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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 15 hours ago
Read
Nov 21, 2012

Mancini left to rue missed opportunity

All in all, it was not a great day for Italian managers named Roberto. A Champions League winner lost his job, a Champions League loser his place in the competition. Arrivederci, Roberto Di Matteo and Roberto Mancini, the man who plotted a path to an improbable victory and the man who can find the exit all too early.

Di Matteo triumphed in 2012 and Mancini found a way back into the game when 2013's possible winners threatened not just to overcome, but to overwhelm, Manchester City. They stopped the supreme. The problem is that, over five games, England's finest are Europe's failures.

"It is incredible when you look at the array of players they have got that they have been eliminated in the group stages two years running," said Jose Mourinho, who rarely misses the chance to bloody the nose of men who have preceded or succeeded him in a job and who usurped Mancini at Inter. "In this group we knew from the beginning a big team [would go] out and it is good it is City because Roberto can work without any problem. If it was Real, the press wouldn't let me return to Madrid."

In the Group of Death, this was more an assisted suicide than an execution. "We didn't lose qualification tonight," said Mancini. "We lost two or three weeks ago. This Champions League campaign is worse than last season's." Mistakes have pockmarked it, from managerial misjudgements to defensive disasters. The by now regular pattern of a stirring comeback was rendered necessary by initial errors. Despite parity on the night, Real Madrid could have been out of sight after half an hour. They were a dream in green, City sliced apart with embarrassing ease.

The Real goal was a case in point; Angel di Maria, afforded too much room on one wing, crossed and Karim Benzema emerged unchecked to volley in. In a week the Old Trafford sculpture of Sir Alex Ferguson is unveiled, Mancunian football had another statue: Maicon, who did not notice the Frenchman.

Both Mancini's faith in the familiar and his trust in the new backfired. He opted for his old Inter ally and the 3-5-2 formation he has embraced recently. The latter was abandoned with two-thirds of the game remaining while the former survived the game. Maicon's ordeal equated to a blood sport without the blood with Cristiano Ronaldo predictably playing the part of tormentor in chief.

Mourinho won the Champions League with the Brazilian but only by deploying Samuel Eto'o as an auxiliary right back in front of him. Mancini left Maicon exposed against a rampant Ronaldo; but for a goal-line clearance from the otherwise nervy Matija Nastasic, he would have doubled Real's lead. If precision is the defining characteristic of Barcelona, pace was Real Madrid's most obvious asset. They went for the jugular in an opening onslaught. "We played a great game, particularly in the first half," Mourinho added. "We did enough to win by a reasonable margin."

Meanwhile, by disposing of a defensive midfielder, Mancini ceded control of the centre of the pitch, leaving an overworked Yaya Toure to halt Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso and a rampaging Sami Khedira. He could not.

The eventual reversion to 4-4-2 was more successful, even if it took official assistance for pressure to bring a goal. Questionable penalties have been a theme of City's European adventures and they were the beneficiaries of another. "I have had a clean sheet this season for not talking about referees," said an ever mischievous Mourinho, before referring to Gianluca Rocchi. "With this referee, I play a derby with Inter Milan and I finish with nine men."

He was down to 10 when Sergio Aguero, accelerating on to Edin Dzeko's deft pass, was tugged back by Alvaro Arbeloa, who collected his second caution before the Argentine sent Iker Casillas the wrong way from the penalty spot. It was a moment of revenge; nine minutes earlier, the Real captain had made an extraordinary save to deny the former Atletico striker a goal.

Yet in a dozen games against Real, Aguero is yet to record a victory. Mancini's domestic record may bear comparison with Mourinho's - four titles from two of Europe's top leagues, as against five in three - but his continental CV falls far short. "If we think we can win a Champions League after two years, we are crazy," Mancini said.

Mancini and Mourinho have been matinee idols circling one another for a decade, mixing charm with ruthlessness, but the ever argumentative Portuguese has the final retort in any dispute. He has conquered Europe twice and is pursuing a unique hat-trick. The Special One has a special 11, chasing la decima. Real have secured qualification and if Mancini got his excuses in early, declaring before the game that Spain's dominant duo are Europe's two outstanding teams, it was hard to disagree. Mancini claimed there are five or six teams ahead of his, but 16 will progress to the knockout stages. Manchester City will not be among them. This particular Italian's job is safe, but Roberto Mancini has much to rue.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo - Even without getting his customary goal, Ronaldo excelled on his return to Manchester. Predictably he was the pantomime villain for the City crowd - and the Portuguese may relish that - but, with his willingness to take on the entire defence after Benzema's substitution, he showed his power as well as his skill.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Much improved after the break when they attacked with zeal. Aguero and Silva were excellent and Toure, who will be banned for December's trip to Dortmund, played a lovely pass in the build-up to the goal. With a winner required, the late replacement of Aguero with James Milner was bemusing.

REAL MADRID VERDICT: In complete control in the first half, they had to show more solidity thereafter. With their wingers, Ronaldo in particular, reluctant to track back, they may be a little fallible on the flanks and many of City's chances came from crosses. However, Real's front three oozed danger and the decision to bench Mesut Ozil was justified with Modric proving a more than capable alternative. Dortmund's emphatic defeat of Ajax means they will have to settle for second place in the group and a danger for the winners of any other pool in the last 16.

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