Hold On A Minute, Lads…
Sometimes the most one-sided groups in the UEFA Champions League can offer some intrigue. And so it is in Group E. Manchester City’s continued involvement in this year’s competition was teetering like Michael Caine’s coach in The Italian Job before today’s matches.
The last kick of a game elsewhere and the intervention of a little magician called Sergio Aguero had mathematicians, pundits – and UEFA, no doubt, scratching around for the rulebook to see what would happen if AS Roma, CSKA Moscow and City all finished the group on the same number of points.
City were poor tonight, make no mistake about that. However, what they lacked in guile against Pep Guardiola’s slick-passing Bayern side, they made up for in determination. More importantly, though, they had Aguero: a man who can spin straw into gold.
The day had started with qualification for the knockout stage looking, at best, difficult and with Samir Nasri suggesting that there could be a cull of players should City fail to progress.
“We need to do something or otherwise next year it’s going to be new players and new everything,”
When AS Roma conceded a last-minute equaliser to CSKA Moscow, the dynamics of the group changed. A City defeat to Bayern would not spell the end. The weight of expectation had eased a little.
And yet the balance would shift again during a dramatic match at the Etihad stadium.
A frantic start to saw Bayern pressing high and calming down first. Pep Guardiola picked a corner of the Etihad Stadium’s strangely square technical areas and planted himself there, directing every pass, tackle and pressing movement; constantly barking orders to those players nearest him.
It is a shame that Medhi Benatia was not in earshot, then, when Sergio Aguero latched on to a floated ball over the top.
Benatia foolishly piled into a tackle on Aguero. It was a surefire penalty and, as last man, he had to go. Aguero did what Aguero does, and City had the lead they wanted.
Or did they?
Suddenly City found themselves 1-0 up at home, against ten men. Guardiola seemed to have lost his cool (his big coat came off, anyway); they had to win this, right?
The weight of expectation can do strange things. Where City now had to decide how they were going to play this, Bayern seemed not to notice they were a man down. Guardiola shuffled his pack a little and they continued as they had begun.
Xabi Alonso equalised with a free kick that was nonchalantly passed into the net with Joe Hart seemingly oblivious to the possibility. And then Robert Lewandowski sent the ball looping over the City goalkeeper’s head. Via his own shoulder. 1-2 at half-time.
The second half seemed to pass by in the same manner. City huffed and puffed, even Aguero toiled and Neuer wasted time. So much that he eventually earned himself a yellow card. Bayern appeared comfortable and the only noise to be heard above the disgruntled City fans was that of the throng of journalists hitting full stop on their match reports.
On 85 minutes, enter Aguero and the sight of delete buttons everywhere being hit.
Stevan Jovetic capitalised on a rare error from Xabi Alonso and released the Argentine for a calmly taken equaliser. More was to come in injury time. A, by now, buoyant home crowd were baying for a winner and who else would step up to oblige?
Aguero’s 93rd minute winner might have sent the Etihad stadium into delirium, but one man was unmoved. Manuel Pellegrini did his best to diffuse any joy in his post-match press conference. When the Chilean was asked whether the Blues’ stunning victory was one of the most dramatic and important ones of his managerial career, he calmly replied, “I don’t think so.”
If Pellegrini is a man who is hard to read, then Pep Guardiola’s demeanour in defeat was an open book.
“I feel sad for the players, the points don’t matter” said the forlorn-looking Bayern manager, “look at the effort that Jerome and Xabi put in today.”
“When we’ve lost and we play shit, we play shit…but the players don’t deserve today.”
It wasn’t pretty but, despite what Manuel Pellegrini said, it was dramatic. City live to fight another day in the Champions League and must aim to win in Rome on 10th December. Have I already mentioned the Italian Job?