The first four games of this Champions League campaign have been an unmitigated disaster for Manchester City. Sitting bottom of the group with a measly two points and with one of the best teams in the world visiting The Etihad, the only picture you could paint for the Blues was a bleak one. With CSKA Moscow v Roma finishing as a 1-1 draw prior to City’s game against Bayern Munich, the Blues knew exactly what they needed to do to keep themselves in with a chance of qualifying from Group E. Essentially, a win would be very handy but a draw would just about do.
Mehdi Benatia saw red for Bayern in the 20th minute, in the process conceding a penalty that Sergio Agüero placed expertly past Manuel Neuer. Despite having a man less, the visitors still came back to lead 2-1 at the break. Heading into the closing stages, it was looking like a disastrous night leaving City on the brink of elimination, before Agüero popped up with two goals in the last five minutes to seal his hat-trick and provide City with three points that might just save their entire European campaign.
Why did it nearly go wrong?
As usual, I like to get the negatives out of the way early. For large parts of the game this looked like being just another European failure for Pellegrini’s men. Regardless of your opponent, if you surrender a goal advantage at home against a team playing with a man less than you, you have to ask questions.
To give the Bavarian team the credit they deserve, their technical ability really did shine through all game. Despite starting on the back foot and losing a player from the heart of their defence, they never lost focus. Their ability to keep the ball and create space was, at times, truly mesmerising. Every player knew his role, each one gifted in the extreme. Even the goalkeeper is a player you’d fancy to be decent further up the pitch.
City, for all of their toil, looked short of ideas…again. They clearly fancied Jesus Navas as their main threat on the right wing and sought to give him the ball as often as possible. The problem with this is that, despite being blessed with pace and skill and a sometimes-wicked delivery, the Spaniard so rarely proves to be the difference in important games. He worked hard and that effort is priceless and endearing, but I’d challenge anybody to feel confident there’s a goal coming when he has the ball on the wing with two defenders in front of him. His skillset should mean he backs himself to beat his men and get the ball in but his end product is seriously lacking at the moment. I really like the guy but he is out of touch right now – it was optimistic to rely on him so much here.
Enough of that – do the good bits!
Ok ok, I was getting there! It’s been nearly a year since we celebrated a Manchester City Champions League victory (the last being a 3-2 win over Bayern Munich, no less) so it would be churlish to dwell on bad vibes here.
I’m loathe to ever question the effort and desire of a football team but City’s miserable efforts in this competition so far have it made it difficult to believe that they have been fully applying themselves. If lack of hunger has been an issue up to this point, that was never one of the problems tonight. If Bayern were the better side (and they were), it was purely on ability and never on effort.
Manuel Pellegrini started with just one striker instead of two. I’m not even going to analyse how that went in detail – it was just nice to see him change from a system he has stubbornly stuck to despite stark evidence it just doesn’t work. His team were subsequently less exposed at the back and less susceptible to counter-attacks. That he made the change and City won will hopefully teach him that it’s ok to try other ideas when your Plan A isn’t working. Principles are admirable – stubbornness is not.
With three shots, all of which he scored from, one must single out Sergio Agüero for special praise. City are undoubtedly too reliant on the Argentine genius at present, but it is understandable that one of the world’s best footballers will stand out above the rest in any team. He has earned the right to be named amongst the very best players on the planet now. The man is, frankly, ridiculous.
The result means that if City win in Rome on December 10th and CSKA Moscow fail to beat Bayern Munich, the Blues will pull off a minor miracle and progress to the last 16. There’s still a lot to do, but it all looks a lot brighter than it did in the 84th minute of this game.
Written by Richard Burns – you can follow him on Twitter