Bayern Munich have lost three European Cup finals to English clubs and this was another reminder that all great teams have their weaknesses and their complexes.
When Martin Demichelis, who was part of a lesser Bayern side than this one, sighed “thank God we have already qualified” in the pre-match press conference, he was echoing what everyone in the room thought: that a Manchester City side that had lost this season at Sunderland, Cardiff City and Aston Villa would be swept away by the most irresistible side in European football.
When Bayern went 2-0 up with the match barely under way, it appeared a prophesy too easily fulfilled. Instead, incredibly, Manchester City became the latest English club not to perform to Bayern’s script and but for a late save from Manuel Neuer to rescue a miserable display from Dante they would have scored the four goals they needed to top the group.
It was, in its way, as romantic as the Christmas markets in the Marienplatz although the glitter will last rather longer.
This was to be Bayern’s final week of their miracle year on German soil before they contest the World Club Championship in Morocco and then take themselves off to Qatar for a winter break. Pep Guardiola wanted to make a statement and to those who feared for Joe Hart’s future, it was not so much a team-sheet as a death warrant. This was Bayern Munich at full strength facing a watered-down Manchester City.
When he surveyed the evening from his hotel room, Hart would have believed it could have gone one of only two ways. He would be busy, that much was certain, but as a man very confident of his own ability he would have backed himself to shine. However, by the time the match was a dozen minutes old, he was staring into a black pit of humiliation.
Few who witnessed the opening moves could have believed that before the hour mark was up and Dante had clipped James Milner’s heels to concede a penalty, emphatically converted by Aleksandar Kolarov, City would have clambered back into the contest.
After City’s previous Champions League encounter, a 4-2 home win over Viktoria Plzen that was more awkward than it should have been, both Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott had asked why they were not played more by Manuel Pellegrini. The opening minutes were an answer of sorts.
Richards lasted a little more than a quarter of an hour before he came off with a suspected hamstring strain. Lescott’s first contribution was a dreadful back-pass that saw City concede the first of seven corners before the interval.
Then, Bayern Munich broke through. Dante looked up and arrowed a long ball towards Thomas Müller who turned inside and swept it past Hart.
After Lescott had made a hash of clearing a low cross, turning it back towards Franck Ribéry, whose shot was smothered by a combination of goalkeeper and post, the best side in the world kicked in City’s door once more. Pellegrini must have wondered why Mario Götze, deep in Manchester City’s own penalty area, was given a full three seconds to place his shot.
It was never remotely likely that City would win by three goals to top the group but now they would have to score four, which was as much fantasy as them being led out for the second half by a phalanx of unicorns. When Ribéry turned a defender as good as Pablo Zabaleta inside and then out to cries of “ole” there was a Harlem Globetrotter-ish quality to the night that was to be turned completely on its head.
From nowhere, City began to fight. Zabaleta brought some stability to the back four while Milner and David Silva, the only player in Pellegrini’s starting line-up who would merit a place in Guardiola’s, performed to the upper limits of their ability. When the Yorkshireman crossed low for the boy from the Canary Islands it seemed more of a contest between two of the wealthiest clubs on the continent and less of an exhibition match.
And then when Milner, one of the most consistently underrated players in Pellegrini’s squad, drove his shot past Manuel Neuer and into the far corner to make it 3-2, the night was no longer a triumphal procession but a reminder that every great team is mortal.
Man of match Milner.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee D Borbalan (Sp).