Champions of Europe

Posted by Simon Curtis



All stand please for the Champions of Europe.

One day I suppose Manchester City would quite like to own this title. For now, it belongs to Bayern Munich and boy did they rub it in at the Etihad. This was as slick a display of control, passing, running, tackling and shooting as has been seen in Manchester since cotton mills went out of fashion. City, not total strangers to bamboozling opponents with endless suffocating possession and rapier counter attacks, succumbed to a team doing exactly the same, only quite a lot better. Mesmerising, beguiling, persuasive. Even in these early days, Senor Guardiola has given the power and the glory of last season a little tweak here and a little touch there to upgrade the whole show to something close to perfection. Are Bayern even better than last season, when they ran Europe ragged? You bet they are.

The movement of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery out wide, the power and accuracy of Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the middle, the lungs and commitment of Philipp Lahm, David Alaba and Dante further back. Only the lumbering bulk of Jerome Boateng, ironically Bayern's only purchase from City, looked slightly out of place in this gilded masterpiece. Sadly, they were so good, even the dud City had managed to offload in their direction made little difference.

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If Bayern's lineup looked like a royal pageant, City too were almost full strength. Surprises at full-back, where Micah Richards edged out Pablo Zabaleta and the lightweight Gael Clichy replaced Aleksandar Kolarov and a place upfront for Edin Dzeko ahead of the raging bull Alvaro Negredo. The game soon broke into a disturbing pattern for City, Bayern swarming forward like a plague of locusts. City were first nibbled, then nipped at, bitten, and finally devoured alive, as the swarm washed over them like a hot carpet of non-stop fizzing energy.

Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, the much touted, much loved midfield axis, was throttled gently at birth, suffocated by the awesome presence of Muller, Schweinsteiger and an ever-changing cast of willing runners, passers and blockers. The home side, well used to toying with opponents, letting them chase the ball until they drop from fatigue, found themselves having exactly the same enacted upon them. Oh, what delicious irony. With the world's gaze turned on City to see what all the crowing is about, a scene of quasi-devastation met the viewer's eyes. The giant bulk of Toure, that charging elephant of Bondoukou, suddenly caught grazing and flicking straw over himself in the savannah twilight. His tiny accomplice, the foraging Fernandinho, lost in a maelstrom of advancing red shirts. City's omnipotent midfield maestros reduced to a small pile of dust.

That half time was reached with the game still not lost was seen as a giant blessing from above. Into the refuge of the dressing room and The Engineer would surely earn his corn, see what we had seen and give City's lumbering performance the shot in the arm that it was looking for. Bayern soon saw to that with two more goals, including a second to Joe Hart's unforgivably exposed near post. By the time more changes were made, City were no longer in serious trouble, but had advanced to the nil-by-mouth ward.

Negredo, David Silva and James Milner, Pellegrini's replacements, all made a significant difference to the flow of the game, but, by this time, the Germans were on auto-pilot and even the over-officious referee Mr Kuipers began to give his right arm a little rest. Negredo's sublime turn and finish provided the classic what-if.

Boateng, with speed of thought and movement of limb totally out of place in this well oiled Bavarian machine, was removed from the fray for tripping Yaya as he lined himself up for his first meaningful contribution of the evening. Silva smacked the bar with a prodigious free kick. A cloud drifted in front of the moon. Guardiola, seemingly still unhappy, despite his side's magnificence, appeared to play a giant piano at speed on the sidelines. More music, more poetry, he seemed to be demanding.

Despite the lung-stretching effort involved, these late daring deeds by City's desperate men had long been reduced to mere footnotes by the precision of Bayern's first half display. The job had been thoroughly and effortlessly done. City, looking once again like the Champions League novices that they are, were left to gaze towards the frozen steppes of Russia and wonder.

Pellegrini's journey into the English mentality will continue apace from here. There will be calls for his goalkeeper's removal. There will be arguments about Edin Dzeko or Negredo, Samir Nasri or Milner. There will be praise for his insistence that his teams play the same way, whoever represents the good name of Manchester City. There will be mention of the Under 19s six-goal thrashing of Bayern earlier in the day. The holistic approach so appreciated by Guardiola. There will be more talk than he had ever imagined, more hot air, more daft questions, but, what will not be put into question is the quality of the new, even better Bayern Munich.

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