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Nov 6, 2012

More Allardyce than Ajax as City toil

So Manchester City's interest in the Champions League did not end before the American presidential election, but it was a close-run thing. A Mancunian exit poll would presumably conclude that City are going out, perhaps at the hands of Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid on November 21 but their departure has been delayed. Just when continental calamity threatened to follow European embarrassment, Sergio Aguero handed them a lifeline.

Then the Argentine was wrongly denied a winner, which would have completed the fightback from Roberto Mancini's comeback kids. They illustrated that for all the alleged divisions in the dressing room and whatever the questions about the manager's methods, they remain spirited. However, as long as they cannot defend a corner, they will struggle to turn one on the European stage. A return of two points from four games is inadequate. Ignominy beckons.

"For now, we are finished," said Mancini. He has a track record of doom and gloom after writing off their chances in last year's title race. This time, however, it simply seemed a realistic appraisal of their prospects.

Because the central segment of the group stage offered them a chance to procure six points and the Premier League champions mustered just one. After a second successive setback at the hands of Ajax, double Dutch has acquired a new meaning for City. Siem de Jong's brace had a disturbing familiarity for City. Set-pieces were a cause of their undoing in Amsterdam and the Group of Death featured more dead-ball disasters.

If it is a paradox that City's cosmopolitan team only appear at home among the insularity of English football, it is another that the inventors of total football borrowed a trick from the British handbook. They aimed for the big lad from set-pieces. It was more Allardyce than Ajax. It was also hugely effective as De Jong struck twice within eight minutes.

And then, inspired by another element of British culture, the Ajax fans sang: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. They were channelling Eric Idle but City's problem was they were too indolent when defending corners.

The first, needlessly conceded by Matija Nastasic, saw Niklas Moisander allowed to volley the ball across goal where the sliding De Jong applied the final touch. For the second, the skipper's darting run to the near post was followed by a glancing header. He had escaped from Yaya Toure although, in the ongoing debate about the merits of man-to-man and City's preferred zonal marking, the more important issue is one of competence. Twice City lacked it. "We concede two stupid goals," complained Mancini. "You can't concede two goals from corners."

But it has been a season where City have been damaged by two De Jongs; Nigel, whose sale has been more of a problem than City envisaged when they let him join AC Milan, and Siem, who has struck three times against them.

With the metaphorical uphill task, City's man-mountain responded, Yaya Toure providing a fine piece of chest control and an immaculate volleyed finish. Then they stepped up the pace. "We played a fantastic second half," Mancini said.

That is an exaggeration, but they were infused with urgency. An equaliser eventually arrived. Joe Hart's punt forward was flicked on by Mario Balotelli and Aguero drilled in. A third goal of a stop-start season was overdue, but even staying on his feet felt an achievement; seemingly wearing the wrong studs, Aguero had twice slipped earlier when in promising positions. Yet his footing was altogether surer when he turned in Aleksandar Kolarov's cross. It was disallowed, though neither the substitute nor the striker was offside.

"We scored three goals," said Mancini, who went on to the pitch to confront referee Peter Rasmussen after the final whistle. "I said 'congratulations, it was a goal'," he explained. City thought, too, it was a penalty deep into added time when Balotelli was tugged back, the players surrounding the Danish official after he blew the final whistle.

It left Mancini contemplating a Chelsea-esque escape from the brink of elimination to eventual glory. "If our destiny is to win the next two games and we go to the second stage, it is our destiny to win the Champions League," he said. Destiny may be calling, but it is more likely to be Sheikh Mansour, wondering why such an expensive side has exited Europe so early and so ignominiously.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Siem de Jong - Scored two and came close to two more with long-range shots that forced Hart to make fine saves. The skipper has a blend of quality and dynamism that could make him the next player to be plucked from Ajax by wealthier clubs in bigger leagues.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Once again, Mancini made drastic changes in Europe. This time, however, they were uncontroversial. Rather than going to a back three, he went for all-out attack as they rescued a point. One substitute, Balotelli, exerted a major impact, another, Kolarov, created what they thought was the winner and the third, Edin Dzeko, helped bring the best from Aguero. But the downside was the defending; awful for the two goals and then, as City had to be more open, allowing Ajax a series of chances. Javi Garcia was hauled off at half-time after a particularly undistinguished display while Gareth Barry, who survived the initial cull, completed just 57% of his passes, a terrible return for a holding midfielder. Once again, City struggled to retain the ball in the Champions League, which is a reason for their struggles.

AJAX VERDICT: They are in pole position for the Europa League spot after taking four points off City. De Jong and Eriksen excelled again and De Boer's side battled hard to preserve their point. To finish anywhere other than last in the group would represent success for a side only fifth in the Eredivisie.

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