Comeback can't quite mask City's deficiencies
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Manchester City 2 Ajax Amsterdam 2:The harsh reality for Manchester City is that they had to win this match and, however much we can admire their powers of recovery, the outcome was still shrouded in great disappointment.
Roberto Mancini’s team showed great qualities of perseverance but there are grave consequences for carelessness at this level and City’s second season in the Champions League is ending, pretty much like the first, as an ordeal of their own making.
A team that allows their opponents a two-goal lead inside the opening 16 minutes is always playing with fire.
Siem de Jong’s goals for Ajax left City needing a feat of escapology that was beyond them and, though Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero did redress the deficit, the night was to end in a certain amount of acrimony, too, with Mancini marching on to the pitch to confront the match officials.
Mario Balotelli, a second-half substitute, had been denied a penalty in stoppage time and a few minutes earlier an offside decision ruled out a potential winner for Aguero.
Aleksander Kolarov had, indeed, been offside but Balotelli was unfortunate and City’s frustrations threatened to spill over in these moments, with a number of players surrounding the Danish referee, Peter Rasmussen.
Their grievance was legitimate but this was also a night when City paid the price for their generous defending and, from here, even if they beat Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in their final two games it may not be enough.
City boast the most formidable home record in English football but they were terribly soft goals to concede, both coming from corners and due, in part, to Mancini’s players leaving it to one another and not being decisive enough.
It was the kind of carelessness that meant Toure started to go with De Jong for the second goal but then, for no apparent reason, gave up, abandoning the case and leaving a dangerous opponent unmarked to flash his header past Joe Hart straight from Christian Eriksen’s delivery.
De Jong’s first had brought an incensed Mancini out of the dugout to remonstrate with his players. Niklas Moisander had applied the first touch in a congested penalty area and, with a slight deflection off Vincent Kompany, the ball was running out for another corner until De Jong, alert and purposeful, slid in at the far post and skimmed the ball over Hart.
All of the failures City have demonstrated in their two seasons in the Champions League – the hesitant defending, the lack of confidence and struggle for cohesion – were evident in those moments. It was strange, too, that Toure’s goal was not followed by a more concerted spell of pressure.
They did sporadically threaten but it was still disjointed for long spells. City never look so refined when David Silva is missing and Ajax held out fairly comfortably until half-time.
That goal, however, did offer hope. Samir Nasri curled in the cross with the outside of his boot. Moisander’s header, under pressure from Aguero, cleared it only as far as Toure who controlled on his chest, swivelled and, leaning back, volleyed in a goal of great body strength and technique.
Mancini brought on Balotelli for the second half, taking off Javi Garcia and moving Aguero to a more central position. The Argentinian quickly had a chance but lost his footing. Shortly afterwards, he prodded the ball past Kenneth Vermeer in the Ajax goal but from an offside position. De Jong’s dipping 30-yard effort needed a fine save from Hart but Ajax were increasingly being pinned back.
After 74 minutes Balotelli flicked on a long punt from Hart and this time Aguero clinically drilled his shot past Vermeer into the bottom corner.