Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Dark Blue

It started in defeat, it ended in defeat, and there was nothing to shout about in between. That’s the short, gloomy story of City’s 2012-13 Champions League campaign.

It’s difficult to draw any positives, other than the fact that the squad has gained more of the much-vaunted “European experience” that some quarters say is so essential in these kinds of situations.

Last year, one result ended up killing us – it was the 1-1 draw at home to Napoli. If we have won that, we’d have been into the knockout stages at the first time of asking. This year, three draws at home effectively gave us no chance, but by the time we came to the last of those home fixtures – against Real Madrid – the momentum was already lost.

And it had all started so well.

Travelling to Madrid for our very first match of Group D was no easy task, but by the 86th minute we were 2-1 up and heading for a historic victory. Five minutes later it had all gone wrong, a trademark Cristiano Ronaldo strike putting us to the sword, and we went home empty handed.  Looking back, that result was our Napoli result this time around, and we never recovered.

We could have put things back on track two weeks later, at home to Borussia Dortmund, but we came away with a point.  Then came the hammer blow. With the next two games coming first away and then home against Ajax, I think a lot of fans expected us to get things back on track with six points. Instead – once again - we only managed one, and things came apart.

But it’s one thing looking at the results and another to look at the performances – this is the real concern. Things were always going to be tough against Real, but we capitulated in the Bernabeu. We were played off the park at the Etihad against Dortmund. We lost a winning position away at Ajax, and then had to come from 2-0 down at home against the Dutch team to salvage a point. You can’t be going 2-0 down at home against the weakest team of the group and expect much in return.

There was a lot of debate surrounding the final game against Dortmund. Some fans wanted us to go for the win, snatch third spot in Group D and then qualify for the Europa League. Others wanted us to lose, finish bottom of the group and thus not qualify for a competition they saw as second grade, a distraction to our league and FA cup push.

Of course, the latter got their wish, and along with it came the record of being the lowest-ever Champions League group points total returned by an English club. That’s not a record I’m proud of.

A run to the latter stages of the Europa League would have also increased our UEFA coefficient, which in the long term will spare us the fortune of being lumped with a group as hard as the ones we’ve had to endure. Now we won’t have the chance to do that, and will instead likely have to face Group of Death part three next year.

We have of course also been unlucky with the draw in both years. I’m not an expert on UEFA coefficients, but this year, the likes of Malaga ranking (66th) and Montpellier’s (97th) are well below City’s (19th), and yet because of the luck of the draw, they got distinctly easier groups that City did. Drawing Dortmund in Pot 4 was the killer.  We could have had Cluj, instead we got the German champions. The margin of error in the Champions League is slim at best, but for us – this year - it was minute.

But we can whine on about draws all we want. For the money that has been lavished on this squad, for the facilities they have, for the player care department that pampers to their every need, there is no excuse – this Champions League has gone badly wrong for us.

Given our recent history, some will say we should be grateful to be in the Champions League at all. But that's a loser's view. We weren't there to make up the numbers.

One thing’s for sure – this early exit won’t have been in the 10-year plan of Mansour and Khaldoon. They invest in progress, not regression. And so for this club not to be involved in European football is surely unacceptable for the men from Abu Dhabi, the men who usually win, whatever they turn their hand to.

So now all eyes turn to the men in Manchester, who are tasked with winning. Inevitably, questions will be asked of them and of their leader, Roberto Mancini. The Champions League monkey on his back just got a whole lot bigger. Remaining in the Europa would have lessened the media/fan focus that is now going be brought with full force on City’s every move on the domestic front.

Silverware is managerial oxygen at the Etihad these days, and Mancini’s options are getting blocked off. He needs to keep winning – its as simple as that.

I’ve written before about Mancini’s days of judgment nearing. Those first set of judgments – a top four finish, winning a cup, and then winning the league – he passed with flying colours. But football waits for no man and now further judgments are on their way.

The team is at a defining point of their season. They’ve come nowhere near reaching the heights of last year and at times have looked a bit labored and out of ideas when the magic of David Silva is not around.

The wreckage of the Champions League lies around them, but somehow, the English Champions must put that ordeal behind them, find strength in adversity, and steal themselves for the task that now lies ahead.

Just look down the road – isn’t that what champions do?