City 2-2 Ajax

Alex Livesey

A little late with the report but read on for another tumultuous European night for City...

The first thing to state is that there has been more than enough invective across the airwaves and column inches filled regarding Roberto Mancini and there is no inclination to add to them considerably here. There is little doubt that the media narrative at present depicts the Italian as a man with a Champions League shaped achilles heel, a man in danger of losing self-control, the dressing room, the plot and ultimately his job. Start with a spiky press conference here, revelations of late season flirtations with other clubs there and ex-Nou Camp employees cropping up at the Etihad and for some the writing is on the wall. Not for those Blues with memories that extend beyond 13th May 2012 and patience that has been stretched over decades on the Maine Road terraces. Questions should be asked and European ruts cannot last forever - not for a club with City's ambition - but Mancini will know that more than most. Next season's Champions League campaign has to be the dealbreaker.

The clear fact of the matter is that the players have under performed in every European fixture this season, albeit against very strong opposition. Real Madrid need no introduction and Borussia Dortmund who announced their credentials with a dazzling display at the Etihad and have since taken 4 points from the Spanish champions are being mooted as potential winners. The real disappointment for City has come with the back to back fixtures against Ajax, extracting only 1 point for their troubles. Yes the Dutch champions have a technically gifted young team, with future stars in Christen Eriksen and Siem De Jong and a raft of future Holland internationals throughout their line up. Yes, they have displayed in both fixtures a unity and natural coherence that comes with years of playing together, schooled in the ways of all things Ajax. But the truth remains that the physical strength and individual experience coursing through this City line-up, not to mention the exceptional technical qualities therein should have been more than a match for the men from Amsterdam.

The errors have been basic and have been brutally exposed. To concede so feebly from a corner is always a major frustration, to do so twice inside the first 16 minutes of a must-win encounter is unforgivable. Some may wish to question Hart or Zabaleta, others Barry or Toure, but the lack of mental acuity and authority across the backline ensured that it was another collective failing for a defensive unit that had finally begun to resemble that of last season.

What cannot be questioned about this group - and indeed something that Mancini has instilled but is given no credit for - is the never say die attitude; the iron resolve that refuses to waver; the qualities that came to define the title winning campaign of last year. After shooting themselves in both feet, City rallied again and were only denied the soul stirring victory by a linesman with an eye on Kolarov's toes and a referee who froze when faced with a paradigm shifting decision seconds from the end.

These complaints are far from being excuses or sour grumblings, merely a demonstration of the fine margins that seperate success from failure, the details that define football matches, media narratives and ultimately players and managers careers. How the type would have been so different and the storm around Mancini so subdued with either of these officiating calls going the way of the home side. It was not to be.

With the home support having to face the ignominy of listening to foreign supporters taunt them in English better than that which they speak for the 2nd consecutive Champions League game, Yaya Toure's impeccable control and scissor finish gave them something to shout about. What followed for the remaining three quarters of the game was a patchy City display - at times controlled and threatening - at others disjointed and subdued, far from their best but by no means poor.

Even with the Nigel De Jong tinted glasses back in their case Javi Garcia has yet to demonstrate why he is worthy of £16.8 million and his removal at half-time for Mario Balotelli ensured that City had a potent figurehead to aim for and the storytellers in the press box had a potentially combustible character to get excited about.

It ws a headed flick from the Italian that enabled Aguero to scamper clear and coolly finish to fill a slightly subdued stadium with false hope. The goal will be the tonic the little Argentine needs and there was enough from him in flashes to reassure he is returning to peak form - although one hopes he wears lengthier studs for the visit of Tottenham on Sunday.

It was refreshing to see the all action Zabaleta return to the side and offer the attacking outlet on the right that was missing on Saturday. In a typically combatative display the full-back came close to scoring on a couple of occassions. Unfortunately Samir Nasri was again underwhelming and needs to start operating in more damaging areas of the pitch and Gareth Barry had one of those games against continental opposition where he appears to be so very English.

And so to the sanctuary of the EPL with Spurs at the Etihad next - themselves not an all together happy outfit at times this season, with a manager who knows all about the trials and tribulations of being at the epicentre of a media storm. No question this will be a stern test for City and as is football's way, provides an instant opportunity for the players to put Tuesday's failings aside, put in an inspiring display and cast those sharpening their knives back into the shadows. Man of the Match: Pablo Zabaleta

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