Manchester City set to win race to sign 'Balkan Messi' Alen Halilovic

By Chris Myson

Manchester City are set to win the race to sign Alen Halilovic, the Dinamo Zagreb sensation who has been coined the ‘Balkan Lionel Messi’.

Roberto Mancini’s side have beaten off fierce competition from clubs around Europe, most notably Manchester United and Real Madrid, both of whom have long been credited with holding an interest in the 16-year-old wonderkid.

City officials have been in Zagreb since Monday trying to thrash out terms to bring the starlet to the Etihad and an agreement is now in place for a deal that could eventually be worth around £9 million.

Halilovic is the latest impressive graduate from Dinamo Zagreb’s academy, which has also produced stars such as Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar, Vedran Corluka and Mateo Kovacic.

The attacking midfielder has already been touted as the finest Balkan player of his generation despite the limited amount of first-team experience has picked up so far.

He made his senior debut off the substitutes’ bench in a 3-1 win over bitter rivals Hajduk Split in September, an appearance that made him the youngest ever debutant in the Croatian top flight at 16 years and 102 days.

Just 10 days later Halilovic broke another record – this time becoming the league’s youngest ever goalscorer after netting with a superb Messi-esque chip in a 4-1 rout of Slaven Belupo, while last month he became the youngest player to play for Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League when he appeared against Paris Saint-Germain.

Once the transfer is announced, he would become City’s seventh signing of the season following the arrivals of Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Maicon, Scott Sinclair, Matija Nastasic and Richard Wright.

While Mancini’s men were drawing 1-1 to Real Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday night, Halilovic was getting another small taste of European action, coming off the bench for the closing stages of Dinamo Zagreb’s defeat to Porto.

Halilovic is a Croatia youth international, currently playing at under-17 level for his country.

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Manchester City owners did not expect Champions League progression, insists Mancini

Roberto Mancini has insisted that Manchester City’s owners did not expect the team to progress from their “difficult” Champions League group.

The Premier League champions’ second consecutive group-stage exit was confirmed on Wednesday night thanks to a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid – only City’s third point from five games in the competition.

And the 47-year-old, despite the claim, admitted he is disappointed with the failure to advance given the talent in the squad and is now keen to right the wrongs domestically.

When asked by Sky Sports if the club’s owners would be aggrieved with the team’s failures in Europe, Mancini replied: “No. We knew it was a difficult group. But we had a good team, when you lose against Madrid and Dortmund you are disappointed.

“I am disappointed like everyone here but also when we started this group we knew it’d be a difficult group. We are a good team and we went out and we made some mistakes.

“The fans are fantastic. They understand we are disappointed like them. They are really important because the season isn’t finished. We are top of the league, we have the FA Cup. Now it’s finished we can do nothing.”

Unlike last season, when they snatched 10 points before being knocked out, City are yet to register a win in the competition this term, and Mancini rued mistakes in previous games – namely the two late goals conceded against Real Madrid on matchday one.

He continued: “I think that we didn’t lose tonight, we lost in the first few days. Madrid, and Dortmund at home. It was a different game but 2-1 with five minutes to go.

“In Amsterdam, we scored, but we were missing one or two chances to close the game.”

Manchester City crash out again as Mancini's identity crisis continues

By George Ankers

Roberto Mancini may say that a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid is not a terrible way to exit the Champions League, on paper at least.

But the truth is harsher than that; Manchester City were dumped out thanks to a performance far worse than the scoreline suggested, a harsh penalty and red card, and a lack of any visible plan.

Mancini likes to point out that this is only his team’s second season in Europe’s elite competition but, no matter how many times that they have played the continent’s big boys, the Premier League title holders should at least know what they are trying to do.

The Italian’s tactical plans this season have flitted between three and four at the back, with various combinations further upfield, at almost random intervals. Micah Richards gave the game away after the defeat to Ajax when he admitted that the players struggle to understand such switches.

In this case, the change from three to four was enacted after just 20 minutes after a frankly humiliating period in which Madrid battered the home side and should have scored at least three more than they did.

The most baffling thing about the initial formation was that it seemed to betray a lack of research about the Spanish side’s strengths. Mancini must have known that Madrid would press in midfield, that Sami Khedira would push up to support Luka Modric in the hole while Xabi Alonso held.  He left Yaya Toure to deal with all of this on his own.

With neither David Silva nor Samir Nasri in a position to support him, the Ivorian was totally overrun as Khedira’s movement allowed Modric vast expanses of space. Cristiano Ronaldo spotted the party and cut inside to have a slice of cake. The Portuguese tore past Vincent Kompany with total ease and should have punished him for it.

Indeed, his under-hit dink, cleared at the last moment, when Joe Hart came off his line seemed to be affected by overconfidence. Ronaldo relaxed as he poked the ball lazily over towards the far corner, certain in the knowledge that the rabble before him would soon put it on a plate again.

It was hard to disagree with his expectations, having just watched Karim Benzema’s opener. A total travesty from the entire City back line, it started with the three centre-backs. Presumably there to crowd the Frenchman out of the game, they instead all converged on the penalty spot, unwittingly inviting him to exploit massive gaps elsewhere.

As Aleksandar Kolarov did not even bother to close down the cross from the right flank, Angel di Maria’s delivery was unopposed. Maicon stood on the other side of the pitch, facing his centre-backs so certainly able to see that Benzema was not with them. But he did not bother to check where the striker might have moved to and so allowed him to sneak around the back of him without any trouble at all. Joe Hart was right to swear.

The fatal collaboration of indifference and a misunderstood defensive system, the goal should have preceded several more. A sharper touch from Khedira, forward to skin the back line shortly after, would have ensured as much.

It is obvious that, if 3-5-2 is how Mancini envisions his side playing in important games such as this, he needs to impose a much greater understanding of it. The concerns raised by Richards have clearly not been addressed.

But change back to 4-4-2 he did, as a necessity in the circumstances. Javi Garcia was introduced at half-time, precisely 45 minutes too late. Where was the Spaniard at the start of the game? Brought in this summer as a more rounded holding player to replace Nigel de Jong, Mancini needs a player like Garcia to support Toure defensively and set him free further forward, as was the case in City’s most defining moments last season.

There is simply no evidence that Mancini has any idea what his best team looks like. Gael Clichy was injured for this match but he and Kolarov tend to just draw straws for the left-back berth most weeks. Carlos Tevez combines brilliantly one week with Aguero and is then dropped for Edin Dzeko, proven to be effective off the bench, to face Madrid.

There is consistency of neither selection nor basic shape and, when you come up against elite teams such as Real Madrid or Borussia Dortmund, that kind of behaviour is punished.

The champions of England were drawn with the champions of Spain and the champions of Germany in the same group. Failure to qualify in that circumstance is forgivable – but failure to approach the challenge with a focused vision is not.

On the day when the man who won the Champions League at the first attempt was sacked, Manchester City’s owners must be wondering how long to persist with one who cannot seem to get to grips with the competition – or his team’s fundamental identity – at all.

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Manchester City 1-1 Real Madrid: Hosts crash out despite Aguero leveller

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.  

TEAM NEWS: Dzeko partners Aguero in attack for Manchester City against Real Madrid

Roberto Mancini has dropped Carlos Tevez to the bench for Manchester City’s Champions League tie against Real Madrid with Edin Dzeko handed a rare start.

The Bosnian has largely been used off the bench by the Italian manager this season, but he’ll start up front alongside Sergio Aguero. Mario Balotelli remains absent from the squad.City name five defenders in a hard to decipher line-up that could see Samir Nasri partner Yaya Toure in the heart of midfield, with Alexsander Kolorov and Maicon wing-backs. Gael Clichy was unable to shake off a knock he picked up against Aston Villa.

Jose Mourinho has selected former Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric, making only his second start in the Champions League for Madrid.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria complete a dangerous attack anchored by Xabi Alonso and Sami Kehdira.

Manchester City: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic; Maicon, Yaya Toure, Nasri, Kolarov; Aguero, Dzeko, Silva.

Subs: Pantilimon, Lescott, Milner, Garcia, Barry, Sinclair, Tevez.

Real Madrid: Casillas; Arebeloa, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao; Xabi Alonso, Khedira; Di Maria, Modric, Ronaldo; Benzema.


More to follow…