Miracles not meltdowns needed by Mancini's erratic side
Manchester City 2 Ajax 2
When, finally, last night Roberto Mancini turned on the ITV cameraman whose job it is to track the players off the pitch at the end of the game it would be fair to say that the strain was really beginning to tell on the Manchester City manager.
Shouting at referees? It happens. Squaring up to the members of the opposing team's coaching staff? Managers have been known to do it. But when they find themselves shouting at cameramen or ball boys or groundsmen – the ordinary folk on the periphery trying to do their jobs – a little light should go on in their head that denotes a line has been crossed.
'You! Finished!' Mancini shouted at the cameraman last night, having previously turned on the referee, although he clarified the latter was an attempt to stop the cameraman filming rather than a threat to his long-term prospects. The reality, however, is that it is City who are finished in the Champions League this season, bar the kind of miracle that even Mancini later dismissed with a wave of his hand.
In order to stay alive in Group D – a true league of national champions – City will have to beat Real Madrid at home in 14 days' times and then go to Borussia Dortmund on 4 December and beat the current leaders. That alone will not be enough to see them through, they will have to hope that results go their way elsewhere. There is more than one scenario in which they would prevail but none that are particularly likely.
In the meantime, Mancini could find himself banished to the stands by Uefa for his one-man pitch invasion. It is an unedifying way for City to bail out of Europe, and at this rate they may not even qualify for the Europa League, although that might be something of a blessing in disguise.
The group draw was hard on them, and Ajax – on paper the weakest team in Group D – are a fine side. Nevertheless, City did not help themselves by falling two goals behind within 17 minutes and then having to spend the rest of the game chasing. The stadium was around 5,000 short of its capacity and a few had already left by the time Sergio Aguero equalised with 16 minutes left.
City got their act together in the second half and the substitute Mario Balotelli also pursued the referee Peter Rasmussen at the final whistle for what the striker claimed was a penalty for a foul on him by Ricardo van Rhijn. But City's performance before the break, especially in the early stages, was so abject that Mancini was wearing the slightly maniacal grin of a man who is already experiencing the transition from rage to disgust.
The two first-half goals from Siem de Jong were the kind that embarrass opposing managers. Both of them came from set-pieces and both were avoidable. Mancini's side were experiencing enough problems with their opponents passing the ball around them in midfield without then finding themselves out-manoeuvred and out-fought at corners.
De Jong's first was a piece of opportunism at the back post where Niklas Moisander's scuffed connection on a corner landed. It was not obvious why he had so much room and why Joe Hart was unable to get down to the ball but the 23-year-old striker had no-one around him when he hooked the ball back into the City goal.
If that was bad, his second goal was a moment of despair for City's defence. Christian Eriksen hit his corner to the near post where De Jong just ran away from his dozy marker Yaya Touré and headed the ball in.
Touré recognised his own role in the second Ajax goal and he was better for the rest of the half, scoring a very accomplished goal of his own on 22 minutes. From Samir Nasri's cross from the right, the ball was headed upwards and backward by Moisander. When it dropped Touré took it on his chest with his back to goal. His next movement was swift and decisive as, falling back, he twisted and volleyed the ball past Kenneth Vermeer.
There were other moments of promise for City, when Van Rhijn managed to head a deflected cross by Pablo Zabaleta out from underneath the Ajax crossbar. A chip from Touré that caught the Ajax defence dreadfully square gave Zabaleta the chance of a header but he struggled to generate any power. Given the serious nature of their position you might have expected City to be more frantic.
Ajax pressed them high up the pitch and when they had the ball, the Dutch champions passed it much better than their opponents. After the break, De Jong had two shots that tested Hart and, until Aguero scored an equaliser in direct fashion, the striker had been most notable for falling over at inopportune moments.
Edin Dzeko came on for Carlos Tevez, extremely quiet by his standards. Finally on 74 minutes, a long kick from Hart was headed on by Balotelli, who had come on at half-time for Javi Garcia, and Aguero struck his shot past Vermeer with his first touch.
The disallowed goal was ruled out because Aleksandar Kolarov, another substitute, was ruled offside when he crossed from the left for Aguero to finish. It was tight but it looked like the right call, in spite of Mancini marching on shouting "Was goal! Was goal!" Even he knows that the referee is a subplot to the real story. City have fallen short in Europe again, and that is why they need a miracle to save them.
Man of the match Eriksen.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee P Rasmussen (Den).
How about playing him at the back, Roberto?
City's defending last night was such a shambles as they conceded two early goals from corners that one of manager Roberto Mancini's training ground dummies might have done a better job of repelling Ajax.
The inflatable devices, known as 'Ups' and only used by Italian clubs in addition to City, would be cheaper, at £115, too. Manufactured in Italy, the dummies have a height advantage over most at 6ft 8in – which is even taller than Peter Crouch – and they usually stay on their 'feet'. Supported by a water base, and weighing in at a lightweight 3st 9lb, they can be pushed back by a free-kick but often stay upright and 'get up' quickly, which is not always something you can say for City's players.
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