London – To go out was bad enough, but it was a result from mainland Europe that put the misery of Manchester City’s second Champions League campaign into sharp relief.
Over in Amsterdam, Ajax had been soundly beaten 4-1 at home by Borussia Dortmund. That’s right, the same Ajax side who Manchester City had made look like world-beaters earlier in this campaign. Dortmund are a very good side, the champions of Germany, no less. But so are City, or at least we thought they were. Champions last season, unbeaten and top again in this, they are currently the best of what the Premier League has to offer.
Perhaps that is what makes their three points from 15 – with a dead rubber trip to Dortmund to come – so unsettling. Forget what it says about them; what does it say about the English, the Premier League, the one some conceitedly imagine still to be the best in the world?
Three teams in this group would dispute that. City earned a draw here with a decent second-half performance, but without doubt Jose Mourinho’s team made the mistake of easing off, feeling comfortable and confident having dominated the first half. This allowed City one last desperate roll of the dice and it fell lucky for them with a penalty that afforded at least respectability.
Alvaro Arbeloa looked to have stumbled while tracking Sergio Aguero and when his fall took the striker with him, referee Gianluca Rocchi of Italy eschewed benefit of the doubt, sent the Madrid man off and pointed to the spot. Aguero converted and City were back in the game: but it was too late.
A draw was enough to send Madrid through and City are playing for pride, and no more, in Germany next month. As it stands, they will finish bottom of the group and not even make the Europa League. Maybe that is just as well. Without the distraction of Europe, City can concentrate on what they do best: defeating English opposition.
Although suddenly that doesn’t sound so special any more. “The way this is going,” said Gary Lineker mischievously midway through the first half, “if Roman Abramovich had waited until tomorrow he could have appointed Roberto Mancini.” A tad harsh on Mancini, who is, after all, top of the league going into the weekend, but it did sum up the state of the game.
Mancini was again at odds dealing with his Champions League opponents and his best-laid plan “three at the back” was hastily rewritten to become a back four not long after Real Madrid scored. “Taxi for Maicon,” Tottenham Hotspur supporters had sung mockingly after Gareth Bale had laid waste to Inter Milan at White Hart Lane two years ago, and his experience against Cristiano Ronaldo was no less edifying.
What mystifies is how Brazil win a game on the days when when two defenders as lackadaisical as Maicon and David Luiz of Chelsea are in the team. If Luiz is a defender as controlled by a 10-year-old via Playstation, Maicon is a defender as controlled by that same 10-year-old well past his bedtime and feeling a little sleepy.
For Madrid’s first-half goal, one can imagine the poor little mite nodding off completely. Angel di Maria hit a deep cross from the right and Maicon stood becalmed as Karim Benzema ghosted past him to volley the ball into the net from impossibly close range. On other occasions, Maicon’s attempts to get close to Ronaldo were met with something approaching contempt, as the Madrid man played now you see it, now you don’t with the ball. He would show it to Maicon, make it disappear, out it would come again, and then gone.
One half-expected him to bring it out from behind Maicon’s ear, like an uncle with a shiny 50p piece. The cavalry arrived in the form of Vincent Kompany, but Ronaldo made a chump of him, too. He was loving the attention, loving being at the heart of it all, even if the reaction to his touches was a chorus of boos.
He knew what that meant, really. They were frightened of him, unnerved by what he was doing to their team.He didn’t disappoint on his return to the city that took his raw talent and moulded an unstoppable force. He has averaged more than a goal a game since joining Madrid, but the Spaniards signed the finish article. Manchester made Ronaldo, the red half of it, and it is questionable whether their neighbours would have been allowed to get quite so noisy had he remained.
Sir Alex Ferguson thinks his is a talent that cannot be bought but if anyone had the money to test that theory it would be City. Perhaps that is why canny Sir Alex keeps in touch; not because he thinks Ronaldo is a realistic target for United, but to keep him loyal and compromised if City ever come calling. And they will, one day, surely. As Ronaldo teased and twisted, skipped away from danger, threatened every time he got over the ball, what self-respecting owner-billionaire could be immune to his charms?
It was a low Ronaldo cross that set Benzema up for a close-range shot after 13 minutes, Ronaldo who put a cross on a plate for Sami Khedira a minute later, Ronaldo who sprang City’s defensive trap two minutes after that, chipped Hart exquisitely only to be foiled by Matija Nastasic’s desperate recovery to clear from the line.
When it wasn’t Ronaldo at the coal face of creation, Madrid had plenty of others with the wit to further spoil City’s night. Xabi Alonso dinked a lovely ball to Khedira after 24 minutes, the midfielder bursting through City’s square defence “four not three now” only for Hart to make a heroic save at his feet.As for City, despite the gravity of their position in Group D, pickings were slim in the first half. Aguero provided the best of it, on the counter-attack, with a powerful run and shot that Iker Casillas did well to tip over.
Maicon had a go at the end of a surging run, too, but City were better after half-time as the minutes ticked away and with it another disappointing season for Mancini in Europe. – Daily Mail