Writer: Tranmere Loyal
Date:Friday March 16 2012
City's European adventure stuttered to another resounding halt at Fortress Etihad last night.
Trailing 0-1 to an unspectacular outfit from Lisbon the stage was set for a spectacular night at the Etihad against the news that Athletic Club had easily disposed of Stretford in the early kick-off.
With 38000 in attendance including nearly 1000 Sporting fans the stage was set for 'one of those European nights'. It turned into one of those European nightmares.
It was clear immediately that the tactics were incorrect. No Barry, no Milner, no de Jong, but with both Yaya and Pizarro seemingly instructed to sit deep.
This effectively left Silva alone to try to control the attacking options from midfield and Johnson out wide on the right. The gap between the centre midfield and the strikers was cavernous leaving Pizarro time and again no option but to play long balls, which if uncontrolled by Balotelli and Aguero simply came straight back.
This encouraged Sporting, a goal to the good from the first leg and with no serious defending to do, it became a stroll for them and a source of frustration for City.
Indeed you couldn't see where a serious attack was coming from let alone two goals.
And what possesses Balotelli, on the half hour, to track a Sporting player towards the edge of City's box and then shove him over? A shoulder charge it was not as Fernandez lined up the 25-yard free kick.
And what possessed Hart, having set his wall to then take two steps behind it inviting the far post shot?
Fernandez did not need a second request as he simply drove the ball straight into the net, Hart almost getting there but the fatal two steps left him just short.
Needing now to score three to win and not having raised a sweat let alone a threat City were heading to the exit door. The fans tried their best to help them but the team and the fans became demoralised especially when Kolarov failed to clear a pass with any conviction, Izmailov collecting the easy pickings before setting up van Wolfswinkel for a free shot at the far post.
In one and a half matches against a workmanlike but not great opposition, City needed snookers and a miracle to progress in Europe.
Tactical and personnel changes were inevitable and the totally ineffective Johnson made way for de Jong in a move designed to free up Yaya and Pizarro and to get the attack moving. Ten minutes later Pizarro himself was taken off for Dzeko.
Sporting looked content with their lead and City, now effectively two at the back with Kolarov and Richards pushing on simply had to go for it.
City's first real creative move on the hour saw Balotelli find Yaya who played a neat one-two with Richards before picking out Aguero, for once alone in the box. The mighty atom who in the first half looked as though he couldn't be bothered sprang to life and scored with a typical shot across the keeper and into the far corner. Was it game on or respectability?
Chances started to come with both Balotelli and Dzeko getting a sniff but after 75 minutes Aguero turned sharply into the box, drawing the foul, leaving Mario to do the honours from the spot.
City were now coming to life but Sporting began the cheating, staying down at every opportunity delaying freekicks, throw-ins and goal kicks. But there was business still to be done and when with eight minutes left Dzeko nodded on a left wing corner to Aguero he put City ahead on the night but needing one more goal to qualify.
Despite adding only five minutes stoppage time, the referee was not really strong enough as Lisbon's finest rolled around feigning injury to eat up not vital seconds but vital minutes. One stayed down for two minutes when there was clearly nothing wrong with him.
City tried in vain to snatch the winner but it all came down to the final seconds. A corner for City and everybody, Joe Hart included loading the Sporting box.
The corner was poor, hitting the first defender and being clearly but only as far as de Jong whose cross found Hart at the far past. His header was every bit as good as what Dzeko could produce as had 'goal' and tomorrow's headlines written all over it. Patricio somehow got his fingertips to it and diverted it to safety with Dzeko too flat-footed to throw himself at it.
The final whistle went immediately. City were that close.
Mancini's early tactics were a nonsense at this level especially as were only one goal in arrears and playing at home. Pace, tempo and goals were needed and he did not set the team up to deliver that. He now needs to ensure that this happens ten times between now and the end of the season if he doesn't want to end up empty-handed with the spectre of Mourinho appearing over the hilltops.
It will not have gone unnoticed in the sand dunes that once again City have lost vital points to teams in the lower reaches of the division and have been turfed out of Europe by poorer opposition. He had admitted his tactical indiscretions for the second time this season, although he got it wrong at Swansea also.
I suspect it could be league title or bust now for Mr Mancini.
Date:Friday March 16 2012
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