Kolarov curler ensures City's grand entrance does not fall flat

Manchester City 1 Napoli 1

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The Independent Online

It could only be Manchester City who wait 43 years to play in European football's premier club competition and then almost spoil the party by nearly losing their first home game.

After three years of the Sheikh Mansour regime, close to £1bn committed, and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears, the Champions League finally arrived in east Manchester last night with all the trappings. The problem for City was that they came up against an unusually ambitious Italian club in Napoli, also Champions League novices, who had not come just to batten down the hatches.

Roberto Mancini would later complain that his team were "nervous" – by which he meant slightly over-awed by the occasion of their club's Champions League debut. In fact, after a decent first half they only really looked themselves once Edinson Cavani had given Napoli a deserved lead. It provoked City into a surge which saw them get their equaliser, Aleksandar Kolarov's free-kick, within six minutes of going behind.

Nervous? Yaya Touré and Carlos Tevez, a late substitute, have both won this competition before and six of City's starting XI last night, as well as Touré, have previous Champions League experience. But even City, to whom the usual rules do not normally apply, require some time to acclimatise to the rarefied company in which they now find themselves and it showed last night.

They had embraced their ascent to European football's top table with the enthusiasm we have come to expect of this club. The Handel-lite Uefa anthem was not used sparingly and the stadium itself was decked out with the word "Welcome" in various different European languages, like a friendly provincial airport. City have been waiting for this moment for years. It was the players who were not quite up to speed.

Mancini would later berate his team for failing to keep things "simple" and he did not disagree when it was put to him that the chief culprit on that score was Gareth Barry, whose ill-judged back-heel in midfield gifted Napoli possession for their goal. City had the better of the first half, marginally, but when they came back out after the break it was the visitors who seized the initiative.

For those of us who watch the Premier League week in, week out, Napoli were an unusual, interesting departure from the norm. They played with three centre-halves, a midfield of four and three attackers who interchanged. It worked well last night to control City's attacking threat for much of the game even if the Italians were occasionally uncompromising in an old-school fashion. By half-time they had picked up three bookings, including one for Fabio Cannavaro's younger brother, Paolo.

In attack, Napoli had Ezequiel Lavezzi, a livewire who hit the bar in the first half; the excellent Marek Hamsik and Cavani, another of the impressive current Uruguayan generation. On Uefa seeding, they are the weakest team in Group A which tells you just how steep City's task is to get into the next round.

With 61 per cent of possession, the statistics say that City dominated the game, but when the match reached its decisive last third it was Napoli who always looked the more likely to score. They gained confidence and, with Vincent Kompany having one of those evenings when he was less than his usual assured self, Napoli had the better of it.

City created some early chances but none of them quite took the breath away like the moment when Lavezzi sold Kompany a dummy with a deft turn on 18 minutes and struck a curling shot from the edge of the area that clipped the crossbar beyond the dive of Joe Hart.

The bar was also rattled at the other end 10 minutes before the break. Touré intercepted a badly-judged Napoli corner on the edge of his own area and ran the ball deep into the Italians' half before pushing it out wide to Sergio Aguero in the right channel. He got away from the defender and cut it back for Touré who clipped the bar with his shot.

The best player on the pitch in the first half? David Silva, but Lavezzi always looked dangerous every time he had the ball at his feet until he came off with an injury just before the hour. The Italians had scented a weakness – perhaps they felt they had nothing to lose – and they went at City from the start of the second half.

It took a judicious block from Kompany on the line on 49 minutes to stop Hamsik's back-post shot, from Juan Zuniga's cross, going in. City failed to build much of any note until eventually Napoli broke through. Before then, Hamsik had another good shot deflected away by Pablo Zabaleta's late lunge on 66 minutes. Then Barry's back-heel allowed Christian Maggio to surge forward. He played in Cavani who slipped the ball under Hart.

The jolt of Napoli's goal woke City, who immediately looked a better side. Aguero hit the bar from Samir Nasri's left-sided cross. Then the equaliser came from a free-kick out on the right side of the Napoli box conceded by Gökhan Inler for a foul on Zabaleta. Kolarov struck it with his left boot and placed it so close to Morgan De Sanctis' left post that the goalkeeper did not even bother moving when it curled into the net.

There was relief that they had clawed one back but City could not sustain the urgency that had preceded the equaliser. Edin Dzeko swivelled and struck a shot wide before he was replaced by Carlos Tevez. Mancini threw on Gaël Clichy and Adam Johnson too but Napoli did not tire as you might have expected them to have done and they were still pressing forward in injury-time.

Silva was close to getting a penalty when he was challenged by Salvatore Aronica late in the game. Nevertheless, the reaction at the final whistle from the home support told you that they were relieved with a point. They will have expected much more from this game but this is the elite of Europe and it takes some getting used to – even for City.

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