Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Dortmund keep City ambitions in check
Richard Jolly, Etihad Stadium
It was the best part of 36 hours after a bullish Yaya Toure and then a more tentative Roberto Mancini had insisted they could win the Champions League that, two games into their abortive campaign, the Europa League beckoned. Manchester City were minutes from a deserved defeat that would have left them six points behind both Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.
Then came a fitting form of rescue for the super-rich. Cheques have brought them to this stage and a Czech was their salvation. Pavel Kralovec, the Czech referee, saw Sergio Aguero's hooked cross hit the hand of the helpless Neven Subotic and rather generously pointed to the spot. With typical nonchalance, Mario Balotelli duly converted.
It was a reprieve but the reality is that City have one - distinctly fortunate - point from two Champions League matches. On this evidence, their ambitions appear utterly unrealistic. Rather than ending at Wembley in June, their campaign in this competition could conclude in Dortmund in December. If potential European champions were on the pitch - and given the distance between the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid and the rest, it is a big if - they were clad in yellow and black. Dortmund were dominant, producing a performance of technical expertise and tactical excellence that was married with pace and precision on the break. The only person who did not seem to believe they merited victory was, bizarrely, their contradictory but gifted manager, Jurgen Klopp.
Mancini did not concur. "The problem is our performance," he said succinctly. "It was very, very poor." There was one notable exception. Criticised by the Italian after the defeat to Real Madrid, albeit for his comments rather than his handling, there was only praise for Joe Hart now. "He was incredible because he saved everything," Mancini said. "We should say thank you to him." Two marvellous efforts from Mario Gotze were superbly deflected on to the woodwork, a pair of shots from Ilkay Gundogan somehow stopped. Marco Reus was denied by the inside of the goalkeeper's knee. "A fantastic performance," Mancini added.
A goalkeeper in an elite team can be an expensive insurance policy, seldom required but reassuring nonetheless. Not Hart, who has been frantically busy in City's Champions League campaign so far. The concern is that he was needed so often on a night when City's defence proved about as effective as the Maginot Line.
"It is my problem. I will solve it," Mancini said. He spent much of his evening unsuccessfully attempting to do that, tinkering with his team like Claudio Ranieri in overdrive. The balance between defence and attack is one issue, the demands of continental competition another. "The Champions League is totally different from every championship," Mancini said. Yet, in a captivating, compelling game, City brought the helter-skelter of the Premier League to the more refined world of the Champions League. The end-to-end action rendered it a footballing version of basketball mixed with the tactical chess of Mancini switching shape.
City went from 4-4-2 to a midfield diamond to 3-5-2 to 4-2-2-2, being outmanoeuvred by Dortmund at almost every step. "If you look at the tactical side of what we tried to do, we achieved that well," Klopp said. Gotze flourished in the hole before the break and switched to the right thereafter; he, Gundogan, Reus, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski fashioned chance after chance.
City's systemic troubles were compounded by individual failings. Neither full-back was afforded any protection by Samir Nasri and David Silva, and Yaya Toure played too high up the pitch in the first half and limped around in the second - Mancini strangely denying the Ivorian was injured - while Javi Garcia did go off. His replacement, Jack Rodwell, was shocking and not just because he presented Reus with the ball when the winger accelerated away to score.
A side with Rodwell as its defensive midfielder is too open. If Nigel de Jong slipped out of the exit almost unnoticed a month earlier to join AC Milan, he was missed now. City needed a nullifier. "We conceded a lot of chances," Mancini said.
They created a few, too. Hart apart, the sole positive was that the attacking axis of Silva and Aguero has been restored. A hat-trick of first-half chances stemmed from the Spaniard finding the Argentine, twice with defence-splitting passes, while Roman Weidenfeller made a trio of saves. "Both 'keepers played really well," Klopp added.
Only one team did. While City threaten a second successive early exit from Europe, there was a sense of history repeating itself. They struggled against German opposition at the same stage last season, losing to Bayern Munich 12 months ago in a match remembered for Carlos Tevez's refusal to warm up. A year on, the Argentine was an unused substitute again, not even asked to leave the bench. Mancini had enough other problems to worry about without the striking striker. Minus the Champions League sinner, however, City looked nothing like Champions League winners.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Joe Hart. A simply outstanding performance. But for the goalkeeper, Dortmund could have won by three or four goals.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Poor, as Mancini accepted himself. It is now only one win from six games and Saturday's game against Sunderland could be awkward if Garcia and Toure are ruled out. Rodwell has been error-prone in his brief City career and the decision to omit Gareth Barry from the 18 backfired. Joleon Lescott and James Milner, two of the other Englishmen, have slipped back in the pecking order too. After a flurry of goals as a substitute, Edin Dzeko was granted a rare start; he did not make the most of it.
BORUSSIA DORTMUND VERDICT: Brilliant. They floundered in the Champions League last year, propping up their group, but look far better equipped to go further this year. The one worry may be the profligacy of Lewandowski, who had a glorious chance to score their second, but his work elsewhere was excellent. Gundogan is not one of their marquee names but the midfielder was terrific, a goal threat who supplied the most inviting of crosses to Lewandowski. Gotze, meanwhile, showed what a huge talent he is.