Two seasons in the┬áChampions League, five away group games played and┬áManchester Cityhave won only one; against┬áVillarreal, who went on to be relegated that year. So what is the problem? Is it, as┬áRoberto Mancini┬áinsisted on Monday, just a lack of experience?
Where their lack of European pedigree certainly has hurt them is in the draw. With a low coefficient they have been placed in tough groups both last season ÔÇô with Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal ÔÇô and this ÔÇô with Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund.
And perhaps it is the case that it takes time to learn how to balance the twin demands of the league at a weekend and regular high-level competition in midweek.
But by far the bigger issue seems to concern Mancini. Last season’s group-stage exit was perhaps unfortunate; 10 points would usually be enough to progress. But in four seasons with Inter, Mancini’s side went out in the quarter-finals twice and in the last 16 twice. The issue is perhaps less that the Italian struggles with the different style of European opponents than that the quality of the Champions League exposes flaws that domestic football doesn’t.
And that, unfortunately for Mancini, would seem to enhance the claims that, for all his success ÔÇô four title wins in six years ÔÇô he is a lucky coach rather than a great one; after all, his three┬áScudetti┬ácame in a Serie A severely weakened by the aftermath of the┬áCalciopoliscandal, while his Premier League title was at least in part won because of an uncharacteristic collapse by Manchester United.
The real problem for City seems to be that Mancini is aware of the doubts about him and seems to be going through a phase of trying to prove himself, overcomplicating things as though to make clear that┬áhe┬áis the genius,┬áheis the one who deserves the credit for City’s success. The change of shape against Real Madrid, for instance, was baffling.
In the second half, having pulled David Silva (later replaced by Edin Dzeko) infield with the switch to 3-5-1-1, Marcelo was given freedom to charge forward down the left, meaning that the right-back ÔÇô initially Maicon but then Pablo Zabaleta – was left isolated to face not only Cristiano Ronaldo but also the marauding Brazilian.
Perhaps the idea was that Vincent Kompany, shuffling across from right-sided centre-back, should offer support, but that didn’t happen. The result was Marcelo having time to line up the shot that brought the first equaliser ÔÇô the third such effort that he had had in quick succession ÔÇô and that Ronaldo was again and again able to get a run at the full-back, which was what brought Madrid’s third goal.
Did Madrid present City with a particularly different challenge to that they face in the Premier League? Not really: Plenty of Premier League sides set up in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid. Similarly, the 4-3-3 played by Dortmund and Ajax is common enough, even if their pressing is perhaps more ferocious than is common in the Premier League.
Champions League teams don’t do things that differently to sides near the top of the Premier League; it’s just that they do them better and more consistently ÔÇô or at least the teams that City have been unfortunate enough to draw do ÔÇô and that exposes the English champions’ vulnerabilities. In the Premier League a moment of individual brilliance, or an error from an opponent, can cover for an indifferent team display.