City’s Champions League hopes were all but extinguished at a fiery Amsterdam Arena last night. It would take an unprecedented reversal in European form and a storming set of results for City to prosper now; victory against Ajax in a fortnight, the defeat of Ronaldo et al at the Etihad and a win at the raucous Westfalen against a mesmerising Dortmund side being the programme required. Don’t bank on it. For the third consecutive Champions League fixture City were second best and deservedly flew back from the Dutch capital pointless and with the post-mortem set to rage.
Questions will be asked of Mancini, from the owner of the club down to the fan on the terrace. It is certainly puzzling to see a side that displayed such unity and organisation on Saturday against the odds look so disjointed and directionless here. Sure, the calibre of opposition within the group is extremely strong – hence the Group of Death moniker – but for City to have taken only 1 point from a possible 9 and to sit mired at the bottom of the pack is damning for Mancini and damning for the Premier League. The pressure will only increase on the manager so long as the monkey is on his back – as is common knowledge Mancini has never progressed beyond the Quarter finals in the Competition. Despite the knee-jerk racket calling for change he will surely have the chance to rectify this in next seasons competition, yet a spectacular failing then will undoubtedly leave his position in jeopardy. Such talk is for another day.
For now, City must reflect on why they were outplayed by a younger, less experienced Ajax outfit. The only changes to the starting eleven from that which defeated WBA at the weekend saw Aguero restored for Tevez and ‘super-sub’ Dzeko earn a start following his match-winning heroics. Milner, Barry and Toure were to line up in a tight midfield unit, with Nasri and Aguero in support of the big Bosnian. Seemingly content to let the Dutch Champions play their own game and restricting them to shots from distance, City were fairly comfortable following an initial ten minute flurry where the home side overloaded the wide areas. Having said that, when Nasri expertly curled the ball into the corner just before the mid-way point of the 1st half, it still felt against the run of play. Incisive play by first Richards and then Milner created the opening, teeing up the Frenchman who finished with aplomb.
The goal was to offer a misleading sense of comfort. As thoughts drifted to challenges ahead and the half drifted to its conclusion, fans and players alike were brought back to reality with a jolt. Smart interplay between De Jong and Van Rhijn saw the familiar namesake slam the ball past a rooted Joe Hart to level the game. An inability to cut out the cross at its inception and indeed as it flashed across the area was disappointing to say the least. The contest had taken an unwelcome twist, right on the stroke of half time.
The opening of the second half proved to be City’s brightest spell as they began pressuring higher up the field and working harder to stifle the Ajax interplay that had left City looking pedestrian at times in the first period. However, the early sense of promise was punctuated when more lacklustre defending saw the Blues punished from a set play. The impressive Eriksen swung in the corner and a mistimed jump by Lescott did not get close enough to Moisander who was free to nod the ball home. Mancini’s response was to withdraw Lescott, previously unfavoured in the Champions League, and bring Kolarov into the mix, with a switch to a back three again utilised. The move did not have the required impact and not long afterwards Eriksen was able to find far too much space on the edge of the City box, evade a static Kompany and fire past Hart with the aid of a touch from Clichy. City were in dire straits.
Two decent opportunities for Edin Dzeko were spurned, unable to produce his best when it mattered. Nasri fired wide when under pressure. Tevez and Balotelli entered the fold and the game became open, with Mancini hoping sheer weight of numbers up front would prove telling. It didn’t. Ajax were still the more cohesive outfit and as the clock ticked away the trademark late rallies witnessed of late never seemed likely to be repeated. News that Dortmund had defeated Real Madrid only compounded the disappointment.
For many Blues the Champions League is seen as a fillip, a bonus – a jaunt round Europe as a reward for the many years spent in the doldrums. But the good faith and novelty will not last if failure is heaped upon failure and Mancini will certainly begin to feel the heat from Abu Dhabi as City look to establish themselves amongst the elite. Time is a precious commodity in football and with his domestic silverware Mancini has bought some. He will need to demonstrate that he has the nous and ability to sew together a successful unit at the highest level. If not then there will be only one logical conclusion. The players now need to demonstrate that they can adapt to the challenges of European football and not come apart so easily when Europe’s best begin to pull at the seams. Glory, rank failure or the Europa League await.
Man of the Match: Gael Clichy