Thursday, March 15, 2012 ESPNsoccernet: March 16, 9:18 AM UK
A tale of two Cities
Richard Jolly, Eastlands
Romania can sleep easy. The Mancunian invasion of Bucharest has been called off, the Premier League's dominant duo beating a rapid retreat from the continent. Forget about the mooted all-Manchester Europa League final - there is not even an English quarter-finalist. For these exiles from the Champions League, even the consolation prize offered scant consolation. Even UEFA hasn't invented any more competitions they can drop into this season.
• Man City 3-2 Sporting
• Mancini rues 'strange' first half
And yet they took their leave in contrasting fashion. Athletic Bilbao's awesome evisceration of Manchester United was emphatic, Manchester City's away-goal defeat to Sporting Lisbon rather less one-sided. This was a tale of two Cities - mediocre for 45 minutes, magnificent for 45 minutes - and concluded with Joe Hart, 100 yards from his own goal, meeting Nigel de Jong's chipped cross with a terrific header. His Sporting counterpart, Rui Patricio, excelled at Hart's day job, flinging himself to his right to prevent goalkeeper from becoming goalscorer, matchwinner and miracle worker. Hart-break may have its benefits, focusing City's attention on the title race, but the immediate dividend came with injection of spirit, the confidence-infusing response and the return to the scoresheet.
But as comebacks on the continent go, they provided Manchester's answer to Arsenal, seeking four goals and finding three, coming up cruelly, closely short. They produced a storming finale, even if the misfortune at the end also reflected upon the missed opportunity that the first 45 minutes represented. Then City were flat, fractious and frustrated, trailing 2-0 and heading for a third successive defeat.
Substitutions, some seemingly strange, had an impact. So, too, did Roberto Mancini's reorganisation and rhetoric. Aleksandar Kolarov and Micah Richards surged forward on either flank. Nigel de Jong, the defensive midfielder introduced with City seemingly in greater need of attacking impetus, brought aggression and authority and Sergio Aguero was irrepressible and irresistible.
Scorer of two goals, winner of a penalty, the Argentine was outstanding. He was catalyst and common denominator, providing an unstoppable finish after Yaya Toure combined with Richards. Then the Sporting substitute Renato Neto felled the flying striker and a typically cool Mario Balotelli stroked home the penalty. Finally came an instinctive, outstanding half-volley, Aguero hooking the ball in after Edin Dzeko had flicked on Kolarov's corner.
Mission impossible had suddenly become mission probable. Sporting's defence were struggling, failing to cut out the crosses and being beaten in the air. Both Dzeko and Balotelli headed wide. Then Hart headed for the opposing box, almost supplying the rousing, remarkable finale.
"We did a fantastic 45 minutes," his manager said, before selecting a suitable scapegoat for the opening 45 minutes. "I am disappointed in myself." Mancini's mea culpas are becoming familiar - there was another in the defeat at Everton. "The first game we didn't play well; today in the first half we didn't play. I am the manager. It is my fault. I made a mistake."
Yet his players should share the blame as Hart was beaten twice in eight minutes. A free-kick was conceded by Balotelli with a needless barge on Emiliano Insua and converted by Matias Fernandez with a wicked curling free-kick. Then Bruno Pereirinho picked out Marat Izmailov, who darted in behind a static Kolarov and delivered a pinpoint cross. A sliding Richards could not cut it out and an advancing Ricky van Wolfswinkel tapped it in.
At that point, the exuberant rendition of the Poznan dance came from the mocking visitors; they seemed to be bouncing into the quarter-finals. Fourth in Portugal, 12 points adrift of a Porto side City beat 6-1 on aggregate in the previous round, they had lulled Mancini into a state of complacency. "Probably we thought after Porto that it was easier to play against Sporting," he admitted. "I left them a lot of space on the counter-attack." It was exploited adroitly.
"I am very proud of this team," Sporting manager Ricardo Sa Pinto said. "We know Manchester City is a big team, they beat Tottenham 5-1 and Manchester United 6-1 and I am really pleased to get through. That gives a good image of Sporting Lisbon."
A rather worse impression was supplied as they hung on, the match being delayed while the Sporting players developed inexplicable injuries that all seemed to necessitate considerable treatment. Unless Pereirinho, who accounted for four minutes on his own, actually is sidelined, it was excessive and unedifying in the extreme.
Having irritated, Sporting sought to endear. The eloquent Sa Pinto dedicated victory to the late Malcolm Allison, a beloved figure at both clubs. Indeed, City last replaced United as champions when Allison was Joe Mercer's maverick assistant. Now, once again, they pitted against one another.
"We were envious of United because they lost and we wanted to lose this game," a tongue-in-cheek Mancini said. If emulating them has long been the aim, it was the wrong way to go about it. But there are ways to depart a competition and at least City provided an enthralling end to their European adventure. Heroic failure can be captivating, but it is failure nonetheless.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Sergio Aguero. This may prove City's last game before another Argentine is added to the attack but, while Dzeko and Balotelli have blown hot and cold, Aguero has excelled throughout the season. A brace took his tally to 23 goals for the season. Sporting had no answer to him.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Mancini pronounced himself confident that they can win the title, but they could be four points behind by the time Chelsea visit. While Aguero was brilliant, there are concerns about other departments of the team. David Silva was substituted, which seemed a gamble but was justified, and is below his best while Balotelli was infuriating in the first half. A central midfield axis of Yaya Toure and David Pizarro obviously did not satisfy Mancini, who brought De Jong on. Meanwhile, if Joleon Lescott is fit to face Chelsea, it will mean Stefan Savic can be banished back to the bench.
SPORTING VERDICT: They seem a side better suited to attacking than defending, with Fernandez breaking from midfield to join the inventive Izmailov and the excellent Van Wolfswinkel. But with Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid and Valencia all in the last eight, they may go no further in the Europa League.