Manchester City did not leave Greece last night with a coveted away goal, although they did their chances of Europa League progress little harm after drawing with a competitive Aris Thessaloniki side.
Their hosts have not lost a home European tie for 40 years and it was easy to see why. They were disciplined and feisty, preventing City from turning an advantage in possession into a set of goal-scoring chances. Those opportunities the visitors did fashion, most of which fell to Edin Dzeko, were smartly denied by Greece international goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis.
Roberto Mancini said afterwards that he "expects more" from his £27m striker. "Dzeko needs to improve. We had a great chance with him and he should have scored. It is important that he improves very quickly. We should cross the ball more to him. Shaun [Wright-Phillips] should have done better."
Despite his criticisms of his players, City's manager remains confident of progressing in the competition. He said: "This result is better than 1-1. We have a chance because we are at home. It will be a different pitch. It wasn't a good pitch to play football. I think it will be a different game in Manchester."
After a cautious approach in the first half, the Greek side pushed City much harder as the game went on, led by the shuttling Brazilian winger Darcy Dolce Neto. All of this took place in front of a vocal and colourful crowd in the Kleanthis Vikelides Stadium, with flags and banners in the club colours of yellow and black.
Perhaps realising that after last Saturday's derby defeat, the Europa League provides City's best chance of silverware, Mancini deployed his strongest side yet in the competition. No Shay Given, Patrick Vieira, Jo or Dedryck Boyata; Edin Dzeko led the line with support from Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Wright-Phillips.
While Aris's pressing was initially brisk, City had sufficient quality to find space in the host's half. Sifakis was forced into a sharp early save. Silva, again City's most imaginative player, spun on the edge of the box and shot but Sifakis stretched to his left to keep it out. Most of City's first-half chances, however, fell to Dzeko. The Bosnian took advantage of Silva's touch before stabbing the ball at Sifakis. Soon after he broke through again but the keeper's save was more comfortable.
City's first-half build-up play was patient enough to get bodies forward but not quick enough to break through the massed Aris lines. Mancini's team have, at times this season, struggled to break down opponents who have the intention and discipline to defend in numbers. In contrast, Aris attacked in spurts, relying on lively combinations between Neto and Argentinian forward Raul Bobadilla.
When the precision of the visitors' passing dropped, Aris broke forward quickly, and sharply. Jérôme Boateng, moved to centre-back, had to make some important interventions. It was Neto who went closer than anyone else in the first half to scoring. Joe Hart was ruled to have carried the ball out of the penalty area after colliding with Gareth Barry, and Neto's free-kick curled just beyond Hart's far post.
Aris started the second half as well as they did the first. Neto, a driving presence down the right flank, did not allow Aleksandar Kolarov to play his natural cavalier game. The Brazilian's delivery to the near post was impressive and Bobadilla headed another good chance softly wide.
While Wright-Phillips traditionally stays close to the touchline, he had City's two best chances at the start of the second half from infield areas. Twice he was found by Dzeko after running inside. The second time Sifakis had to make a save as Wright-Phillips shot at him. The Greece goalkeeper made his hardest save of the evening just after the hour mark, turning Dzeko's near-post header over the bar from Barry's expert cross. Ten minutes later, Sifakis could only watch as a shot from City's new target man flew beyond his outstretched arms, but it went wide.
Aris manager Yiannis Mihalitsios sensed that there might be a better chance to take a lead back to Manchester than he initially suspected. Unlike the first half, they did not follow a good start with a retreat back towards their goal. Rather, they continued to press and thereby provided the space required for an open game.
Mario Balotelli came on with 13 minutes left and missed with an overhead kick in his only meaningful contribution. Dzeko was withdrawn soon after, but was first denied an unlikely penalty claim by the Spanish referee.
Mancini, however, is not one to risk sacrificing a clean sheet in the desperate pursuit of a late goal. His players had a few corners in the final minutes but there was never a sense of any great siege. A stronger sense of urgency might be needed, though, when the teams meet again in eight days' time.
Aris Thessaloniki (4-4-1-1): Sifakis; Michel, Guiaro, Vangjeli, Lazaridis; Sakata, Faty, Prittas, Neto (Castillo, 88); Toja; Bobadilla (Cesarec, 72). Substitutes not used Vellidis (gk),Oriol, Kaznaferis, Mendrinos, Cesnauskis.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Kolarov, Boateng, K Touré, Richards; Barry, Y Touré; Tevez, Silva, Wright-Phillips (Balotelli, 77); Dzeko (Zabaleta, 84). Substitutes not used Given (gk), Kompany, Lescott, Vieira, Jo.
Referee A Undiano Mallenco (Spain).