Sitting in the stands, Inter's then owner Massimo Moratti, someone with a weakness for football genius, couldn't suppress the admiration he felt even in the bitterness of defeat. Mancini had enchanted him and not for the first time. He had tried to buy Mancini three times. Moratti's grand plan upon bringing the club back into his family's hands three years earlier in Feb. 1995 had been to sign Mancini when he was a Sampdoria No.10 and pair him with Manchester United's Eric Cantona. Alas, it wasn't to be.
In the meantime, Moratti had fallen head over heels for another player. In June 1997, he broke the world transfer record for Brazilian striker Ronaldo. Sensing an opportunity, Sergio Cragnotti, the Lazio owner, succeeded where his colleague had failed and persuaded Sampdoria to part with Mancini after 15 years at the Stadio Marassi.
The reaction wasn't what you might expect. Fans of the Biancocelesti already had an idol in striker Giuseppe "Beppe" Signori. They didn't need another one. Capocannoniere three times in their colours, could the older Mancini promise the same?
Cast as a usurper particularly when Signori went the other way and joined Sampdoria that winter, the Stadio Olimpico however was to be the place where, at 33, Mancini experienced a second youth. Reunited with Sven-Goran Eriksson, the most significant coaching influence of his career after Vujadin Boskov, what Mancini brought wasn't so much goals.
The back heel against Parma and his strikes in the Derby della Capitale live long in the memory but Lazio had Alen Boksic, then Christian Vieri and Marcelo Salas to put the ball in the back of the net. No. The step-change Mancini brought was in terms of mentality. He helped turn Lazio into winners.
Mancini made members of the dressing room who didn't truly believe they could lift trophies at this club, that there was enough talent to do it if only they took responsibility for it. The impossible was possible. Until Mancini arrived Lazio had won the Scudetto and Coppa Italia only once in close to a century.
From May 1998 to September 2000, a period of 864 days to be precise, the silverware the club's cleaners had to set about polishing grew exponentially.
Lazio won the Coppa Italia and reached the UEFA Cup final in Mancini's first season. They won the Italian Super Cup and the Cup Winners' Cup the next. It all culminated with the end of a 26-year wait for the title. Lazio were confirmed as champions on the final day of the season in 2000 after Juventus lost in the rain at Perugia.
Mancini became one of only four players to have won the championship with two different clubs without ever playing for Juventus, Milan or Inter. That same year, Lazio did the double. Salas also clinched the European Super Cup, scoring the only goal of the game against Manchester United in Monaco.
When Eriksson left in the winter to take up the England post earlier than had been arranged, Mancini, who had deputised as his assistant of sorts towards the end of his time at Lazio, departed for Leicester. It was to be the scene of his retirement. Upon his return to Lazio as coach in 2002, Mancini said: "I was Professor Eriksson's student, now I am the Professor."
He wouldn't enjoy the same resources as his mentor. For in the short time he had been away Lazio's circumstances had changed dramatically.
The players' wages hadn't been paid in six months. Top scorer Hernan Crespo had to be sold to Inter for 36m euros. As did captain, local boy and Lazio fan Alessandro Nesta who reluctantly accepted to go to Milan for 30m euros, doing it for the good of the team he loved. Gaizka Mendieta was loaned to Barcelona to relieve Lazio of the burden of his salary. None of this daunted Mancini.
Funny as it sounds now, he knew how to work in straitened circumstances. At Fiorentina, where he earned his coaching stripes and won a Coppa Italia, the finances were also abysmal. He personally had to guarantee midfielder Roberto Baronio's wages and did some wheeling and dealing, calling in favours like getting a young Adriano on loan from Inter.
Similar creativity in austerity was the order of the day at Lazio. In his first season on the bench, quite against the odds, they finished fourth and reached the semifinals of the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia. Galvanized in adversity, Lazio played better football than they had done under Eriksson and their reward came in 2004 when, for the eighth time (as a player and manager), Mancini triumphed in the Coppa Italia, overcoming Juventus 4-2 on aggregate.
Five Lazio players were called up for the Euros that summer. Some like Massimo Oddo, Stefano Fiore and Bernardo Corradi had never looked like playing for their country until Mancini had worked with them.
Jose Mourinho was the hot property in coaching at the time, but Mancini was also considered the next big thing. The papers in Spain were even linking him with the vacancy left by Carlos Queiroz at Real Madrid. But Mancini was already taken. As the banks closed in on Lazio, Moratti made his move and finally got his man in 2004.
Inter had signed Dejan Stankovic from Lazio that spring and were preparing to take Sinisa Mihajlovic, Giuseppe Favalli and Juan Sebastian Veron [on loan from Chelsea] in the summer. It was as if their new coach had already had a say in their recruitment. Lazio were sinking and Mancini abandoned them. That's how some saw it. But who could blame him? When relationships end, few are amicable. And so recollections of Mancini among Laziali are mixed, they're mostly sweet but also sour.
Back at Inter now and to his own considerable surprise given the acrimonious end to his first spell in charge, which came two days after winning a third straight Scudetto in 2008, the job Mancini is tasked with now is more similar to the one he did at Lazio a decade ago.
Though not as perilous, Inter's finances are sobering. Called by UEFA to explain how they seek to be Financial Fair-Play compliant, they recently posted a loss in excess of 100m euros. When it comes to recruitment the assumption is that they will have to sell to buy even if their new chief executive Michael Bolingbroke has told La Gazzetta dello Sport: "If Mancini asks for reinforcements, we'll find a way to satisfy him."
The aim is to return to the Champions League and to do that or at least keep the faint hope of accomplishing it in Serie A alive, Inter, down in 11th and seven points adrift of it, have to beat a better positioned more settled rival for that third and final Champions League place in Lazio on Sunday night. Win it and Inter can at least enjoy a Merry Christmas before the Derby d'Italia kicks off the New Year.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.