They were playing behind closed doors and the Manchester City fans denied the right to travel would have been watching behind the sofa by the time their side’s crashing and baffling inability to deliver in Europe revealed itself once again.
It was nothing less than complacency which reduced their Champions League campaign to shreds in the deadening cold of the Moscow night. A very questionable penalty gave CSKA the draw which, at the very best, will leave City requiring a win in Rome in December to qualify for the knockout stage. It was to Manuel Pellegrini’s credit that he didn’t use that decision in his side’s mitigation but his clear initial suggestion in his press conference that the cold night may have contributed to their second half disintegration symbolises the problem.
The big sides in Europe operate with no excuses, aware of the need to work to the end to drive home results. City have a psychological block where this competition is concerned. They are vulnerable to late goals and don’t look like they believe they can be winners.
CSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2 player ratings
CSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2 player ratings
1/12 Joe Hart
Not much the England number one could do for first goal and was close to saving the penalty but not quite close enough. Aside from that wasn't called into any testing action. 5
2/12 Alexander Kolarov
Played a great cross that James Milner nearly converted and another for Sergio Aguero later in the match that the left-back was unfortunate not to see converted. CSKA goal came from down his side and was responsible for the CSKA penalty, although will feel hard done by. 6
3/12 Eliaquim Mangala
Little to do in defence until the latter stages, but did it well enough if not looking as assured as his captain alongside him. 6
4/12 Vincent Kompany
The usual assured performance from the man with the armband. Looked calm throughout and snuffed out a couple of decent openings for CSKA whilst covering for his defensive partner when needed. 8
5/12 Pablo Zabaleta
Constantly got forward and went close with half-volley during the first half before being involved in the build up to Milner's goal with a good pull-back for Aguero who then laid it on. 7
The more defensive of the two holding midfielders did well to break up any emerging plays from the hosts. Was booked for a hefty challenge and a little fortunate not to receive another for a clumsy tackle. Replaced with Jovetic for final few minutes. 5
7/12 Yaya Toure
Wasn't particularly helpful to his defenders but offered more going forward. Played a couple of great balls for Zabaleta and Milner and worried CSKA when he got into gear and went on one of those marauding runs into the opposition's half. Still not looking his best. 5
8/12 James Milner
Slid in to score the second goal and should perhaps of had a second but could only hit the outside of the post from close range. His usual industrious self. 6
9/12 David Silva
Constantly involved and while not everything came off for the little Spaniard, kept asking questions of the CSKA defence. Replaced with Fernandinho. 7
10/12 Edin Dzeko
Unselfish in squaring to Aguero for the opening goal whilst his strength caused problems. Control let him down occasionally. Replaced with Jesus Navas. 6
11/12 Sergio Aguero
Looking back to his best - quick, incisive and a constant threat. Opening goal very simple and laid on the goal for Milner. 8
12/12 Best off the bench: Jesus Navas
Replaced Eden Dzeko in order to offer an outlet. Managed to sweep in a couple of crosses but nothing that led to another goal. 5
They sacrificed their position of half-time superiority with a second period in which they barely made an imprint. They were simply not at it.
Pellegrini’s talk of the cold should not be taken too seriously. Asked to elaborate on it, he went back on the suggestion that the sub-zero temperatures were a factor.
His demeanour, with a face like thunder, was the more significant part of his press conference. City have not set targets in Europe, with the notional aim of making the quarter-finals, but he knows this will not do.
Individual errors proved crucial. City did not pay £36m for Eliaquim Mangala to see a striker get an easy run behind him, as Bebras Natcho did just after the hour – allowing the Israeli to square for the half-time substitute Seydou Doumbia, who nipped ahead of Pablo Zabaleta to score. The Yaya Touré mystery also deepened. His impressive first half gave way to a second period in which he frequently conceded possession. Pellegrini made a late attempt to strengthen midfield but to no avail.
The night’s subsidiary story was the raucous glee from the stand which greeted the CSKA Moscow comeback. This was supposed to be a game played behind closed doors because of home fans’ persistent racist conduct. It was nothing less than a scandal that so many of the 650 available tickets found their way into home supporters’ hands, enabling a volume of support to be raised.
For a time, there was no sign of this noise deadening City’s resolve. As the freezing cold gave way to snow, Pellegrini’s players eased away from the Russians, and the Touré problem which has hampered their campaign seemed to be resolved. He operated in a more advanced three-man line ahead of Fernando, a formation which also permitted Pellegrini a two-man striking force and a better balance.
The Russian threat was not negligible early on. Zoran Tosic, last seen in Manchester as one of Sir Alex Ferguson less judicious buys, tested Mangala with a through ball for Ahmed Musa which the French defender passed, but by the half-hour the more balanced City unit was beginning to function.
They soon went ahead in a breakaway move when Zabaleta won the ball near his own box and supplied David Silva, whose speared, defence-splitting pass sent Edin Dzeko in on goal. He unselfishly squared for Sergio Aguero to score his 11th goal in as many games.
When James Milner slid in to meet an Aguero shot and send City 2-0 ahead, and then hit the post before half-time, it seemed like a new Champions League script for this team. City might also have been awarded a penalty for Sergei Ignashevich’s sliding challenge on Dzeko seconds before Milner found the woodwork.
But the narrative could not be maintained. The arrival of Touré’s compatriot Doumbia for the second half made an immediate and lasting difference. Pellegrini tried to introduce some pace to the piece and brought on Jesus Navas for Dzeko. But the defence had a vulnerability. Vincent Kompany, who was not imperious, conceded a free-kick which Natcho sent in, reaching Hart more by good luck than judgement, and after Roman Eremenko began to cause a threat, Pellegrini decided on reinforcements. The introduction of Fernandinho’s strength in place of Silva signalled a need to shore up the side. To no avail.
City were last night seeking answers from Uefa on the presence of the partisan home crowd which took encouragement. Uefa’s initial response was that it had been impossible to monitor 300 tickets delivered to their partners and sponsors, and sources here indicated that it had been an open secret all week that tickets were circulating. In which case, the side should be forced to play on neutral territory well away from Moscow.
Pellegrini agreed that the presence of Muscovite followers had not been acceptable. “I agree [it is not] but maybe it’s not my duty to discuss things that don’t correspond to my duties,” he said.
What does “correspond to his duties” is to field a side which knows it has a responsibility to deliver City deep into the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Though Bayern Munich raced into the early 5-0 lead over Roma in Germany which suggests City still have the chance of a scrap for the second qualification place with Roma, they looked a long way from where they ought to be last night.
Hart, the player who we have always relied on for an honest diagnosis of City’s struggles in Europe, put it most succinctly.
“It was a strange atmosphere because we are used to playing in front of crowds of emotional people but at the end of the day we were here to do a job regardless of who was here to watch us,” he said. “And we didn’t do it.”
CSKA Moscow: Akinfeev, Fernandes, V. Berezutski, Ignashevich, Shchennikov, A. Berezutski, Natcho, Tosic, Eremenko, Milanov, Musa.
Subs: CSKA Moscow Doumbia (A Berezutski, h-t), Cauna (Tosic, 69).
Manchester City: Hart, Kolarov, Mangala, Kompany, Zabaleta, Fernando, Toure, Milner, Silva, Dzeko, Aguero
Subs: Navas (Dzeko, 72), Fernandinho (Silva, 78), Jovetic (Fernando, 86).
Booked: Manchester City Fernando.
Man of the match: Doumbia.
Match rating: 6/10.
Possession: CSKA 45% Man City 55%.
Attempts on target: CSKA 4 Man City 4.
Referee: I Vad (Hungary).
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