A little of the talk today will be of the £5m miracle at the heartbeat of Bayern Munich. Xabi Alonso spoke so intelligently about this match on Monday night that he, in his sharp suit and waistcoat, looked like management material already. The football from him which followed surpassed all that he had said about the task in hand. Alonso gave an object lesson in how wrong it is to write off those who have passed 30 by.
But there was another in that number who ought to preoccupy Manchester City more today. Frank Lampard passed 36 a full five months ago but when the pips were squeaking, long before torture turned to triumph last night, he put in the best individual performance we have seen in the City team in continental competition all autumn. And yet this club are preparing to let him to leave.
His presence here is a pre-amble to his part in the next stage of the Manchester City project – the launch next Spring of Abu Dhabi’s New York City FC – and when February comes around they will say that that project is far too significant and symbolic to let him stay and diminish the importance of it.
Manchester City vs Bayern Munich player ratings
Manchester City vs Bayern Munich player ratings
1/2 Frank Lampard
The 36-year-old rolled back the years with lovely pass in the move which ended in Aguero winning the penalty. Busy throughout. 7
2/2 Robert Lewandowski
The Polish striker was fouled by Mangala for the free-kick for Bayern equaliser and showed a fantastic poacher’s instinct for Bayern’s second. 7
The sentiment would be admirable if it actually looked as if the Manchester City FC mission was advancing. It isn’t – and Lampard is one player in the City ranks who looks capable of fusing this side together and providing the service which their prime asset, Sergio Aguero, can feed upon.
The City global empire, which also stretches to Melbourne, has been put together too soon. It has diverted the focus from the primary challenge: to make the core club a force in the leagues where the football is elite. The presence of one player who can inculcate a team ethic and walk untroubled on the big stage is too good to pass up now.
It was a night when both Lampard and Alonso proved the value of age in a sport which so often dismisses it. It wasn’t the kind of stand-off between those two old adversaries that we always remembered. Alonso v Lampard signifies Liverpool v Chelsea in that period in the last decade when they and their clubs were such implacable foes. Lampard left Alonso with a broken ankle for his trouble in 2005 and was dismissed four years later for a another wild challenge. The energies of youth.
Alonso was diplomatic on Monday night when asked if he harboured any grudges towards the Englishman about those days – “I wish him the best of luck. We were great competitors I think” – and it was not the fire and brimstone of old. The two actually lined up against each other eye-to-eye: the Spaniard in his position deep at the back of midfield and Lampard in an uncustomary role off the striker. No 10 was not a position in which Chelsea ever really used Lampard but Pellegrini evidently thought he could help ignite things in there and create. He busied himself, leaping to turn an early header over.
But he just morphed into his natural position, behind the play, creating chances, driving forward when the moment presented, and for most of the first half the game became an exercise in which of the two could provide the greatest moments of invention. Lampard won that battle, actually.
Moments before he had demonstrated most clearly the folly of City’s determination to pursue their global path and let him go, he sent a 30-yard pass over the head of Juan Bernat, into the path of the onrushing Jesus Navas, down the City right. The danger was cleared. Lampard’s second, 30-yard bullet was directed through the centre, for Aguero and beyond Mehdi Benatia who fatefully came flying in to recover the position, giving up a penalty and his own involvement in the game.
The celebration said everything. Lampard, the player ostensibly only just passing through this place, mobbed the Argentinian, his old European memories rekindled. He wasn’t done, either. There was a swerving, dipping shot which flew clear from danger, from the edge of the box.
That was when Alonso stepped up. He has been a subtly significant presence until the five-minute period at the end of the first half which put City back into the familiar realms of European catastrophe. For a player who calls so little on physical force, he was an effective, unfussy defender, diverting a low James Milner shot into touch and tidying up a dangerous Bacary Sagna ball back to Manuel Neuer.
Then came the free-kick which he passed around the City wall for the equaliser. After the interval there was an early seizure of possession from Eliaquim Mangala’s loose ball, a give-and-go with Frank Ribery and curled shot over.
The picture was not maintained until the bitter end. Lampard did tire and it was Alonso’s stray pass that Stevan Jovetic vitally intercepted and directed into the path of Aguero to score an equaliser which seemed to be drifting beyond them.
But the words of Bayern manager Pep Guardiola were resonant when the extraordinary finale was concluded and City had rescued themselves from humiliation against a 10-man team.
“He is a little a slower but he plays a little differently,” Guardiola said of Alonso, pointing to his head. “He plays with his brain as well as his feet.” It applies to Lampard, too.
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