Man City set their standard
Many are called but few actually choose to try and win the Uefa Cup. It feels as though much of Europe entered it, willingly or otherwise, at some stage of the season, but it is only in the quarter-finals that it seems as though two clubs who have targeted the tournament have finally met. And while the Champions League has the money, the glamour and the quality, its unloved sibling had at least as much drama on Thursday night.
Hamburg prevailed on aggregate to set up an all-German semi-final with Werder Bremen, but it will take more than skill alone to end up victorious in Istanbul next month. Among the idiosyncracies - some would say failings - of the Uefa Cup are that Manchester City could play 16 games without reaching a semi-final, that they could go to Barnsley, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, Denmark and, for a third time, Denmark in the same competition and that such feats of perseverance do not produce a significant benefit to either the club's standing or bank balance.
While City are scarcely strangers to the notion of heroic failure - this is a club that was once relegated while winning 5-2 away from home - but they accomplished it, a typically bittersweet achievement, to end their seemingly interminable European run with applause echoing around the City of Manchester Stadium.
"The manner of the performance, not the end result, was what I know we're capable of," said Mark Hughes. "What we need to do is produce that on a regular basis. In the future, that's what we will do. It's been a season of inconsistent performances but tonight there was a real sense we were trying to make something special happen. We didn't get that break when we needed it, when we were in the ascendancy."
So City didn't quite save their season, though their manager is confident his own position is secure. "The meeting was fine," smiled Hughes, after a pre-match appointment with his chairman. "I'm still here." The performance served as an endorsement of Hughes, if not his defence. Yet the world's richest club are almost certain to be without European football next season. For all City's ambition and talk of the project, money may remain the biggest lure to the summer targets.
While an often impassive Khaldoon al Mubarak, the City chairman, and a bemused-looking Fabio Capello were two of the few who weren't making noise, a capacity crowd generated a febrile atmosphere. "It was pretty amazing," admitted Martin Jol, and it influenced the footballers. It was magnificent mayhem, both error-strewn and entertaining with inflatable bananas in the stands and irrepressible players giving imperfect performances on the pitch.
There was enough incident to sustain several games but in the final reckoning, the most significant occurred in the 12th minute when Hamburg struck. At various stages, several defenders could be faulted as Jonathan Pitroipa's cross found its way, via the boot of Ivica Olic, to a sliding Jose Paolo Guerrero, who finished from eight yards.
City's response was rapid. Elano's rising shot struck Piotr Trochowski's arm and he converted the resulting penalty himself. The Brazilian's set-piece mastery was apparent again from a pair of free kicks. One was a rasping drive, the other a seemingly gentle curler, but Frank Rost got near neither. Thankfully for the German, both hit the woodwork.
City's second goal came soon after half-time. Stephen Ireland guided a ball through to Felipe Caicedo and the Ecuadorian turned away from Jerome Boateng before finishing with his left foot. Caicedo had a matter of minutes to savour his role as City's saviour before he contrived to miss what amounted to an open goal. Having veered from triumph to disaster within a few minutes, Caicedo then did it within seconds, strolling around Rost to slide the ball in, only to discover that - correctly - he was adjudged offside.
There were chances aplenty with two, sadly for City, falling to Micah Richards. He fell over for the first and blazed the second over the bar. While they kept attacking deep into injury time, City's chances effectively disappeared with their captain. Already cautioned, Richard Dunne was sent off with 15 minutes remaining for a blatant block on Mladen Petric. So Hamburg face Werder, sparing City a third match in Germany to follow their trio in Denmark.
They may be stuck in Manchester, but some metaphors persist about the club's development. "It's the beginning of a long journey," Hughes added. The Uefa Cup contains plenty of them.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Elano - He has been far from Hughes' favourite player but the manager said the Brazilian was "really outstanding". This was the Elano of his first two months in Manchester, delivering high quality set-pieces and, unlike Robinho, tracking back to help his defence. His replacement met with boos, which is a sign that the crowd hero may not yet have fully convinced his manager.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: Given their inconsistency, it can be dangerous to draw conclusions from one game, but the commitment was admirable. Elano aside, perhaps City's best player was Pablo Zabaleta, who has been successfully reinvented as a midfielder. That Shay Given is so busy every game must be a concern, though.
HAMBURG VERDICT: They are still chasing a treble, and it would be a wonderful achievement if they could achieve it. As Jol cheekily pointed out: "Although they bought two of our best players [Nigel de Jong and Vincent Kompany], I thought we were the best team over two legs." Jol himself merits some credit for the victory; he made a positive substitution to bring on Petric and the Croatian's speed resulted in Dunne's sending off.
THE BOY DUNNE BAD: Dunne's dismissal capped an awful week and a substandard season for the captain, whose mistakes proved costly in Sunday's defeat to Fulham. Fine servant as he has been and popular figure as he remains, City require more dependable defenders if they are to realise their ambitions.
DOUBLE DUTCH: With Jol as fluent in German as he is in English, he was able to correct Uefa's translator when his words were lost in translation. Like Jose Mourinho, he appears another manager who could gain employment in that field if he was unwanted in football.