Manchester City had wanted to undertake what they call a ‘full reveal’ tonight – marketing speak for displaying the team’s new third-choice strip at the moment the players peeled off their tracksuit jackets to get down to work. Except that Uefa did not let them show off as much as they would liked: only the new shirts got an airing because the blue shorts would have clashed with the opposition.
The important stuff went on full show, though. There were no impediments to City revealing the football which they believe can take them to places in Europe that Roberto Mancini never reached. The way they were rolling around the ball almost casually by the end – the magisterial Sergio Aguero might have had four – should not diminish the instantaneous impression made by Manuel Pellegrini, whose Midas touch in Europe was so much of an attraction when City hired him.
The energy suggested that the Chilean really had made the players feel “that they have the capacity, and feel the confidence,” as he put it late on Monday. The opposition offered minimal threat and man-for-man, Pellegrini’s were superior in every position on the pitch but City were carrying a millstone – aware that anything less than a win would have reawakened all the old doubts about this competition. The way Edin Dzeko was mobbed when he put the side ahead, early in the second half, revealed a spell being broken. City capably quelled a counter-attacking threat before squeezing all life out of the game with three goals in a lightning ten minutes.
The environment was as inhospitable as life in the Europe always is; a tight stadium thumping and bouncing to the sound of Czech optimism and reminding us, with its tatty, worn-out seating and puddled walkways, why facing rich and gilded sides like City always inspires the have-nots.
It is hard to understate how desperately needed a victory was. This had been another day in which City’s evolution was manifest. Patrick Vieira’s new Under-19 charges began it by displayed the technicality, passing and width the club want to inculcate, sweeping away the Czech champions’ youth side by a score of 4-1, to launch Uefa’s Youth League. And as the goals were bouncing in, the latest of a blizzard of new commercial partnerships, with First Gulf Bank, was announced. But those significant steps are subsidiary to the quest for European success which absorbs and obsesses Manchester City. Only by striding into the later stages of elite European competition can they assume the global status they seek.
There was one of those heart-stopping fumbles which have come to make autumns on the continent such a haunting business for them - Joe Hart swinging only half a punch at a free kick and the ball was frenetically lashed clear – but this City did seem to possess the urgency and self-belief Manuel Pellegrini had declared it was his mission to imbue with them with.
The midfield which had seemed stodgy and little more than functional on the six away ties which have yielded only three points in the last two years was given a conviction and fluidity by the presence of Fernandinho, who freed Yaya Touré to drive forward sooner and more often than perhaps any time he has played for City. Jesus Navas flickered with occasional menace and the Czechs just did not possess enough to prevent Sergio Aguero from displaying why he is waiting to light up Europe.
The visiting team could and should have been two goals to the good by the interval, testing the security of the woodwork in the first period’s outstanding moment, when Aguero raced diagonally through the midfield and found the balance to shoot left as his momentum took him right. Dzeko, whose 16 goals in 43 league appearances in this country’s top flight suggested that he might know how to unlock things, conspired to hit the keeper with his effort when Aleksandr Kolarov’s cross put him in possession with the goalkeeper, Matus Kozacik at his mercy.
Fernandinho, billeted to forego his box-to-box instincts so that Touré could advance, was booked, along with Kolarov as they halted the Czech counter-attacking game – led by the influential captain Pavel Horvath. But there was no doubt which side had the supremacy.
They quickly asserted it after the interval. Aguero left Lukas Hejda on the turf after the two had challenged for a ball and burst away before levelling a ball for Dzeko, who trapped the ball and slotted it, side-footed past Kozacik from 15 yards. Touré, basking in that space which he had been allowed, bore down on goal and unravelled one of those long range shots – from 25 yards – which display his magnificent touch. Within five minutes, Aguero was taking the ball again, back to goal: receiving from Samir Nasri and swivelling to slam home left-footed shot in from 18 yards.
Plzen somehow found some obduracy but Aguero might still have filled his boots in the finale. He headed a ball into his own path, spun and flashed a shot which Kozacik did well to parry. Substitute Alvaro Negredo then squared for the advancing Argentinian to fire well over. The partial ‘reveal’ displayed new white tops, you’ll have seen. Modest beginnings in western Bohemia for sure – but this doesn’t feel like another campaign in which City will be raising a flag of that colour.
Man of the match Aguero.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee P Tagliavento (It).
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