City tackle peak the hard way – and fall just short

 

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The Independent Online

By Sam Wallace

Were it not for the steadfast determination to do things the hardest way possible, Manchester City might yet be in the draw for the Europa League quarter-finals today rather than wondering how they find themselves eliminated by Portugal's fourth-best team.

The Abu Dhabi wealth may have transformed the club, the players might now be superstars but that time-honoured insistence at City that life must be difficult continues. Roberto Mancini's team gave away two goals to Sporting Lisbon last night before finally, on the hour, deciding that they did after all want to stay in this competition.

The damage was done in the first half. Mario Balotelli needlessly gave away a free-kick in the left channel and Matias Fernandez sent it hurtling past Hart into the top corner.

Five minutes before the break, Sporting made it two. Fernandez played in Marat Izmailov and his cross found the Dutchman Ricky van Wolfswinkel who only had to guide the ball in at the back post.

It was fair to say that with City two goals behind a few home supporters had already left when Sergio Aguero began the fightback.

When Mario Balotelli scored a subsequent penalty there was an upsurge in enthusiasm. When Aguero scored again with eight minutes left, some early departees might have considered turning their cars around.

The grandstand finish that City set up, a desperate shoot-out to try to stay alive in a second-rate competition was pure theatre. From two goals behind on the night and three on aggregate they needed four to progress into the quarter-final and they almost got them.

That it was goalkeeper Joe Hart in injury time at the end of the game, who very nearly scored with a header from a corner that was pushed round the post by his counterpart Rui Patricio, only made the night more surreal.

City had left themselves with a mountain to climb and, to their credit, they were remarkably close to the summit when the final whistle blew. By the end they had won the game, if not the tie. For a club that has ambitions to conquer the greatest heights in European football some day soon, elimination from the Europa League was an unfortunate diversion on the path.

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