A short drive from Vesuvius, Manchester City stared into a volcano last night and were burnt; terribly burnt. They thought they were learning from this European journey but as they trooped off through a wall of sound their prospects of a place among the Champions League elite next spring had melted away, along with their reputation.
As if the prospect of springtime Thursday evenings in the company of Anderlecht, Bruges and Metalist Kharkiv in the Europa League were not enough, the sting was sharpened for Roberto Mancini in the way that Ezequiel Lavezzi, the Argentine winger he would probably have signed had Samir Nasri not arrived last summer, revealed a gulf in class. The scoreline leaves City needing real favours from Villarreal, though one experienced German observer's description of their 3-1 defeat to Bayern Munich last night said everything about the chances of the Spaniards helping City out next month. "Villarreal are beyond bad," he said.
The consequences of this are far more serious than Mancini's sanguine reflections last night on the 30 per cent chance of progress to the knock-out stage suggested. City's attempts to comply with Uefa's financial fair regime has involved them in a fairly frantic attempt, behind the scenes, to drive up revenues. They can ill afford the reduced income of the Europa League, in which they must reach the final to register the kind of European revenues they want.
They had not planned financially for this, any more than the City manager had planned for some of his strongest players to look so much more mortal in Europe than in the Premier League. Yaya Touré, David Silva and Edin Dzeko, to name three, have flickered at best and failed at worst in the tournament and none of that number reached their level last night. Perhaps that is the nature of accelerated development: not always knowing what you have to draw on when the night air turns sour. "We grew too quickly probably and we need to pause and reflect," is how Mancini put it on Monday evening.
He does not seem to know who he call upon, either. The selection of Aleksandar Kolarov – because Mancini feared Lavezzi would cause Micah Richards the same trouble Franck Ribéry had done him in Munich – looked questionable in the final reckoning last night. Sergio Aguero's omission, for Dzeko, is another one that Mancini may regret as the Bosnian striker failed as badly as he did in Munich. It was simply Mancini's misfortune that the old Mario Balotelli returned last night: sore knees, sickness and spurned chances. There will always be an element of chance with Balotelli
The surroundings played their part. Che Siano novanta minuti di fuoco – "It will be 90 minutes of fire" – declared one banner and the Neapolitans did not even wait around for kick-off. Flares burned red and firecrackers blasted their noise across this vast, chaotic stadium half an hour from kick off and the bedsheet bearing Balotelli's name was hauled up in the distinti stand. It referenced Raffaella Fico, with whom the striker has been seen. The rest is unprintable. It was about time City's nerve was tested because the Napoli camp had been assailed by tensions all day. Marek Hamsik, one of their three prime talents, spent the day helping his pregnant wife recover from the ordeal of being robbed, at knifepoint, in her BMW. A small fire at the team's hotel – the Holiday Inn in Castel Volturni – did not calm things, either.
This did not stop Napoli quickly rolling through City in tidal waves of sky blue, benefitting from an ability to get their best players – Lavezzi and his Uruguayan co-conspirator Edinson Cavani – heavily involved. Joe Hart had saved Cavani's firm header from Lavezzi's cross and watched the Argentine's shot fly narrowly wide after the Uruguayan's exquisite back-heeled return pass, before he tipped Gökhan Inler's shot acrobatically over the bar. It was from the resulting Lavezzi corner that we saw another of the defensive calamities which have beset City in the campaign. Cavani got a head onto it but the ball was deflected in.
It was largely through James Milner that City were able briefly to steady themselves, As Napoli's threat receded, Silva was then given a split second for a shot which Morgan de Sanctis could only parry out for Balotelli to tap in after 33 minutes.
But it was simply more poor defending which allowed Napoli back in. Andrea Dossena's overlapping run on the left went undetected behind Zabaleta, just like Cavani's run into the City box to receive the former Liverpool left-back's cross and put the Italians back ahead. Now, Joleon Lescott was hacking clear from Inler, who shot narrowly wide when next presented with a chance.
Hart kept the tie within City's reach with a desperate dive to claw away Christian Maggio's cross from danger but immediately Lavezzi was back, running venomously at Vincent Kompany, leaving the Belgian on his backside and racing through on Hart, who produced a third outstanding save of the night, with his feet. The City goalkeeper's left upright spared his side when substitute Blerim Dzemaili seized on Kolarov's error to shoot, 15 minutes from time.
Balotelli spurned several chances but in the final reckoning, City melted away. It was Roy Keane who once railed against a Manchester United side "deceived into thinking we were something better than we were by beating nothings in the Premiership," amid their European failings after 1999. The suspicion is that the same must be said for City.
Man of the match Lavezzi.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee D Skomina (Slovenia).
Ribery double lifts Bayern
Bayern Munich clinched first place in Group A with a 3-1 home win over Villarreal last night. Eager to bounce back from their first Bundesliga defeat of the season on Friday, Bayern went ahead in the third minute through Franck Ribéry and top scorer Mario Gomez added a second midway through the first half. Jonathan de Guzman pulled one back for Villarreal shortly after half-time but Ribéry made the game safe for Bayern in the 69th minute.