City look the part on European stage at last

Villarreal 0 Manchester City 3

Ian Herbert
Thursday 03 November 2011 01:02 GMT

This time, a headache on the continent that Roberto Mancini was happy to grin and bear. His side's European adventure was the one taint on that garlanded image this season but the only pain he incurred, as Manchester City finally proved themselves worthy of a place in this tournament last night, came when he leapt up to appeal a first-half decision and bashed his head on the away dugout.

"I had the same situation here with Inter five years ago. The bench here is very dangerous. We need to change the bench here!" Mancini reflected cheerfully, the ice pack he had carried in the second half already dispensed with. He was talking about the quarter-final five years ago in which his side lost out on away goals and the way he was talking last night reinforced the impression that he feels City are improving fast enough to have designs on an a journey deep into the tournament. "We are growing," he said. "I think we have improved since we started in the Champions League."

Mancini was still wincing from his blow when his side accelerated into the lead and they certainly never looked back against a side who were challenging La Liga's hegemony 12 months ago but who did nothing to enhance the hallowed image of their nation's football last night. The coolness the Italian displayed in victory reflected a side confident they can seal qualification for the knock-out stage by beating Napoli in Stadio San Paolo, 19 days from now. Napoli's 3-2 defeat at Bayern Munich means that City could conclude their group games, against the Germans, safe in the knowledge of qualification.

They have certainly travelled a long way from their one point in two opening games which left them on the brink of disaster before Sergio Aguero's late winner against Villarreal at the Etihad Stadium which, in the wider scheme of things, was more important than anything that happened at Old Trafford last month. There was certainly a glint in Mancini's eyes as he sized up – and actually rather romanticised – the idea of returning to his own nation to repair a managerial record in Europe that was not what it might have been.

"Everything depends on Naples now," Mancini said. "I think it will be an incredible atmosphere. I think it will be 70,000 at the ground. Every time they play there under lights they win. But it's clear that if we win in Naples we're in the next stage. If we win, then we can talk about trying to get first place [in the group]." The capacity is actually 60,000 and Napoli are fifth in Serie A, but you got the picture. Mario Balotelli, who has provisionally agreed to speak at the pre-match press conference, will feel the same.

The opposition here was too pitiful to draw too many conclusions, though David Silva's lustre as he glided around in front of the Villarreal penalty area pointed to him as a player who can light up Europe next spring, as well as Yaya Touré. James Milner has also emerged as the one who can bring steel to the City silk and he linked exceptionally with Silva, too.

City certainly found themselves in modest surrounds: this ceramics town's entire population is only twice their football stadium's 25,000 capacity. When City's spending was hitting its peak 18 months ago, Villarreal's wage bill was cut by 15 per cent because their owners were struggling to shift bathroom units, and their crippling current injury list reached eight when midfielder Bruno Soriano went down with a virus yesterday.

But the 2006 quarter-final told Mancini to sense danger and there was less ambition about his team selection: one striker fewer, with Aguero on the bench, and the solidity of Pablo Zabaleta instead of Micah Richards. He need not have had nightmares. The Villarreal of last season who had "moved like angels" according to El Pais were nowhere in evidence here and Silva – instantly back at home in the region where he made his name – had spent the first half hour weaving dangerously around the edge of their area before he sent Touré in to score. Juan Carlos Garrido's defenders stood off the Ivorian disastrously, allowing him to slot his first goal of the season to Diego Lopez's right

It was Balotelli who asserted City's vast superiority in first-half injury time, when he nutmegged Jose Catala and advanced into the area. Mateo Musacchio pushed him in the back as he tried to stem the danger and though there was green laser pen to distract him as Balotelli stepped up to take the resulting penalty, we know all about his sangfroid now. A feint, a thrust of the right boot and City's lead was extended. There was a hint of racial abuse from the Spanish fans in the Fondo Sur to which Balotelli responded with swagger and eyeball.

This was not an opposition worthy of a place in a tournament of champions. Touré rounded up the evening imperiously. A neat interchange of passes between Gaël Clichy, Samir Nasri and Balotelli concluded with Touré striding comfortably past Jose Catala and clipping the ball past the stranded Lopez on 71 minutes in what, by this stage, was fast resembling a training- ground routine.

Mancini's players awoke in London this morning, having flown straight to the capital in readiness for the challenge of QPR at Loftus Road on Saturday. The club's football administrator Brian Marwood took a different route last night – a two-hour road trip after the game to Barcelona, where his club's elite development squad face the Catalan side in the NextGen tournament tonight. City know they have a vast amount of ground to make up at that level. That is a concern, since City know the spending will have to stop and growth to be organic, the Barcelona way. But they have reminded the eastern Spanish seaboard of what they offer. It would be hyperbole to speak of City as potential winners just yet, but Mancini was willing to address the question. "The Champions League is a strange competition," he said. "I think there are a lot of teams better than us in the Champions League. But everything can happen in the Champions League, if we get to the second stage."

Match Facts

Booked: Villarreal Wakaso, Catala, Musacchio, Marchena, Perez; Manchester City Balotelli.

Man of the match Y Touré.

Referee P Proença (Portugal).

Attendance 24,235.

Group A

Results so far Manchester City 1-1 Napoli, Villarreal 0-2 Bayern Munich; Bayern Munich 2-0 Manchester City, Napoli 2-0 Villarreal; Manchester City 2-1 Villarreal, Napoli 1-1 Bayern Munich; Bayern Munich 3-2 Napoli, Villarreal 0-3 Manchester City.

Remaining fixtures: 22 November Bayern Munich v Villarreal, Napoli v Manchester City. 7 December Manchester City v Bayern Munich, Villarreal v Napoli.

Gomez treble has Bayern top

Bayern Munich maintained their grip on Group A with a 3-2 win over Napoli in the Allianz Arena, Mario Gomez getting a hat-trick. Bayern raced into a 3-0 lead inside 42 minutes but Napoli fought back in the second half through two goals from centre-half Federico Fernandez. Both sides were reduced to 10 men late on, Camilo Zuniga for Napoli and Bayern's Holger Badstuber were sent off.

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