So we are virtually out of Europe. And our journey to the brink was as frustrating as it was painful, because it could so easily have been prevented. But as long as City win the Premier League this season then last night will be viewed as a positive when the dust settles on the season next May.
First of all, the inquest. I don’t have a shadow of doubt in my mind that we are, or should I say were, good enough to qualify from this group. Group of Death it may be, and Bayern are a good side, but we should be home and dry by now. The manager’s decisions will ultimately cost us our place in the knockout phase. Not just last night, but in the other games too. The decision not to start with our first choice full backs of Clichy and Richards in every one of these games has been mystifying and has cost the club dearly. The inclusion of Kolo Toure against Bayern was simply bizarre.
Both Napoli games were very similar. The Italians concede possession and territory because they are absolutely solid in the centre of the park, particularly at the base of the midfield. That can frustrate the current City side as it inhibits Silva, but the way to deal with that problem is simple: width. I can accept not starting with our only natural wide man, but you simply have to have to have overlapping fullbacks in that situation. How many times last night did Zabaleta pick the ball up, in Napoli territory, in lots of space, and stop, look up, come inside and look for a short pass? Twenty? More? It was frustrating as hell to watch and made even more exasperating to see Johnson enter the fray with just five minutes left in last night’s game and open them up repeatedly. Apart from one near miss, Kolorov offered the same problem, caused of course, by chronic lack of pace. This happened in both games and, I believe, cost City between three and five points.
There were other poor tactical decisions by both the players and the manager last night that could and should have been rectified during the game. The game totally bypassed Nigel De Jong because he sat in front of the back four in an area the game was not played. When Napoli attacked, they attacked on the break, leaving De Jong isolated with men coming at him from wide positions. He chased around fruitlessly like a dog at a fireworks display. A flatter midfield, arguably including Gareth Barry, would have suited the game better. The inclusion of Barry always gives City a great link between defence and attack, and greater momentum, both of which were missing.
I have rarely been more frustrated with a City player than Mr Inconsistent, Ya Ya Toure. He does one thing well and that is to run at people to gain territorial advantage. In last night’s role, as an advancing deep lying midfielder in a tight game, he could have created by doing just that. So what did he do? Just like at the beginning of last season, he turned and gave the ball back to the centre halves. Not just once, not just twice, but practically every time he was on the ball. He looked like his boots were fitted with an automatic reverse pivoting device. So we ended up in the ludicrous situation of repeatedly relying on the worst passer in the team, Lescott, to open up a tight team. There were other poor performances, notably the forwards. But overall we played right into their hands and Napoli and Bayern greedily snatched the games from us, giftwrapped, like a Cheshire kid at Christmas.
Yes, I’m frustrated. But it is a different feeling to other cup disasters, and one I rather like, because it is tinged with lashings of hope. That is because there is, of course, a huge light at the end of the tunnel. A dazzling, alluring light which shines silver and is decked in sky blue ribbons. It is, of course, the Premier League trophy. Our destiny. We have to win it now. We are the best team. We are five points clear. We will not have the distraction of the Champions League, a competition I do not believe we will win even if Lady Luck dictates we miraculously scrape through.
If I were Roberto Mancini I would not even consider the Europa League as a development platform for our fringe players: I’d throw the bloody thing. And I’d consider doing the same to the Carling Cup at Highbury next week, although our 5000 fans may ask a question or two about that. What I believe he will do, and it will be the correct decision, is play our Reserves in both those games. And focus on the next step in this club’s wonderful journey: champions of England.
Step forward Wayne and Nedum. You can be heroes. Do your worst.