Never a team, or a club, to do things by halves, Manchester City tend in continental competition to have either a protracted run or last no time at all. For a good while last night, this season's great adventure looked destined to be in the latter category and it took an own goal and then a controversial winner in the 93rd minute to revive their prospects of something more enticing than another shot at the Europa League.
Four times in their first seven seasons after Malcolm Allison's promise to "terrify" Europe, the great unpredictables went out at the first attempt, on either side of going all the way and lifting the 1970 Cup-Winners' Cup. More recently, with group stages added to guarantee greater income, they have progressed to knockout stages, then lost out by away goals or the odd goal – occasionally, this being City, a very odd one.
The oddity benefited them last night, Villarreal's captain and centre-half Carlos Marchena obligingly guiding into his own net one of the many excellent crosses by Aleksandar Kolarov, whose goal from a direct free-kick had been City's only one in the two previous group matches against Napoli and Bayern Munich. Those games in their different ways had shown how overblown was Roberto Mancini's description of his club this week as "one of the best teams in the world"; the Italians exposed them on the break here, the Germans overwhelmed them in a manner obscured by Carlos Tevez's mutiny on the bench.
Earlier in this crucial match, Mancini's team again contributed to their own downfall, a defensive lapse by David Silva and a ring-rusty Nigel de Jong leading to an opening goal for the visitors. Insult was added by Giuseppe Rossi, the New Jersey Italian who won a League Cup medal with Manchester United, playing an important part in it. The heavens immediately opened, as they have a habit of doing here, and for a time it was wet enough for Villarreal's yellow submarine.
The designated "singing section" of the stadium went quiet for a time, and with Villarreal's support having apparently arrived in a minibus, individual Lancashire voices could be heard expressing their disapproval. Even after a belated spell of pressure, the brutal removal of Adam Johnson and an equaliser, noise levels were subdued, the failure to penetrate the yellow ranks, plus an occasional threatening counter-attack adding to a sense of unease.
It is one thing knocking four goals past Blackburn Rovers or Aston Villa, the crowd seemed to be realising, another besting even a side lying 13th in La Liga with only one win so far – not a great advert for the Premier League. Villarreal's coach, Juan Carlos Garrido, appointed from the reserves 20 months ago, is on the sort of run that would have most managers concerned about their employment status. Sergio Aguero's late, late intervention left him cursing the kind of luck that costs good men their jobs.