Man City finally turn in a European performance to match their quality
KIEV, Ukraine -- Such was Manchester City's control in the victory over Dynamo Kiev in the first half at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium that the only noise inside the 70,000-capacity ground was the sound of the 700 traveling fans joyously singing "Blue Moon."
City were putting in the sort of controlled and composed Champions League road performance that European heavyweights such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid serve up on a regular basis. But in five European campaigns under Manuel Pellegrini and previous boss Roberto Mancini, City have never looked like getting anywhere close to their continental rivals.
There have been rare glimpses of the quality that has seen them succeed domestically. Last season, they reached the round of 16 with a 2-0 group-stage victory at Roma, while earlier this campaign they stylishly beat Sevilla 3-1 at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. But those performances were exceptions rather than the rule. In the past two seasons, they have traveled to venues such as Barcelona, Juventus and CSKA Moscow and looked like novices.
The club aspires to join the leading group of European clubs, which is part of the reason why Pellegrini is leaving the club in the summer, with Pep Guardiola drafted in to replace the Chilean. Although the Spaniard has yet to win the Champions League in his first two years at Bayern Munich, he delivered it twice during his time at Barcelona and will be tasked with the challenge of taking the Manchester club to the next level.
But, while City have often been criticised for underperforming in Europe, the announcement that Pellegrini is leaving has taken some of the pressure off this season's campaign. It is almost as if their European ambitions have been put on hold until Guardiola's arrival in the summer.
That is the complete opposite to the pressure that this City side has found itself under in the past five seasons of Champions League football, when more has been expected from a squad featuring Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Joe Hart. In the summer, the club spent more than £150 million adding Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Nicolas Otamendi; with fresh faces and the added years of experience, the Blues should be expected to deliver more than ever.
That's why it was curious that they should produce such a dynamic and impressive victory when it was perhaps least expected. City have often been derided as a team of individuals and have been far from their best this season. They went into Wednesday's game in Kiev on the back of three successive defeats -- including two home losses in the Premier League -- dropping City to six points off the top.
But in Ukraine, they delivered possibly their best team performance of the season, running tirelessly and pressing uncharacteristically high in an impactful display of teamwork.
It was also strange to see a player such as Fernando leading the charge. The Brazilian has struggled since joining from Porto two years ago but finally delivered the destructive defensive midfield display that underpinned City's control. Either side of him Sterling and Fernandinho, playing an unfamiliar right-wing role, pitched in with hard work while offering pace and threat that Kiev couldn't handle.
At the back, the return of captain Kompany has brought in a calmness required in a defence that has looked panicky and fraught all season. And when the home side threatened a comeback in the second half, the Belgian showed the leadership and serenity that the back four has been missing as City rode out the danger before breaking for the third goal.
Pellegrini insisted that it showed his side have been improving in Europe. "Each season we improve a little bit more," he said after the win. "The last two seasons we qualified for the last 16 and this season we made the important progress of winning the group, which was an improvement from last season."
This was City's first ever victory in the Champions League knockout stages, but optimism must be tempered by the fact that their four previous games were all against Barcelona, who even Pellegrini described as the "best team in the world." Dynamo Kiev certainly aren't anywhere near their level, and City's European improvement will face greater tests -- unless they blow their advantage in the second leg on March 15.
However, City still went into the game under a lot of self-imposed pressure. Struggling to maintain a Premier League challenge, the season could have easily petered out after Sunday's Capital One Cup final if they were once again dumped out of the Champions League.
And Pellegrini upped the ante further by resting most of his senior players three days before as he played a weakened side in the 5-1 FA Cup defeat to Chelsea. He and the club were heavily criticised for the decision, and it meant that City had to deliver. And they responded with a display of style and control.
"This game was always going to be tough and we handled it with a lot of maturity and looked like a side who were hungry for success," Kompany said, and it's a fair assessment.
Pellegrini's contract ends on Jun. 30, and with four trophies in his time at the Etihad, could leave as the club's most successful manager ever. To transform Man City into potential giants in the Champions League would only further his legacy.
Jonathan is ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent. Follow him @jonnysmiffy.