They invented the concept of sport as theatre in Rome and a few miles from the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, Manchester City delivered their spectacle.
With two games remaining, they were on their backs, with thumbs beginning to move downwards, not just for the club’s prospects of Champions League qualification but for manager Manuel Pellegrini himself.
This, after all, was a man brought to Manchester because of his predecessor Roberto Mancini’s persistent failings in the competition. This was a man who had made his reputation in Europe by taking Villarreal, a town the size of Darlington, to within one match of a Champions League final. The men from Abu Dhabi expected a repetition.
There were gasps of wonder this week when the club unveiled an academy and training set up that could claim to be the best in the world, but they did not buy City to invest in the grassroots. They bought it for the Champions League. They bought it for great European nights, of the kind they have been singularly unable to deliver.
Now, City had to face an Italian side, who required a goalless draw in their own stadium. It was quite an ask. That they came through would not only stiffen their resolve for the business end of the Premier League season, it would help build something the club has always lacked, a sense of European history.
Manchester City player ratings vs Roma
When Pablo Zabaleta, the player probably closer than any other to the supporters, clipped home the second goal, those fans who had travelled to Rome had the kind of memories that cannot be found in Lonely Planet guides.
Like Liverpool, City had left it to the last game of their Champions League group but their expectations were subtly different. Liverpool did have their history to fall back on, their icon, Steven Gerrard, would be wearing the captain’s armband. There were the memories of St Etienne, Olympiakos and Istanbul to sustain them.
City had nothing very much. The tone had been set by Malcolm Allison, who was assistant manager when City won the championship in 1968, and announced that he planned to “make the cowards of Europe tremble”.
City were knocked out by Fenerbahce in the first round and since then there have been a couple of 3-2 wins against an already-qualified Bayern Munich and not much else.
City were without their icon, Sergio Aguero, their captain, Vincent Kompany, and their most influential midfielder, Yaya Touré. Rome’s Stadio Olimpico was no place to be a team without a spine.
There was, however, one essential difference between City and Liverpool which is why one will still be competing in the Champions League and the other will not. City, even when they are City Lite as they were in Rome, have better players.
When City were managed by Mancini, it was hard to imagine Samir Nasri having much of a future at the club. He was the man Mancini admitted to wanting to punch.
By the time Nasri took his leave of the 2012 European Championship, snarling and swearing at the assembled French journalists, he admitted to feeling as low as he has ever done in his career. He could not even discuss matters with his parents.
There was another reason why Pellegrini was brought to City and that was to repair relationships in the dressing room that Mancini had torn apart. Nasri’s contribution to last season’s championship-winning campaign and the way he seized the space Roma afforded him to drive his shot home for the first goal, are proof of what a manager’s confidence can do.
Confidence in Pellegrini has increased immeasurably since the 2-1 defeat by CSKA Moscow that saw them finish with nine men at a silent Etihad Stadium last month. Then, they had been knocked out of the League Cup by Newcastle and appeared hopelessly outclassed by Chelsea’s remorseless advance. There were whispers that Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone was being sounded out as a replacement.
Now a month on, that talk has stilled. They called Pellegrini “The Engineer” and the structure he has built has proved itself able to withstand the December storms.
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