Progress, but questions remain

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 18: Roberto Mancini the manager of Manchester City FC looks on during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 18, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Since exiting the competition at the Group stage during the 2007/08 season as manager of Inter, the 2012/13 Champions League season provides the first real opportunity for Roberto Mancini to fulfil a destiny in the competition; a desire that has burned ever since the tears fell to the Wembley turf back in 1992 when his beloved Sampdoria side were defeated to a late Ronald Koeman free kick in extra time at the hands of Barcelona.

Perhaps it is fate then that this years competition climaxes once again at Wembley, where Mancini & co experienced their pain some decades ago now. Yes, City made their bow in the competition last season but for large parts of the competition they looked the rookies they were at this level. There were some bright spots, of course, but a naivety about their play at certain key times ensured they failed (albeit by a narrow margin) to progress to the knock-out stages.

Fast forward to this season and the task handed to them in Group D is even tougher, with the ‘Group of Champions' comprising Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. A tough assignment but equally so, City are also a different proposition from the one that debuted a year ago. Buoyed by the cachet that comes with being Premier League champions, this is a squad that is more settled and has the benefit of not only having had another year of playing together but a year in which their mental and physical strength were tested to the limits.

The performance in defeat at Madrid showed signs of this. It was a far cry from the defeat to Bayern Munich this time last year, where - a brief, bright opening aside - they were outrun, outthought and outplayed; the gulf in class evident on the night where the fractures in the City camp were exposed with Mancini-Tevez contretemps.

Not so this time where City, despite facing severe pressure - some 35 shots at goal -from a side which rattled in over 100 goals (more than Barcelona managed) in La Liga last season took the lead not once, but twice and showed that they have options and variety in attack to trouble even the best of teams.

There are questions that remain however. Unlike their play in the Premier League, City have struggled to assert their authority and presence on games, especially so in the midfield area and of most concern are the lapses of concentration defensively. A team like Real Madrid will always be able to fashion chances, but contributing to these in the manner City did when twice leading so late will be a source of enormous frustration and do little to quash the thought that the City defence does not have the full trust of their manager in such games.

It was interesting to note that Mancini accused the side of a ‘lack of courage' at 2-2, and by sitting so deep they invited their own downfall where the smart approach was surely to bolt the door and escape with a precious point from the Bernabeu, a stadium where Real will reasonably be expected to take maximum points. To let such a position slide where any points (let alone all three) would have been a tremendous bonus could have wider implications as the group progresses.

The hope is though that the performance, if not the result, can galvanise the side for future fixtures. This is something that Mancini must manage, and makes his comments about Joe Hart all the more confusing. Was this Mancini's own frustration, or reasserting his authority over his charges?

One of the advantages of being seeded second is in the way the fixtures fall. Having got the toughest fixture out of the way first of all, they can essentially focus on it being a five-game group. The next three fixtures - Borussia Dortmund (1-0 winners in their own first game) at home and then back to back against Ajax will largely determine their fate. If they come through this mini section with seven points they will be well placed to progress by the time Real come to town at the end of November.

There is a sense though that City are this season better positioned to rebound from a defeat, in stark contrast to last season. The Bernabeu defeat felt more akin to a bump in the road of progress than a derailing but despite their progress the warning signs remain. Lessons will need to be heeded if City are to kick start not only their campaign but to announce their arrival as a force at Europe's top table.

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