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Sep 14, 2011

Blue Moon rising

"Benvenuti", read the giant sign on the front of the Colin Bell Stand. Welcome to Manchester, as a previous and rather more notorious banner put it. Welcome, more to the point, to the Champions League. Forty-three years since their brief taste of its precursor, the European Cup, when Bell patrolled the midfield and Malcolm Allison promised to terrify Europe but failed to do so, Manchester City returned, offering hints of a belated repeat.

• Manchester City 1-1 Napoli
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• Champions League gallery Photo Gallery

Instead, like their goalscorer, they emerged bloodied but unbeaten. Aleksandar Kolarov broke his nose and hurt Napoli's hopes of a notable victory, bending a free-kick past Morgan de Sanctis to ensure nothing separated England and Italy's third best sides. A point may seem a meagre return on Sheikh Mansour's billion-pound investment but, two days after the 13th anniversary of the time City met Macclesfield as equals, their very presence is progress. The Blue Moon is up with the stars, and City now have a galaxy of talent themselves.

So, too, do Napoli. These are clubs with far more in common than a fondness for sky blue. Having followed their sides through thin and even thinner, noisy neighbours and even noisier Neapolitans turned up the volume; these migrants from what is now League One and Serie C are in more desirable surroundings, their sides garnished by deluxe performers.

While City had a Holy Trinity of Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee when they were last among the continent's elite, Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, David Silva and Samir Nasri are shaping up as a modern-day Fab Four. Napoli have a terrific triumvirate of their own in Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi. A triangle where the points were equally capable of interchanging, they troubled City on the counter-attack.

Each could have scored, Lavezzi bending a glorious shot against the bar after fooling Vincent Kompany with a fine turn, Hamsik seeing the City captain clear his low drive off the line and Cavani drilling Napoli into the lead after being released by Christian Maggio. "We lost a stupid ball for the goal," said Roberto Mancini whose preferred euphemism for the style of football he thought City should adopt was "simple".

Complicated, by implication, was the backheel that Gareth Barry attempted as City squandered possession. "When we lost that goal we didn't have any midfielders in front of the defenders," Mancini noted. "Taking seven or eight players forward will not work." He speaks the language of a 21st-century Nereo Rocco, the inheritor of the traditions of catenaccio, but a bold approach lent itself to different conclusions.

Indeed, it was a game to suggest the stereotypes of Italian defensiveness are outdated, if not plain wrong. In his own way, Napoli's Walter Mazzarri was as adventurous as Mancini. The latter's side struck the woodwork twice, with the quicksilver Aguero a common denominator. The Argentine was the provider when Yaya Toure hit the underside of the bar and then inches away from his sixth goal in three games at the Etihad Stadium when, after Nasri crossed, his shot had slightly too much elevation.

Rather than the £38 million striker, Tony Coleman's record as the last (and indeed only) City player to score in Europe's premier club competition fell to the £19 million left-back. Kolarov ensured his side took a point, beating De Sanctis, who scarcely moved, at his near post. The goalkeeper was the sole starter for Napoli with prior Champions League experience whereas City boasted plenty, albeit in the colours of other clubs. Mancini nevertheless diagnosed a case of opening-night nerves. "Before the game we were so nervous," he said. "But in the end I am happy and I think the result is fair." This was father's day for him, and he anticipated further criticism from dad Aldo, but a first such occasion in 21 years for Napoli, whose last experience of the European Cup came when Diego Maradona was their talisman, not Aguero's father in law.

Absence, it seems, has made the heart grow fonder. An effusive Mazzarri said: "I think the whole team had a great game from the keeper to the last substitute who came on." As Mario Santana, that self-same replacement, only entered proceedings in the 89th minute, it showed that the underdogs had much to savour and Group A, tipped to be the Champions League's toughest pool, is living up to its billing.

City began as favourites on the night but, as they have discovered all too often in their long exile from Europe's grandest stage, that can merely make the upset more embarrassing. After exiting cup competitions to Brighton, Doncaster, Chesterfield and, further back, Halifax, a setback against Napoli seems smaller. But they have to find a way of getting another nine points or benvenuti will become arrivederci.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Marek Hamsik - Whether with sweeping cross-field balls, delicately incisive passes or attempts at goal, the Slovakian captain looked a class act. Alongside him, Lavezzi and Cavani were equally impressive.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Given the criticisms of their cautiousness last season, it feels wrong to carp about City being too attacking but Napoli relished the space afforded to them. Perhaps for the first time in his month-long absence, they missed Nigel de Jong from the centre of midfield. But, as they have done in the Premier League, City created plenty of chances.

NAPOLI VERDICT: If they began as the outsiders in the group, this draw, coupled with Villarreal's home defeat to Bayern Munich, suggests they are very much in a three-way race for second place. Their 3-4-2-1 formation is unusual and City found it hard to counter, while Mancini praised the visitors' three central defenders.

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