Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Tinkering pays off for Mancini
Richard Jolly, Eastlands
Around half an hour is remaining. Manchester City need a goal to revive their Champions League campaign. Roberto Mancini needs to do something, anything. He has an Argentine striker on the bench, a multi-million pound signing with a glorious goal-scoring pedigree. He has the issue of Nigel de Jong, the efficient defensive midfielder whose goals are collectors' items. His decision has considerable consequences.
• Man City 2-1 Villarreal
• Champions League round-up
• Champions League gallery
For Munich in September, read Manchester in October. Except that, this time, a different choice brought a happier ending. Having initially overlooked Carlos Tevez to introduce De Jong in Bavaria, Mancini plots a more adventurous path. Off goes De Jong, on comes Sergio Aguero. Deep into added time, as frustration mounts, City's two remaining in-favour Argentines combine. Pablo Zabaleta slides in the low cross, Aguero pokes it over the line.
Mancini, that model of chic, punches the air wildly, almost uncoordinatedly. Dignity has become a secondary consideration as City, for whom the Champions League seemed to bring only ignominy and controversy, grasped at a lifeline. Qualification, which had appeared improbable, now looks very possible. "It would have been very difficult," Mancini said. "For us it was really important to get the first win in the Champions League. Everything can happen in this group, also for first place." A goal has changed his mindset, perhaps City's entire campaign on the continent, though he added: "In that moment, we were lucky because we need to be lucky to score in the last minute." It is not the argument advocated at Old Trafford, but injury-time winners are not a monopoly of Manchester's other club.
Like Tevez, they have become a shared commodity. Yet the other boy from the barrio, like the absent refusenik, was not the first replacement summoned, either. Mancini's signature substitution may be introducing a defensive midfielder. On a night of constant changes, the Premier League's new tinkerman from Italy can reflect upon choices that paid off.
His is an undistinguished Champions League record and City's was an unimpressive start, to the night and the group alike. Managerial input helped account for the turnaround. Five minutes before half-time, Adam Johnson exited, the less adventurous Gareth Barry entering proceedings. "We conceded four or five counter attacks and we didn't have many players in the middle," Mancini said. "I wanted to move Yaya [Toure] behind Edin [Dzeko]. It was a tactical substitution." The Ivorian exerted an influence in his more advanced role. City soon levelled, Aleksandar Kolarov's cross being turned in by Villarreal's Carlos Marchena.
Control was regained and chances created by the switch in shape. A draw, though, was not enough. Time for his top Kun: Aguero, benched after recovering from a groin injury, fashioned one wonderful opportunity for Dzeko with a mesmerising run, before his cruelly late goal. "My players thought it was offside, but it is not offside," Juan Carlos Garrido, Villarreal's manager, said.
It was a close-range finish, but a crucial one from the one blameless member of the City attack. Misbehaviour carries consequences, a message City's errant strikers ought to learn. Tevez has served an in-house suspension, Mario Balotelli completed a UEFA ban for his dismissal against Dynamo Kiev last season and Dzeko, starting for the first time since his petulant reaction to being replaced in Munich, was wasteful in the extreme.
Diego Lopez saved well from the Bosnian once, but the majority of his efforts occupied spectators, not goalkeeper. Dzeko has gone from flood to drought, failing to score since September, and it required the surer touch of Aguero to sink the Yellow Submarine of Villarreal.
Watched by 20 travelling fans, who were guarded by rather more stewards, the team from the lower reaches of La Liga led. Carelessness has been a contributory factor in the goals City have conceded in each of their European games. This was no exception, as a rare stray pass from David Silva put De Jong in trouble. Jonathan de Guzman picked his pocket and set up Giuseppe Rossi. His shot was parried by Joe Hart but a common criticism of the goalkeeper is that he pushes too many efforts into the path of on-rushing opponents. This was another, Cani converting.
City's response was admirable but their radar was awry. "In the Champions League, when you have one chance, you must score," Mancini said. "We had a lot of chances." Most were fashioned by the full-backs. While Johnson, Silva and Samir Nasri veer infield, City can lack width, which enabled Villarreal to defend narrowly. When they were outflanked, it was by Kolarov and Zabaleta, the left-back delivering a stream of crosses and the right-back having two opportunities to secure victory himself. Instead, he enabled Aguero to do that.
City's venture into the Champions League remains memorable for the actions of one Argentine. Now it is notable for the involvement of the other pair, too.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Aleksandar Kolarov. "The Serbian Roberto Carlos," a nickname that bemuses Kolarov himself, has rarely appeared an apt moniker. This was an occasion when it did, Kolarov making rampaging runs on the left flank, twice almost scoring with vicious free-kicks and thumping the ball into the Villarreal net, albeit when he was ruled offside in a captivating performance.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: A vital win means City's trip to Naples, for their fifth group game, looks pivotal. If they are to prosper there, Mancini's men will need to be more clinical and cut out the errors that are costing them goals.
VILLARREAL VERDICT: This was the closest of their Champions League games and, in all probability, their finest performance, but they are almost certain to be eliminated. Rossi's movement made him a threat while Lopez produced some fine saves but their attention should switch to securing an improvement in their domestic displays.