Man City reach UCL quarters, but without Kompany they may plateau
Manchester City advanced to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history after a drab 0-0 draw against Dynamo Kiev on Tuesday, but the Etihad could hardly have been gloomier. The game had been rendered almost meaningless by City's 3-1 win in Ukraine in the first leg, but what happened in the first five minutes was even more unthinkable than losing.
Vincent Kompany, the captain and driving force behind City, limped off with another calf problem that could end his season. The 29-year-old will undergo a scan to gauge the severity of the injury, but Manuel Pellegrini was not optimistic, saying, "It is a calf, so a minimum one month."
At the very least, the captain will miss the derby on Sunday against Manchester United. Louis van Gaal's side will see this as a massive fillip.
How important is Kompany for City? In the Premier League this season, Pellegrini's team have vastly different defensive records with and without the Belgian. With Kompany in the lineup, they have conceded a goal once every 194 minutes. Without him, the defence has been beaten every 65 minutes.
The incident that led to the injury looked routine. Kompany misjudged the bounce and turned to clear. Instead, he slipped, put the ball out of play and waved to the bench. The look of anguish on his face told the story. Kompany has had 14 calf injuries since joining City eight years ago, and the latest one could be the most destructive.
Kompany has presence. He possesses a calmness and physicality that none of his replacements bring to the side. Without him, City look edgy at the back, prone to confusion and liable to be pushed around by stronger attackers. Their prospects of advancing much further in the Champions League or putting pressure on Leicester City in the domestic title race will be reduced considerably by his absence.
This was Kompany's sixth match in 20 days. Pellegrini called it a "massive injury." Given City's 3-1 first-leg lead, was it a mistake to play the captain? "You always take a risk [any time you play]," Pellegrini said. "There was no problem before the game. It was bad luck."
The defensive worries got worse when Nicolas Otamendi collided with Vitaliy Buyalskiy shorty after Kompany's departure. Pellegrini let the Argentinian limp around for seven uncomfortable minutes before replacing him with Martin Demichelis. The manager was confident that Otamendi would be back quickly, but it was a dangerous decision to make.
Pellegrini was happy with his mix-and-match defenders. "We have been criticised because we don't know how to defend," he said. "We defended today."
That might only be because Dynamo did not take advantage of City's difficulties. The home side's only problems were of their own making. As an example, a Demichelis loose pass left Eliaquim Mangala under pressure, but City swarmed to the ball and killed the threat.
Sergei Rebrov's team were a disappointment. They were timid on the ball and too often took the easy option. For a team that needed to produce an upset, they barely made a stir. Andriy Yarmolenko briefly looked like he would challenge Gael Clichy and stretch City, but then appeared to lose interest.
In the immediate aftermath of the home side's defensive reshuffle, Vitorino Antunes whipped in a cross that Hart had to push away, but there was little else to worry the England goalkeeper. He punched away two more efforts, an Oleh Gusev free kick and later a header by the same player, but it was routine stuff for the home defence.
Lukasz Teodorczyk should have been in his element. The striker is a big, physical presence at the point of the Dynamo attack, but his lack of movement and his teammates' paucity of invention meant City were comfortable for much of the first half.
There was little more urgency from City. Yaya Toure went on one ploughing first-half run, shrugging off defenders in his wake, but his ball across the area ran tamely away from the home side's attackers, who appeared reluctant to drive into the area. Sergio Aguero had one sight of goal but skewed his shot wide. Dynamo keeper Olexandr Shovkovskiy had even less to do than Hart.
The first half was summed up when City broke quickly after a Kiev attack. Aguero was pulled down inside his own half but managed to get the ball back to Toure, who picked out Jesus Navas advancing across the halfway line. The winger had choices everywhere, with Aguero overlapping in the area, but Navas rolled the ball forward and out of play. That typified City's directionless performance. For all their talent, this is a side prone to switching off for periods in games. In the first half, they never switched on.
City were marginally better in the second half. Aguero shot wide from a narrow angle after Toure's clever pass and Navas hit the post as the Ivorian began showing his passing range.
What danger City created was coming from Toure, who lurked about the edge of the area looking to sniff out a chance. He had one opportunity but his shot went straight at Shovkovskiy. The City midfielder has the ability to compete with the best in the world, but his tendency to idle in games lets him down. Dynamo surrendered meekly but the next opponents that will emerge from Friday's draw will not go down so quietly.
Barcelona knocked out City twice in succession, but Pellegrini would not be drawn on whether his side are better equipped to compete with the Catalan giants should they draw them on Friday. "I don't know whether we are better prepared, but we are more experienced," he said.
A lot of that experience and the composure that comes with it will disappear if Kompany is ruled out for the quarterfinals. City made history by advancing further in the Champions League than before but, without their captain, it is hard to be optimistic about their future in this year's competition.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.