It was supposed to be the night when Manchester City showed the Champions League that in their debut campaign they could play with the big boys and win.
Standing in their way at the Etihad Stadium were Napoli, also making their first foray into the Champions League, a side that City fans and players alike will have felt that they should be turning over, if they are to have a successful European adventure.
The Neopolitans may have finished third in Serie A last season, and have the likes of Slovakian playmaker Marek Hamsik, Argentine speed-merchant Ezequiel Lavezzi and last season’s 33-goal top scorer, Edinson Cavani, to call upon, but they were surely there for the taking from a City side that had been scoring goals for fun in the opening weeks of the Premier League season.
Alas, they weren’t.
Walter Mazzarri’s side settled into their 3-4-2-1 formation, frustrated City and counter-attacked astutely.
City started brightly, Edin Dzeko looking confident and menacing, Sergio Aguero moving intelligently and David Silva linking play with his delightful passing ability. For the first half an hour, they played with width, tempo, creation, working 2 v 1’s down the flanks, making use of the full-backs that were always spare. Play with purpose.
However, when the breakthrough didn’t come, thanks to some good defending from Paolo Cannavaro and his defensive cohorts, City changed. They stopped working the horizontal, sweeping the ball across the pitch, using the full width and the full-backs, who remained free as Napoli’s wing-backs dropped deeper to fill holes.
Instead, Toure, Aguero, Silva and in particular Samir Nasri, looked to take too many touches, which in turn slowed the tempo and allowed Napoli to get men back behind the ball. City became frustrated and became moreso, when unable to play the eye-of-the-needle pass.
Napoli soon realised that defensively, they could stop City, and that with more adventure of their own, they could trouble their opponents with their own major talents, the aforementioned, much-heralded front trio.
The Italians were unfortunate not to be ahead through Lavezzi’s wonderful curling effort which thumped the crossbar in the first half and had chances in the second, as the speed in which they attacked a City backline (who must have been looking into the stand wishing Nigel De Jong was on the field patrolling in front of them in his usual snarling fashion) caused Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany problems, with Hamsik’s volley from a Zuniga cross beating Joe Hart, but being cleared off the line from the City captain Kompany.
However, when Gareth Barry tried to be too intricate in the centre of the field – attempting to back heel the ball to Nasri when under intense pressure – Christian Maggio nipped in and strode into acres of space, straight at the City centre-backs. The City full-backs, Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov, had pushed high up the field and were out of play, as was Barry’s central midfield partner Toure, who had also pushed on. City, unlike the criticism usually thrown at Mancini, widely held as a defensively-minded, reactive coach, were careless, open and outnumbered.
Maggio attacked the space, a partner to his right and to his left, waiting for one of the centre-halves to show their hand. Eventually, Lescott did, at which point Edinson Cavani was played through, and the Uruguayan finished with aplomb, drilling between Hart’s legs. 1-0.
Of course City equalised, Aleksandar Kolarov’s free-kick beating De Sanctis. And it is true that they hit the bar twice. However, the ways in which they crashed the woodwork bore no resemblance to the type of football they tried to play when frustration took hold.
When Yaya Toure hit the bar in the first-half it came from a Napoli corner, with the big Ivorian transitioning the ball from deep in his own half before exchanging passes with Aguero. In the second period, when Aguero did likewise (just before Kolarov equalised) it came when City attacked as they had earlier in the game, playing 2 v 1’s in the channel, Nasri’s cross finding the on-rushing Aguero whose guided attempt hit the woodwork. Indeed on recollection, it was one of only a handful of occasions in the second half when City tried to cross the ball into the box.
What must now happen for Roberto Mancini and his side is that they look back at the game tape and realise where things went wrong.
In defence, it seems that Nigel De Jong becomes more of a necessity when he doesn’t play, the goal coming straight through an area of the City team where he would have been patrolling.
In attack, Mancini must cull some of his players habits, in particular Nasri, of wandering needlessly in field when width is needed to break down the opposition.
When Nasri and Silva both meandered into the centre simultaneously, not only were they met by opposition players, but they also moved into space occupied by Aguero, Dzeko and Toure. At times, City had five players within a 15-yard radius, which allowed Napoli to squeeze the space, and win the ball back time and again before bypassing them with one pass effectively taking them out of the game.
Too often City played that one pass too many, took that extra, unnecessary touch. Until the arrival of Adam Johnson for the ineffective Nasri, who needs to be more concise and economical with the number of touches he takes, they lacked any incision and directness from when Toure hit the bar in the first half.
It’s been labelled at Arsenal on numerous occasions that they pass for passing’s sake. Last night it was City’s turn.
It’s a habit that Mancini’s side dont want to develop, otherwise they could fall in the “Group of Death”. There is being intricate and clever, then there is being wasteful and having no cutting edge. It’s a small line between success and failure, minute, as you simply cannot pick-and-choose when to score.
You must show how ruthless you can be whenever the opportunity arrives, especially at the highest level. Bayern Munich, incision personified in their 2-0 win away at Villarreal, at the Allianz Arena in twelve days time, await.