Toure, Silva and Aguero paving way for Manchester City in Champions League
Among the hail of criticism directed at Manchester City for playing stale football, one or two people will have noticed that the club achieved a milestone of some note on Tuesday evening. In beating Dynamo Kiev 3-1 on aggregate, Manuel Pellegrini's side reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time in the club's history.
Belittle the efforts of the team, if you like, but this represents a momentous occasion for a club that has perpetually underachieved in European competition. In keeping a home clean sheet against the Ukrainians, City also achieved something that had not been done since beating Bayern Munich 2-0 at the Etihad on Dec. 7, 2011.
To top it off, they are now the oldest surviving club in the tournament. So much for a lack of history. However, as is City's habit, the gain was not without considerable pain.
Losing both centre backs before 20 minutes of the match had elapsed was a sizeable setback. City's backline has looked rejuvenated since captain Vincent Kompany's return. Yet another innocuous-looking tweak to his calf means he may not be seen in the side again this season. This is a considerable knock for the team to receive at this stage of the season.
On top of that, his defensive partner, Nicolas Otamendi, who has looked a different player alongside Kompany, was also taken off, the victim of a dead leg. Whether he can make it back in time for this weekend's Manchester derby is questionable. If he doesn't, City are likely to pair Martin Demichelis with Eliaquim Mangala, a partnership seen only once this season, when Liverpool dismantled City at the Etihad. It hardly needs saying that the defence on that occasion looked like it had been assembled with masking tape and paper clips.
Before that, though, City can bask in their new found level of Champions League quarterfinalists. It may be small potatoes to some of the continent's big hitters, but it should be remembered that this environment does not represent City's comfort zone at all. For a club used to catapulting with unsettling regularity from one division to another, the achievement is worthy of praise, not ridicule.
Although it is highly unlikely that the club will get further than the semifinal stage -- and even that depends on another favourable draw on Friday -- it is a significant step in the right direction for a board, who see Champions League glory as the logical next phase in the club's spectacular growth.
It takes time to reach the elite in Europe, however, and even more to conquer it, as Chelsea found out after Roman Abramovich's arrival in June 2003 and as Paris Saint-Germain are also experiencing now. There is no shortcut to the level of Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The summer arrival of a world class manager in Pep Guardiola will go some way to accelerating the ascent, making the club attractive to the very best players on the continent.
In the meantime, those that have been in Manchester for some time pulled out the stops to get City this far. Yaya Toure, rolling back the years, produced an iconic display of his burgeoning power in midfield to subdue any hope that the Ukrainians might have had of getting a foothold in the game, and thereafter perhaps the upper hand. Toure's unique skill set, uniting coruscating power with dancing feet, had the Dynamo midfield trailing in his impressive wake.
Alongside him, David Silva prodded and prompted all night long and, ahead of them both, Sergio Aguero was a continual pest, pulling his markers all over the pitch. It is no coincidence that City's star performers in a difficult match were these three long-standing main men.
Without them, City's run in Europe would not be gaining the momentum it has. Keeping them fit for the quarterfinals now becomes a huge priority. Pellegrini must juggle his resources carefully in the coming days. The match with United represents a last chance to hold onto Leicester and Tottenham's coat tails and an obvious opportunity to stamp their authority on this season's Manchester football scene.
With a battered and bruised defence coming up against a weak and shot-shy attack, it could be argued that whichever turns out to be the lesser of these two evils, may well help tilt the weekend game in one direction or the other.
City, meanwhile, can bask in the exalted company that they have finally reached. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Benfica are names that resonate around the continent of Europe. They represent both the old guard and the current elite. They are names that are recognizable to any football fan on the planet. For City to be walking as their equals in the final eight is a sight that many City supporters would have considered pure fantasy a short time ago. The odds may be stacked against further significant progress this time, but the direction the club is going is clear for all to see.