Manchester City vs CSKA Moscow: Sergio Aguero full of industry but fails to light up another European night

Argentine failed to really shine on the biggest stage as City were beaten

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The Independent Football

Sergio, Sergio, wherefore art thou, Sergio? The question goes unanswered in Europe. Sergio Aguero is both emblem and microcosm at Manchester City, a richly-gifted player only deep pockets can afford yet, like the club he represents, a talent still awaiting validation on the highest stage.

It would plainly be nonsense to lay the blame for City’s inexplicable failures in Europe at the feet of Aguero, but if ever there were a night for a virtuoso flourish to banish the negativity this was it. The diminutive Argentine could not have given more, but this was an occasion that called for alchemy as much as industry, and of that there was none.

Aguero’s quicksilver poaching is at the heart of the Abu Dhabi project, framed for ever in City lore in a photo montage pinned to the stadium walls and to the hearts of supporters, recording the day two years ago he simultaneously speared QPR and Manchester United to deliver a third league title 44 years after the last.

At the start of this campaign, before City’s dreams had been pricked by Roma and CSKA, the City manager, Manuel Pellegrini, urged Aguero to do as his talent demanded and claim the Ballon d’Or. Since then the shortlist has come and gone without his name gracing the 23, and this despite him scoring 28 goals in a championship-winning season.

The Ballon d’Or recognises global impact, not domestic plunder. Until Aguero cracks an injury-time winner to claim for City the Champions League, the golden orb will remain a conflict to be resolved by Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. On this evidence that day looks a long way off.

This had not been a particularly edifying week for the English football elite, Liverpool conceding the high ground before a ball was kicked in Madrid by fielding a weakened team, and Arsenal choking on a 3-0 lead at home against a poorly equipped Anderlecht.

Here City were a goal down before the punters had taken their seats, suggesting another night of bewildering underachievement. City know all about disappointment in this context. They have failed to establish either presence of identity in Europe.

All that cash deposited in the east end of Manchester might be transforming the city’s post-industrial hinterland but has yet to gain the Abu Dhabi owners the international traction that their investment warrants.

Perhaps some things in Manchester are just resistant to change. The Etihad is a brisk 30-minute walk from Piccadilly, taking you through Ancoats and Beswick, where the streets are still perfumed by the unmistakable scent of Manchester’s past, the chippie. Inside the Etihad the fare is entirely haute cuisine, or at least that is what is says on the tin. Yaya Touré served up a dish of the highest quality to equalise, but not before he had stood flat-footed as Seydou Doumbia ran past him to head home the opening goal of the night.

City duly toyed with their opponents for half an hour but not in the manner in which they cut through the English on weekends when they are at their imperious best.

Aguero was largely a peripheral figure in the first half, the second Moscow goal calling out to him to provide the answer. What Pellegrini needed was the lightning bolt that blew the neighbours into the weeds with a typically sweet strike on Sunday.  

Perhaps it would have been better had CSKA played in their traditional red, a colour that fires City’s electric grid like no other. It was not so much that Aguero was not plugged into his team-mates, rather that in games that rely more on calculation than emotion he more than any other misses the brilliant conduit that is David Silva.   Silva’s absence did not matter against an emasculated United reduced to 10 men and fielding a defence failing the Trades Description Act. But against a stubborn unit set up expressly not to lose, the slide-rule pass that umbilically links Silva to Aguero was sadly missing.

A burst from deep at the start of the second half illustrated a willingness to take matters into his own hands. Moscow were ready for him, the second bank of four closing around him like a fly trap after he had sprinted through the first line of defence.

The outstretched boot of Vasili Berezutski denied Aguero five minutes later. At least City were looking for their man in a strategic way after the break. Pellegrini recognised the collective malfunction with the removal of the ineffectual Jesus Navas and Stevan Jovetic at half-time, opting for the structural stabiliser that is Fernandinho and the invention of Samir Nasri.

Aguero urged his team-mates forward, demanding they give him the ball. James Milner obliged with a cross from the left that flashed across goal, only narrowly avoiding Aguero’s lungeing boot.

Aguero worked like a dog. At one point in the second half as the situation became ever more desperate he ran himself ragged in ever increasing triangles in a vain attempt to force an error in the Moscow back line. His efforts shamed team-mates stuck on their heels in indolent observation.

When City did prise open the Moscow rearguard it was Aguero who supplied the pass to Dzeko, only for the keeper to smother. Pity the roles were not reversed. Aguero was then booked for a ‘dive’ when, on another night, with another referee, he could have won a  penalty for his team.

Touré followed Fernandinho into red-card exile. By then it was red faces all around with City rooted at the bottom of Group E.

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