A thunderous free-kick from Aleksandar Kolarov earned City a draw against a Napoli side who could prove to be one of the dark horses of this competition; and in doing so they heralded their return to the big stage.
It is not often in football you get a sensation that history is being made but for City this was a match of real significance; their first ever in the Champions League and their first in the European Cup at all for 43 years.
For owner Sheikh Mansour, who has ploughed more than €1 billion into the club, the sound of the Champions League anthem echoing around the Etihad Stadium must have provided a moment of rare emotion.
But for City fans who have suffered long and hard since winning the Football League in 1968 — enduring a rocky road that passed through the old Third Division before finally finding its way back up to the top flight again — it was even more intense; and in the end reasonably satisfying despite missing out on three points.
“I think the result is fair on the game,” said manager Mancini. “And in the end I am happy.
“I think before the game we were so nervous because it was the first. All the players wanted to win this game and maybe wanted to score. I think if we play easy, simple, we can play better. It was the first game, but I enjoyed it and all the players played 100%. We know the Champions League is difficult but we started well and now we must win in Bayern Munich in our next game.”
Whether they can do that remains to be seen but City have come a long way from 1999 when they played in England’s third tier and only escaped the division after winning a play-off final on penalties against Gillingham.
There have been so many ups and downs that City fans have got used to being only one kick away from disappointment; so you could understand if there were nerves ahead of last night’s landmark fixture.
It would be ‘typical City’, some fan suggested to make a mess of their European bow, just as the heroes of 1968 had done. Back then, in City’s only previous European Cup tie, the English champions were drawn to face Turkish club Fenerbahce in the first round with assistant manager Malcolm Allison suggesting his team would “scare Europe to death”.
Unfortunately not even the legendary skills of Colin Bell, Mike Summerbeee or Franny Lee could unluck the Turkish defence in a 0-0 draw at Maine Road — and City lost the away leg 2-1.
That was it; City’s European dream over and forgotten in a fortnight. But this time, surely, it will be different.
Lining up against Napoli, it quickly became clear the current City side will not be brushed aside so easily.
Edin Dzeko signalled their intent by running on to a glorious Aguero pass and flashing a shot across goal that skimmed the far post in the 13th minute.
There was a scare when Ezequiel Lavezzi curled a shot onto Joe Hart’s crossbar but City went just as close when Toure struck a shot that was also kept out by the woodwork 10 minutes before half-time.
But soon it became increasingly clear the Italians are a far better side than many people predicted as Hamsik came mightily close to opening the scoring in 49th minute with a back-post volley that was athletically cleared off the line by Vincent Kompany. Then when Gareth Barry carelessly gave the ball away in midfield with an over-elaborate flick, Napoli struck as Christian Maggio ran the length of the field to set up Cavani to drill home an 69th minute opener.
The old City might have wilted but this new breed is made of sterner stuff. Aguero thumped a volley against the bar and then Kolarov’s ferocious left-footed free-kick made it 1-1 in the 75th minute.
Mancini admits City have much to learn. “I never said we are like Barca. I think we need to improve. We have fantastic players but every game in the Champions League is different. If we play simple I think we can play better, score and not concede any chances.”
MAN CITY: Hart 6, Zabaleta 6, Kompany 7, Lescott 6, Kolarov 7, Toure Yaya 7, Barry 5, Silva 7, Aguero 7, Nasri 6 (Johnson 75), Dzeko 7 (Tevez 81).
NAPOLI: De Sanctis 7, Campagnaro 6, Cannavaro 7, Aronica 6, Maggio 6, Inler 6, Gargano 6, Zuniga 7, Hamsik 7 (Santana 89), Lavezzi 8 (Dzemaili 57; 6), Cavani 7 (Pandev 83).
Referee: J Eriksson (Sweden)