Too little, too late for City slickers
Welcome to Manchester, home of the Europa League. A city with aspirations to be the world's footballing capital has been downgraded, its calendar recalibrated as Thursday becomes a matchday. If Manchester United's exit from the Champions League was astonishing, Manchester City's was anticipated, not least by their manager, who only gave them a 30% chance of progress from their final game.
Yet it was also cruel. A club with a tradition of bittersweet triumphs added another. They have been relegated when winning 5-2, demoted twice despite scoring 80 league goals. Now their status slipped as they excelled.
Beating Bayern Munich - albeit a much weakened Bayern team - ranks as one of the finer European results in their history. Because Napoli defeated Villarreal, it counts for little. It is the Champions League for the magic triangle of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik; the Bermuda triangle of the Europa League for City.
While David Silva and Yaya Toure scored high-class goals, the most significant strike of the night in the group was Gokhan Inler's opener for Napoli in Spain. When he heard, Roberto Mancini sank back into his seat, a hollow look on his face. The post mortem on a campaign could begin before the game even ended. Being placed in a group with perhaps three of the continent's top nine teams was their initial misfortune. It is understandable failure, unlike United's ignominious elimination, but failure nonetheless. "I am disappointed for the club, for the supporters and for my players," Mancini said.
Early stumbles proved crucial. Mancini has displayed a sure touch in preparing for the Premier League but choices in Europe have been more haphazard. Selecting Kolo Toure in Munich backfired, along with an overly ambitious approach that day. Individual errors, such as Gareth Barry's stray pass against Napoli, have been punished. Striking mavericks rendered their task harder with ill-discipline: Mario Balotelli's dismissal against Dynamo Kiev last season ruled him out of the first three games, while Carlos Tevez's refusal to warm up in Munich deprived them of another forward.
Mancini pinpointed defeat in Naples, rather than Bavaria, as the key game, while citing an unfavourable cocktail of results that produced elimination. "Usually with ten points all the teams go through, always, 99%," he said. "But in this group, it was not enough. Napoli got one point more than us and they deserve to go through."
They advance to the sound of applause from Bavaria. The comparatively impoverished club attracted support from one of the traditional powers. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge rarely misses an opportunity to criticise City's spending, but financial fair play rules were not required to ensure their expulsion from this year's competition.
Yet if Bayern's chairman was waging ideological warfare against the arrivistes, their manager was not. Jupp Heynckes' substitutes included perhaps the world's most distinguished six-a-side team, spared for Stuttgart at the weekend. In all, there were nine significant absentees, with the manager citing illnesses as an excuse.
After a slow start, when Joleon Lescott appeared unfortunate to have a goal disallowed, City assumed control. The breakthrough was brilliant. Edin Dzeko applied the deftest of touches to Barry's through ball. Turning in a flash, Silva dispatched a half-volley past Hans-Jorg Butt. But for a goal-line clearance from the former City defender Jerome Boateng, to deny Sergio Aguero, it would have been two goals in three minutes. Having seized the initiative, a flurry of chances followed for Silva, Aguero, and then Barry.
It was, indeed, a mirror image of the reverse fixture, the home side dominating after the half-hour mark and sealing victory with a second. Toure, who has cemented his reputation as a big-game scorer by proving more prolific than the strikers in the Champions League, claimed his third of the competition. Neat inter-passing between Toure, Aguero and Dzeko culminated in the Bosnian sending the Ivorian through to prod a shot past Butt.
Efforts from David Alaba and Danijel Pranjic aside, Bayern rarely threatened. They did not need to. "My team has performed excellently in the group," Heynckes said. His message for City was delivered from a position of rare experience. "It takes a team years to develop at this level," said the 66-year-old, in his third spell at Bayern and a Champions League winner with Real Madrid. "City have had a lot of new players coming to the club."
For Mancini, there is a new challenge. "I have never won the Europa League," he added. Neither has Sir Alex Ferguson. The all-encompassing Mancunian rivalry has taken on an unlikely, unexpected dimension.
MAN OF THE MATCH: David Silva - A beautifully taken goal was the highlight of another fine display. It was a sign, too, that Silva is becoming more prolific. Besides his wonderful passing, other aspects to his game are becoming more apparent: for instance, he ran beyond the Bayern defence to accept a through ball from Toure.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: A pyrrhic victory was an excellent display nonetheless. Silva apart, there were impressive performances from Toure and Barry in the centre of midfield which set the tone in a game that bodes well for Monday night's trip to Chelsea.
BAYERN MUNICH VERDICT: Rather less should be read from this result than their achievement in taking 13 points from the first 15 in such an imposing group. It suggests they belong among Europe's top three clubs, as does the squad list. When Bastian Schweinsteiger returns to fitness, Heynckes' midfield will look awesome.