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Manchester City, a work in progress
The last time that Manchester City found themselves amongst Europe’s elite Malcolm Allison famously opined that they would ‘terrify Europe’ – only to fall flat on their faces at the first hurdle. There were no such proclamations this time around and on the evidence of their first foray back in the Champions League last night they were wise not to have done given the obstacles to overcome to ensure progression from a difficult looking Group A.
In his post-match press conference Roberto Mancini suggested a degree of nervousness or naiveté permeated their opening performance, stating “A team like us can’t concede goals like this. When we lost that goal we didn’t have any midfielders in front of the defenders”. This of course in reference to being caught on the break by an incisive Napoli side when Gareth Barry was guilty of losing possession high up the field that resulted in Napoli’s opener. But even before falling behind there were signs that this was a Napoli side who not only could provide an upset or two along the way but have a very real shot at making the knock-out stages themselves.
City certainly dominated the opening half; buoyed by recent form in the Premier League they seized the initiative early and enjoyed the advantage both in terms of possession and territorial advantage. The intricate movement and precision in and around the box – the sine qua non of their Premier League performances so far – was missing: a combination of their own profligacy but also the discipline of their opponents who set up well defensively and offered little in the way of opportunity. In fact, the most clear cut chance of the half fell to Ezequiel Lavezzi who opened his body perfectly but saw his shot come back off the bar with Joe Hart well beaten.
Whilst the much-vaunted front three of Napoli rarely shone, they provided enough spark to trouble the City back line. Vincent Kompany in particular can rarely have looked less-assured in a City shirt – although his vital clearance off the line was a match saving one. As Napoli grew in confidence, their endeavour became more apparent and the influence of Gokan Inler was noticeable. It was he who imposed himself in central midfield and drove the Italians on, whereas Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure had done so earlier in the game.
As Napoli sprang into the life, the front quartet of City withdrew and became more anonymous: their usual effervescence lacking and whilst both Adam Johnson and Carlos Tevez were introduced this was too late in the game and their impetus and drive was required far earlier in the proceedings. Perhaps then, it was most likely that a City equaliser would come not from open play but from a set piece and so it proved. Aleksandar Kolarov, restored to the line-up and facing constant pressure from the Napoli right, struck home sweetly from 25 yards out to earn City a point which on the balance of play was much deserved but which was beginning to look beyond them.
City next travel to Munich to take on Bayern, who top the table following a 2-0 win over Villareal. The Group is still in its formative days of course but that trip to Germany takes on a greater significance with City knowing defeat there could now prove extremely costly having dropped vital home points. Mancini was bullish after the game though, saying “We will do better in Munich. We will be calm, more than tonight and we can win there. They are a fantastic side but we have a team that can win anywhere.”
The Champions League odyssey may be underway then but at this level City still remain a work in progress.
By Danny Pugsley – bitterandblue.com
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