James Milner gives City added belief after dominant display
After dreadful start the doom-laden epitaphs were being written in press box
Manchester City’s James Milner Manchester City celebrates scoring the third goal against Bayern Munich. Photograph: Martin Rose/Getty Images MUNICH, GERMANY - DECEMBER 10: James Milner of Manchester City celebrates scoring their third goal during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Manchester City at the Allianz Arena December 10, 2013 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
When Manchester City went 2-0 down after 12 minutes on Tuesday night away to Bayern Munich – champions of Europe, 7-0 winners in their previous match and all set to put on a swaggering display of Bavarian tiki-taka – you could hear the doom-laden epitaphs being clattered out in the Allianz Arena press box.
With this in mind it is worth setting out again exactly what happened next. James Milner provided the pass for David Silva to pull one back. James Milner won a penalty that levelled the scores. James Milner then scored a brilliant winning goal. Over 90 minutes Bayern’s domineering right flank was decisively outmanoeuvred and out-thought in its own stadium by James Milner. Yes: that James Milner.
There were plenty of unlikely subplots from City’s superbly resilient 3-2 victory. With luck - and it will take some – the memory of Manuel Pellegrini’s mathematical shortcomings will be submerged by a favourable draw in the next stage. Milner’s performance, though, is a thing to be treasured.
There are players who tend to draw a disproportionate degree of hostility from football’s critical periphery. Milner is undoubtedly one, guyed relentlessly with the national team as a kind of mannequin of mediocrity, a player for whom even virtues – stamina, diligence, understated craft – are represented as a footballing shade of beige made flesh. This has always been misguided. Perhaps after Munich it might even be time to lay the caricature to rest.
Role on the left
The anti-Milner bile has tended to be based on his performances-to-order for England in a rigid shuttle-running position on the right flank. But against Bayern, operating from the more fluid role on the left of City’s midfield that uses his relentless movement as a sword as well as a shield, this was a display of Total Milner.
When City began their counterattack Milner’s steadiness made him an excellent counterpart to the high speed straight lines of Jesus Navas on the opposite flank. As they began to dictate play he was an intelligent, probing presence, evading Philipp Lahm three times to create City’s goals and even showing in the finish for the winner a hint of un-Milner-ish arrogance, producing a beautifully cushioned pass into the corner that had a touch of the Agueros about it.
Even on a night when his influence is tangible Milner tends to fall between the gaps when it comes to match stats, just as City’s 42 per cent possession scarcely reflects a well-deserved victory. He had two shots on target, committed two fouls and attempted 39 passes, 77 per cent of them successful, a better ratio than any other City midfielder. Milner’s own reaction to a career-high European performance was similarly understated.
“I’d have thought it has to be up there,” he said. “The reigning champions and the manner in which we won and the way the game went with us being 2-0 down, starting pretty poorly and the character we showed to turn that around. It was pleasing to be part of that.”
If there is confidence to be taken from this victory, for Milner it is as ever something to be filtered around the team. “It is a big boost for us to be able to come here and win our game and score three goals because it’s important you can score goals in the knockout stages.
“They’re one of the top teams and have been the last few years, so to be able to come here and win is pleasing and hopefully shows the quality we have and gives us a big confidence boost going forward.”
Although both sides had already qualified for the knockout phase, this still felt like a landmark victory not just for an unexpected man of the match, but also for City’s own European aspirations. As Milner pointed out: “We’ll take anyone in the next round now.”
Both City and Bayern had already qualified for the knock-out stage before Tuesday’s game, but first place in the group was at stake. A 4-2 victory for second-placed City was one of the outcomes that would have seen them leapfrog Pep Guardiola’s side and secure top spot, ensuring the Blues – theoretically, at least – an easier last-16 draw. But it appeared City were completely unaware that winning by just one more goal would have been sufficient, with Milner saying: “We didn’t know if 4-2 would be enough or if we would need 5-2 – we thought it needed to be 5-2 to be honest.”
City boss Pellegrini said he would have been tempted to bring on substitute striker Sergio Aguero if his team had netted a fourth, adding: “It was difficult to score two (more) goals.”
Although City are now facing the prospect of a tricky last-16 tie, they will surely head into the next phase in a positive frame of mind off the back of their latest result.
Certainly, that is the suggestion from Zabaleta, who said: “I think we are coming back to Manchester feeling really strong because when you win against probably the best team in the world, that is really important.”