By David Lynch
Manchester City fans could perhaps be forgiven for simply being delighted to face opponents as prestigious as Ajax, despite watching their team slump to a 3-1 defeat on Wednesday evening.
However, given the amounts of money invested by Sheikh Mansour in the remarkable rise which facilitated the fixture’s existence, it is clear that the City hierarchy will show little patience in their journey to football’s highest reaches. In that sense, defeat in Amsterdam represented more than a bump in the road on the way to inevitable Champions League success – it was a stark reminder that the man tasked with navigation is operating without a map.
Roberto Mancini would have been understandably pleased to see his side take an early lead through Samir Nasri after absorbing pressure from the home side, but from that point on the Italian did little but provide plenty evidence that this competition is his Achilles’ heel.
City immediately began to sit back and invite pressure, having no answer for the Dutch side’s increased tempo and high pressing. And the goal which followed was nothing but inevitable; a fitting punishment for a cowardly approach from a team built in Mancini’s image.
|CRUSHED ON THE CONTINENT
|2002-03: UEFA CUP
2003-04: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
|2004-05: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2005-06: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2006-07: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2007-08: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
| MANCHESTER CITY
|2010-11: EUROPA LEAGUE
2011-12: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2011-12: EUROPA LEAGUE
Siem de Jong capitalised on some absent-minded marking in the middle of defence to give his intelligent, bending run the finish it deserved before half-time and the deflation of Ajax’s opponents was tangible – the game was there to be taken, but not by the expensively assembled English champions.
And so it proved, as the unmarked Niklas Moisander leapt highest just 12 minutes after the restart to nod home from a corner. It was little more than Frank de Boer’s men had merited and Mancini’s side likewise, as the latter shrank depressingly into their shells in the belief that the they were facing superior opposition.
The 47-year-old then attempted to throw caution to the wind by removing Joleon Lescott for the infinitely more attack-minded Aleksandar Kolarov, but was quickly reminded that things are not simple at this level as Christian Eriksen swept home Ajax’s third via a deflection off the out-of-sorts and out-of-position Gael Clichy.
Subsequently replacing Gareth Barry and James Milner for Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez having seen the damage his first substitution had caused was an unforgiveable reaction. Utilising a formation containing a back three – a system which Micah Richards later admitted his side had “not worked on a lot” – typified Mancini’s lack of tactical nous.
It is the sort of decision which has seen him criminally fail to make an impact at this level despite managing two of the competition’s favourites over the years in Inter and Manchester City. An inferiority complex has stained the latter’s two Champions League campaigns thus far, and it seems the blame for that cannot be aimed at anyone but Mancini.
Though he later accepted culpability for his side’s performance at the Amsterdam ArenA, Mancini seems to have little knowledge of how to fix these self-inflicted problems. His argument that City only changed to a back three for “five minutes” also holds little water, given that in such a short period they conceded a game-changing third goal.
It will now take a miracle for the reigning Premier League champions to escape Group D, the sort of odds which the club’s ownership will not take kindly to. They have been relentless in their efforts to ensure Manchester City become the greatest club in Europe, and have spent the kind of sums which should have guaranteed such status.
Now they must confront a harsh reality. City had - at the very worst - the second-best squad in that “Group of Death” this year, but they also perhaps possessed the least capable manager.
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