When Napoli last came to the Etihad Stadium, it was a landmark moment for Manchester City. It was 2011 and after 43 years they were once more competing for the European Cup. For the first time they would hear the Champions League anthem in the flesh and they could consider themselves as part of Europe’s elite.
Six years later, when the men of Naples returned to east Manchester, the club and their fans could think other thoughts. They were no longer just part of the Champions League; they might win it.
There are very few Champions League clubs that could have withstood the opening half-hour they unleashed against Napoli. “Devastating” was the word the Napoli manager, Maurizio Sarri, reached for to describe the opening exchanges. He thought Manchester City as likely to lift the European Cup as Real Madrid or Barcelona.
Put alongside Manchester City’s other results this season, a 2-1 victory at home might seem almost routine when set aside the five goals put past Liverpool and the seven scored against Stoke on Saturday.
However, Pep Guardiolaconsidered it one of his best victories of his time in Manchester. He interrupted a press conference he conducted in English, Spanish, Catalan and Italian to stress that he never praises the opposition just to be polite. In Bob Paisley’s phrase he does not ‘hand out toffee’.
Napoli had two penalties and only John Stones’s diving interception prevented Marek Hamsik from equalising. Perhaps six years ago, under Roberto Mancini, City might have lost this match. If City can withstand the fervent, menacing atmosphere in next month’s return at the Stadio San Paolo, they would back themselves to withstand anything.
“This wasn’t an easy game,” Kevin de Bruyne reflected afterwards. “They are the leaders in Serie A and I’d seen some of their games because my mate Dries Mertens plays for them so I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“It was totally different than against Stoke. They play a different kind of football, the kind we play. Our first half was excellent, the second a little bit less and Napoli play in the same way as us so it is difficult.”
There was one moment when De Bruyne appeared to have lost his temper with David Silva. The Belgian had been booked and wanted to dispute the decision with the fourth official. Silva, who was captaining Manchester City, intervened to stop the conversation.
“We just had a little discussion; a minute later and it’s forgotten,” said De Bruyne of his altercation with Silva. “I have those discussions sometimes with my wife – you, too, I suppose. Sometimes, it is needed.
“Not everything is always positive but this was something small. I wanted to ask something from the fourth official but I wasn’t allowed to.
“People often say that I am frustrated but that wasn’t the case – I was just a bit annoyed and for a minute I lost myself. One minute and it’s done. I don’t mind. At the highest level a discussion can be good sometimes to get everyone on their toes.”
One discussion that has already started is between De Bruyne’s agent, Patrick de Koster, and Txiki Begiristain, the club’s director of football, over a new contract.
There is no suggestion that De Bruyne who at Chelsea last month and on Tuesday night against Napoli has ripped apart the theory he does not perform in big games, is looking to leave the Etihad Stadium.
However, when it comes to paying for him, De Koster has compared De Bruyne’s salary with those handed out to Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and suggested that the 26-year-old might expect something approaching parity.
“My agent has already started talks with Txiki,” said De Bruyne. “But I am patient and I don’t stress about it.”