By Wayne Veysey at Etihad Stadium
Manchester Citystaged another late recovery but were eliminated from the Champions League following a 1-1 draw against 10-man Real Madrid.
A late Sergio Aguero penalty gave the scoreline some respectability for Roberto Mancini’s team but a sober evening showed how far they have to go to compete on the highest club stage with a team of Real’s calibre.
Jose Mourinho’s side took an early grip of the match through a 10th minute Karim Benzema volley that they never looked like relinquishing until City threw caution to the wind late on.
Alvaro Arbeloa was sent off after conceding a soft penalty when he clipped Aguero with 17 minutes left and the Argentine stepped up to level the scores.
But it was not enough to stop City exiting the competition with one match to play, as Real joined group leaders Borussia Dortmund in the knockout stages.
Mancini, whose name was sung in bursts during the second half by City fans perhaps wary of a Chelsea-style boardroom sniper attack, was once again a frustrated figure as his miserable Champions League record continued.
He is now facing a battle to even compete in the post-Christmas Europa League, with even victory in Dortmund in a fortnight not a guarantee that City will finish third in the group.
On a chilly night that should have been the most glamorous European occasion in the club’s history, there was instead a distinctly low key feel as the blue moon remained in shadow of the continent’s elite.
City’s players, knowing qualification for the group stages was all but impossible, appeared to go through the motions early on as they struggled to adapt to Mancini’s 3-4-1-2 formation, which saw Pablo Zabaleta joining Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic in central defence.
Real, wearing racing green, accelerated through the gears in the opening 20 minutes as they carved open City’s leaky defence at will.
Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Luka Modric dominated the midfield to allow Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria to frighten the lives out of a defence which has been so shaky this season.
Ronaldo was in particularly irrepressible form, dancing his way down the left-wing to take advantage of the gap between rampaging wing-back Maicon and the floundering Kompany.
Somehow, the visitors only had Benzema’s early goal to show for their initial excellence. In what has been a familiar theme this season, City played Di Maria onside, the Argentine swung in a ball that found Benzema in oceans of space on the edge of the six-yard box and the Frenchman gleefully belted in the opener.
Ronaldo was a hair’s breadth from doubling Real’s advantage five minutes later but Nastasic made a rare invaluable contribution by hacking the winger’s finish off the line.
City dominated first-half possession, with 61 per cent of the play, but this was merely a footnote to the story of an opening period in which they were fortunate to be only a goal down.
Mancini threw caution to the wind after the break, sending on Carlos Tevez after an hour to join Aguero and Edin Dzeko in attack.
Galvanised by the home crowd, City were far more penetrative and, for the third successive home game in this season’s Champions League, staged a late recovery.
After 73 minutes, Aguero burst into the box and was clipped from behind by Arbeloa on the edge of the penalty box. The right-back, who was already on a yellow, received his marching orders and Aguero stepped up to coolly slot home the spot-kick.
It proved to be too little and too late, as City are once again left to reflect on their shortcomings in Europe.