“We’ll fight to the end,” was the Manchester City chorus when they knew it was all over, and there certainly were qualities of grit by the time a second Champions League adventure had reached its dismally premature end.
It could certainly have been worse. There was a very uncomfortable period in the first half hour when they appeared to heading for a career-damaging defeat, from a Roberto Mancini perspective. They had needed to win to retain any hope of qualification for the knockout stage and instead found themselves cut apart by the imperial presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, doing what he so often did in this city.
But no gloss on things can salvage today's sense of bitter disappointment. This team was not built to require a dubious penalty simply to muster a third point in five games – sending them to Borussia Dortmund in two weeks' time needing to better Ajax's result simply for the right to another spring tour around the Europa League.
It can be difficult to extrapolate the truth from the fictions Mancini spins at times and it certainly seemed deeply pessimistic of him last night to suggest that hopes of Champions League success are a long way off, citing Chelsea's 10-year wait. Rafael Benitez and Roberto Di Matteo won the tournament at the first time of asking with Liverpool and Chelsea respectively. City won't wait for ever. The manager was spiky when the notion of dismissal was put to him – "No. Why? Why? – and the Abu Dhabis consider it a source of pride that the manager's door is not a revolving one. But a commanding retention of the Premier League is now required to demonstrate that the club is travelling somewhere under him. He's safe until the summer. Beyond that, no guarantees.
There was a bold flourish of the tactical wand from him last night; the three-man defence which has not started a Champions League tie for him. It was unmitigated disaster. It was not so much the system which failed Mancini but the personnel, Jose Mourinho's side easing in behind the wing-backs so often that for the first 15 minutes it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Mancini said that he might call in the police to catch Ronaldo and the local constabulary could certainly have done no worse. It was not just the pace and trickery of the world's greatest counter-attacking midfielder but his ability to drift away, unnoticed, into pockets of space – everywhere. His presence in a snood passed virtually without recognition in the warm-up and no one paid him much attention on the field as he drifted, with stealth, behind the midfield and generally wreaked havoc.
Take your pick from any one of a half dozen early advances which left City looking a very long way from greatness. The sharp, low cross which Sami Khedira allowed to run across his body and unleash a shot was a premonition. The gorgeous lofted ball from Xabi Alonso which let Ronaldo spring the offside trap and advance on to Joe Hart looked like an act of demolition. Ronaldo chipped Hart, Matija Nastasic swept around the back to clear off the line – straight back to the tormentor-in-chief, whose shot the goalkeeper brushed wide.
And none of that takes account of the latest piece of comedy defending which allowed Karim Benzema to deliver the Spaniards a 10th=minute lead in the first place. Angel Di Maria's clipped cross from the right looped over the head of a terribly immobile Maicon and with every member of the City defence transfixed, the ball arrived at the Frenchman's feet to poke it in.
Vincent Kompany had the kind of opening which does not belong in nightmares as Ronaldo twisted him into small pieces, a situation which improved mildly when Mancini gave up the ghost on his experimentation and resorted to a four-man defence midway through the first half.
All that might be said of City in the first period is that their big performers performed a little more than at other significant moments in this wretched campaign. David Silva fizzed away throughout. Edin Dzeko looked less potent as a starter than a substitute.
Once more in Europe, Mancini was casting about for a change. Javi Garcia's arrival after the interval, in place of Aleksandar Kolarov, gave City the central rigidity which allowed Yaya Touré – desperately deep until that point - to advance a little. By the time Carlos Tevez had joined the fray, arriving in place of a Samir Nasri on the hour, Maicon advanced down the left, launched a fierce cross which was deflected and fell for Aguero who looked to have diverted the shot in at the far post until Iker Casillas pushed his chest in the way.
It needed a kind of intervention way beyond the powers of Mancini – nothing less than a gift – to bring City from behind yet again in the tournament. Their penalty was adorned with a red card for Alvaro Arbeloa, whose tangle and tumble to earth with Aguero as they both reached for Touré's deep ball seemed nothing more than that. Gianluca Rocchi, the Italian referee, saw something else and Arbeloa's second yellow was followed by a penalty which Aguero dispatched .
The Spanish counter-attacks were quelled. Mourinho even appeared concerned enough to indulge in some ironic clapping to the official and City's supporters when the dot matrix board stated the game had five minutes to run. That was long enough for Silva to loft one last ball which Tevez could not quite drag under control to shoot. But Mourinho's reaction was mock horror. There were no shrieks of tension. Everyone knew it was already over.
Man of the match Ronaldo.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee G Rocchi (It).