Luck, of course, is the one currency that denies analysis in modern football. The rub of the green doesn’t necessarily follow patterns, no matter how much pundits try to claim that it “evens itself out over the course of a season”, and both good luck and bad luck can manifest themselves at the most opportune of moments. Last night at The City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester Citys luck ran dry. A perfectly good goal denied for one of the more mysteriously raised linesmans flags of the season so far and a shout for a penalty kick in stoppage time that was met by the referees whistle blowing for full-time rather than a penalty kick are the sort of factors in the ebb and flow of a football match that all the money in the world cannot take care of.
Yet the fact of the matter remains that Manchester City remain in serious danger of not qualifying for the next round of the Champions League on account of their own sloppiness rather than these ill-advised refereeing decisions. Any viewing of their record in this years competition can only look at their overall performance in this years competition so far and consider that focusing on the micro rather than the macro would be a refusal to address the problems that the team has had on the pitch so far this season. Two points from four matches tells its own story, and we may consider the psychological trauma of contriving to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in their opening match in Madrid as being at least as important as the failure to award the team a penalty five minutes into stoppage time last night.
The more we look at those opening games, the more the bad news continues. A home draw against Borussia Dortmund was a critical two points dropped in what many expected at the time to be a two-way battle for second place in the group, and the defeat in Amsterdam two weeks ago was as abject a performance as Manchester City have managed in any competition since expectations at the club became inflated to the extent to which they have over the last two or three years or so. Last nights return match against Ajax was, perhaps, the final opportunity for Roberto Mancini to right what he had previously put wrong in this competition so far this season, but even then his defence – which was obstinate to the point of being near-unbreakable for so much of last season – demonstrated many of the characteristics of rice pudding in allowing Siem de Jong two easy goals inside the first twenty minutes of the match, and getting anything from that position was always, it rather felt, going to be too much of an uphill battle for the team to successfully negotiate.
Mancini himself had been pre-empting his critics in the press over the previous couple of days, stating that is was a lack of “experience” in the Champions League that had been the tipping factor behind his teams failure in the competition. It is a curious concept, that a team packed full of Premier League players, who have come from all over the world to play for as much as money as they can be offered for playing football, can not be experienced enough for one particular competition. In what way, we might wonder, did a lack of experience affect the apparent decision of his teams defenders to not mark De Jong as he ghosted through their gossamer thin defence to make an uphill battle a vertiginous one yesterday evening? The stack of medals won by the players on the pitch last night both in England and abroad on its own makes Mancinis claims sound rather hollow.
The biggest problem that Mancini has this morning is that that the very factor which propelled his club to the position in which it finds itself today – money – negates excuses of any type. It could be argued that, when Sheikh Mansour picked their club of all of the clubs that they could have done, Manchester City had the footballing equivalent of a National Lottery win. Such wins, however, come at a price. One such price is a raising of expectations – the team was expected by many to win the Premier League last season and did so, albeit by the skin of its teeth, and it was expected to seriously challenge for the Champions League this season (we could contend that already the only way that it can qualify from the group stages of the competition this year is by the skin of its teeth, and that’s with two matches left to play), and the occasional badly-placed referees whistle pales in comparison with the massive leg up that the club received to be in a position in which it finds itself now in the first place.
There, of course, silver linings for Manchester Citys European misadventure this season. The clubs final two group matches sees them now going head to head with Ajax for the consolation prize of a place in the Europa League, so the possibility remains that the club might well yet end this season by winning its first European trophy since 1970. And in addition to this it could be argued that early elimination from Europe last season was a help rather than a hindrance in bringing the Premier League title to the club for the first time since 1968. Muttering about UEFA-wide conspiracies (which can only be treated with contempt until they are proved beyond a couple of peeps of a referees whistle) and focusing on the minutiae of their defeats rather than the broader picture of the teams recent ascent to the top tier of European football and the work still to be done if the team is to vault the final – and, as it should be, very high – hurdle required to become the champions of Europe, does Manchester City Football Club few favours.
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