We all thought last year’s Champions League group stage was hard, but unfortunately for City, this year it is looking like a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The Blues' schooling in the highest class of club football goes on, and Real Madrid certainly dealt out a few lessons in their 3-2 victory at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night.
As we felt very painfully last year, the Champions League will always be a competition of fine margins, and so it proved again on Tuesday night.
After having been dominated in the first half (Madrid’s possession stats were something like 70 percent) City grew into the game and eventually went ahead with Edin Dzeko’s well-taken strike.
Then came the defining passage of play. Yaya Toure, our biggest threat going forward, went on another of those surging runs through the middle and found himself in on Iker Casillas, only to drive his shot into the side netting. Madrid went up the other end and Brazilian left back/left winger Marcelo scored, and City’s defensive dam had broken. It might’ve been a different game if we’d have gone 2-0 up. Instead it was 1-1.
But at 1-1 we still didn’t give up and when Alexander Kolarov’s freekick flew into the Real net on 85 minutes, you felt we were on the verge of something historic.
That only served to spur Real on, Karim Benzema leveling having been given the time to turn in the penalty area, and then in the final minute Cristiano Ronaldo of all people thumping a shot from the edge of the area past Joe Hart to secure the win and confirm our late, late capitulation. Ronaldo had been largely restricted to long range shots all night, but this final one turned out to be effective.
Hart should have done better with the shot. I don’t know whether his vision was blocked – and of course we should acknowledge the quality of the shot itself – but you felt the England number one should have least got his hand to it. That said, Hart was the main reason why we were still in the game when the first half came to a close, producing a string of fine saves.
Defensively too, we were not quite at the races, just as I don’t think we have been this season.
You can criticize Mancini for his selection, but you can also compliment him for his decisions.
Maicon and Matija Nastasic starting for the first time, Garcia in his second game, and Barry in his first game back after injury – were all risks, not in terms of quality, but in terms of consistency and understanding. Then again, football is a game of risks. Perhaps Lescott would have been a better choice – if nothing else than for the partnership he has with Kompany. Maybe he was injured.
But then, look at Mancini’s substitution of Silva for Dzeko – it gave us a cutting edge and put us in the lead almost immediately, and was an inspired substitution. We all would have been lauding Mancini for that if we had won.
The plus side of selecting Maicon and Nastasic is that they are being blooded with the rest of the team. The young Serb looks a good deal. I couldn’t have imagined Stefan Savic playing in this game, but this lad handled it.
We all knew it was never going to be easy against the Spanish champions, but that said, on another night we could have received a hammering. The most worrying thing for me was the first half performance – we could not get the ball off Real.
Barcelona tend to do that against Real when the two giants meet, so just imagine how City would have coped against Barca?
It just shows the gulf that exists between winning the Premier League and then taking on Europe’s cream of the crop, and it shows how far we still have to go to becoming Europe’s best, which is where we want to be.
I still feel that we should be winning a few more Premier League’s before the Champions League becomes a realistic target. Yes, we have a squad with European experience, but they have not played much together, let alone won together, Europe’s top competition.
The next game against Borussia Dortmund now becomes a must win. The importance of winning at home cannot be overstated. Last year, it was the home draw with Napoli at the beginning of the competition that kicked us out in the end. We should have won that game and we have to make sure that does not now happen again.