City fail to learn European lessons
The Champions League is a private gathering of the best, and Ajax used to be nonpareils. They reinvented football while winning three consecutive European Cups in the 1970s. They provided the best advertisement for an academy and a passing philosophy in the 1990s. In 2012, however, the great believers in youth appeared an excuse for nostalgia. The modern-day Ajax, it seemed, were destined to be admired for their ethos but pitied for their points tally.
That was before Manchester City arrived in Amsterdam and a side with a starting line-up acquired for £3.8 million overcame one that cost £183.5 million, excluding substitutes Aleksandar Kolarov, Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli. Expenditure creates expectations, and they weren't that this City side was assembled to exit Europe so early. As it is, Roberto Mancini said a "miracle" would be required to extend their involvement in the Champions League after Christmas.
City have a developing a propensity to perish in groups of death, and if there was an element of misfortune last year this was supposed to be the season that showed lessons had been learned.
Progress to the last 16 was anticipated; instead, City have regressed. Defeat to Real Madrid was honourable in many respects, and if they were overwhelmed when drawing with Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga winners' brilliance was a legitimate explanation. In Amsterdam, however, they just failed, fractiously and grievously.
The statistical proof of their struggles is all too clear. A previously puritanical side embraced positivity to win the Premier League, but City have yet to find the appropriate balance between defence and attack in Europe. Opponents have had 71 attempts at goal in their three games this season, and it says something for Joe Hart's excellence that 'only' seven of those attempts have gone in.
The goalkeeper is a rarity, too, in performing on the continental stage. Yaya Toure was colossal in the Bernabeu and proved the outstanding player of City's maiden Champions League campaign. Kolarov, too, has had his moments, but few others have justified lofty reputations against the European elite.
Indeed, while their tough draws are mitigating factors, the reality is that City's record is worse than it appears at first glance. They have taken 11 points from nine games, but of their three victories, two came against a Villarreal side in an injury-induced meltdown that culminated in relegation and the other was against a second-string Bayern Munich, shorn of their stars after they had already secured qualification. In short, City's six most testing matches have produced two points.
It highlights Mancini's mediocre record on the continent. A manager with three Scudetti and a Premier League title to his name has never been beyond the last eight of the Champions League; usually he does not get that far. Mancini's mea culpas are familiar features of City's defeats, and he issued another Amsterdam. But, as is often the case, plenty of others were also blaming him. He is a popular scapegoat.
The mid-match switch to a back three, so audacious when executed against Real, rebounded when Ajax scored their third goal. The body language of Gael Clichy and the words of Micah Richards, two of the men most affected, suggested they were unhappy with Mancini's pet formation. But if, given Tevez's one-man strike in Munich, dissent has seemed a recurring theme of City's Champions League campaigns, the manager has a point. It is not unreasonable to expect high-class players to adapt to different systems.
Mancini may feel himself vindicated, too, by Joleon Lescott's travails. The Englishman was omitted for City's first two continental games, erred for Niklas Moisander's goal and was promptly substituted. It highlighted why the Italian wanted a proven world-class central defender in the summer transfer window and gives him fuel for his next argument with Brian Marwood.
Yet as he was the case 12 months ago, Mancini's mistakes have contributed to City's Champions League pratfalls. The decisions to start Edin Dzeko against Dortmund and Ajax, while reward for his Premier League form, were scarcely supported by the Bosnian's performances. Introducing Jack Rodwell when Javi Garcia limped off against the German champions backfired horribly, the Englishman presenting Marco Reus with the ball for the Dortmund goal. James Milner, an unused substitute, or Gareth Barry, not even on the bench, would have been better choices.
When Mancini tinkers, as he does continually, there are obvious comparisons with a compatriot that the super-rich deemed incapable of winning the Champions League. Claudio Ranieri was duly sacked by Chelsea.
Mancini is a different case, not least because he has broken through the glass ceiling by triumphing in the Premier League, was appointed by Sheikh Mansour and was rewarded with a lucrative five-year contract in the summer.
His players may be suspicious about his ideas and his reluctance to explain them while he, with a perfectionist's zeal and a control freak's reluctance to let games develop organically, interferes incessantly. Yet he is the common denominator in the comebacks that are features of City's Premier League prowess.
So, rather than Ranieri, he is starting to resemble Arsene Wenger circa 2000 - still regarded as an exotic creature by the English but a supposed sophisticate proving better suited to the hurly-burly of the domestic game than the more refined European game.
Indeed, it was after a defeat to Wenger that Mancini's side last seemed so forlorn: then, they were eight points behind Manchester United with six games to go in the title race and yet somehow still came out on top. But City required snookers then. Now they need miracles, and Mancini is no miracle-worker in the Champions League.