By Liam Twomey
As many of those Manchester City fans a little longer in the tooth might tell you, a swift journey through the club’s tortuous history since 1981 would be enough to make anyone a firm believer in Sod’s Law. But even for the fatalists among the club’s long-suffering following, Tuesday evening’s last-gasp capitulation will surely have come as a shock.
Over the past six months, City have done much to bury their traditional ‘chokers’ tag. Late goals galore and a finishing run of six consecutive victories, including a home triumph over bitter rivals Manchester United and that unforgettable last-gasp final-day comeback against QPR, looked to have banished forever the more defeatist elements of the club’s collective psyche in favour of an unshakeable winning mentality.
For the majority of the second half at the Bernabeu this attitude was clearly in evidence, and brought City to the brink of a famous victory which would have been astonishing precisely because it was so undeserved. Edin Dzeko’s clinical finish and Aleksandar Kolarov’s devilish free-kick did the damage, while Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta also missed highly presentable opportunities.
But then, as Jose Mourinho unleashed more of his Galactico arsenal from the bench, their nerve failed them. The arrivals of Luka Modric, Mesut Ozil and Karim Benzema caused outright panic in the City defence. The Frenchman netted a superb equaliser and, as the sheer number of Madrid threats overwhelmed the visitors, Cristiano Ronaldo was fatally left one-on-one against Zabaleta.
Of course, there is little shame in losing in such a stadium, to such a manager or such a team. But the manner of the defeat understandably rankles with Roberto Mancini and his men. “When you come here you can lose, but with four minutes to go we were 2-1 up,” the Italian said after the match. “We had to pay more attention. But this is football. We played against a fantastic team.”
Joe Hart, however, was in no mood to credit the opposition. “They’re a very good team but so are we,” he insisted. “We can’t go 2-1 up and lose.
“You come to the Bernabeu and it’s a great stadium, amazing manager, amazing players. But we dug deep, we got a lead twice and we lost it, so we can only blame ourselves.”
Hart, arguably more than anyone, was entitled to feel aggrieved. Only his brilliance enabled City to withstand a frightful early Madrid barrage and be in a position to almost achieve an astonishing result against the Spanish champions after the break. He bears no culpability for his team’s defeat, though unfortunately the same cannot be said for his manager.
Those sceptical of Mancini’s ability to bring City to the pinnacle of European football were given little evidence to the contrary on Tuesday night. His decision to task a badly-faded Maicon with shackling both Ronaldo and Marcelo alone appeared deeply flawed from the start and, were it not for Hart, the match would have been beyond the Premier League champions by half-time.
Admittedly both Kolarov and Dzeko proved highly effective substitutes, but the former change was necessitated by a hamstring injury to Samir Nasri, while Mancini had little to lose by bringing on the Bosnian striker in place of an anonymous David Silva. When Mourinho’s own changes prompted City to drop deep and invite pressure, their manager could not persuade them to change course.
A maiden Premier League triumph quietened Mancini’s doubters for a time, but his Champions League record with Inter and City still gives them plenty of ammunition. This was far from the limp submission and stench of player rebellion which characterised defeat to Bayern Munich last September but, as long as the setbacks keep coming, the Italian cannot rest easy.
Nor is he helped by the fact that circumstances conspired to compound City’s misery. Nasri, so influential early on this season, may be absent for a number of weeks with the hamstring knock which forced his early withdrawal, while Sergio Aguero’s post-match comments expressing an openness towards joining Real Madrid – albeit later downplayed – could not have been worse timed.
Few will have much sympathy. Mancini has led City to the top of the English game, but until the reward for almost £800 million’s worth of investment includes European domination, Sheikh Mansour’s project will be considered woefully incomplete.
The Premier League’s greatest managers know well the scale of the challenge that awaits. Sir Alex Ferguson’s first Champions League triumph in 1999 came six years after his first domestic title. Jose Mourinho ran out of time at Chelsea. Arsene Wenger is still waiting.
Very early days it may be, but it is looking tough for Mancini to buck that trend – and silence the doubters – any time soon.
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