For Joe Hart this could not possibly be a dead game. Manchester City may already have qualified for the knockout phase of the Champions League but for the man who is still England’s first-choice goalkeeper this was a cup final of sorts.
In a way, his first game for his club exactly a month after the disastrous mix-up with Matija Nastasic at Stamford Bridge was an impossible one. If he played well, it would be dismissed as against ‘only’ Viktoria Plzen. If he committed another error, the prospect of preparing for a World Cup from the bench would have seemed ever more real.
In the event, Plzen proved far tougher than anyone anticipated and were only denied a point by the combination that for Seville had terrorised defenders in La Liga – a cross from Jesus Navas converted by Alvaro Negredo. A header from Edin Dzeko gave the scoreline rather more gloss than it deserved. Hart was given precious little protection for either goal, especially Plzen’s second, which Stanislav Tecl drove precisely into the far corner of his net. In all, Hart made six saves – one of them a spectacular tip over the bar from Daniel Kolar. The case against him was not proven and nor was it likely to be.
His manager, Manuel Pellegrini, got what he wanted, right down to the booking for Yaya Touré that will see him conveniently suspended for the next dead fixture, a rather more testing one at Bayern Munich. There will be no suspension hanging over him when the knockout phase begins in February.
Plzen is one of Europe’s great brewing centres but, given that the last three teams to come to the Etihad had conceded 18 goals between them, Pavel Vrba and his team might have required something stronger than beer to steady their nerves.
David Limbersky, having once been on Tottenham’s books, would have known what to expect, but had to pull out during the warm-up. Roman Hubnik’s reward for stepping into the breach was to receive an elbow in the face from his own player.
The Czech champions arrived in Manchester pointless, something that since the Uefa president, Michel Platini opened up the Champions League to smaller clubs that could actually claim to have won their own championship occurs with increasing frequency. In the past four seasons 10 sides have finished the group stages with one point or less and Dinamo Zagreb have managed it twice.
Plzen, however, did not begin like a side that knew they were condemned and Tomas Horava’s goal was as good as anything seen in this stadium. The pass from Daniel Kolar cut out three defenders and Horava, running on to the space that should have been covered by Aleksandar Kolarov at left-back, struck his shot right-footed and first time. Joe Hart had not the slightest chance of saving it.
Plzen deserved it. They had been neat, inventive and with the match still goalless, Frantisek Rajtoral, who like the vast bulk of Vrba’s squad is from either the Czech Republic or Slovakia, drove through a flimsy screen of blue shirts and shot wide.
A few moments later, Michal Duris did the same and then, to the disappointments of hopeless romantics everywhere, Manchester City scored and that, briefly, appeared to be that.
It was a penalty and it was most definitely handball. Rajtoral raised his arm to Sergio Aguero’s cross and the Argentine took the penalty in front of the surprisingly large number of fans who had travelled from the city of Pilsner to the birthplace of Boddington’s. Matus Kozacik had as much chance of saving it as Hart would have a few minutes later.
Aguero did not reappear for the second half for tactical reasons but, together with Samir Nasri, he had been Manchester City’s most obvious threat. Before the match, Nasri had spoken vividly of how his head had been cleared and his appetite for the game restored and the way he played now was further proof of that.
There was a wonderful early shot that clattered against the crossbar and then Aguero delivered a little chip from the byline that was meant for Edin Dzeko and missed. It fell instead to the boy from Marseilles who tried a fancy little side-footed shot that crept wide.
Twenty minutes after the interval, a time that had seen Fernandinho denied spectacularly by Kozacik and Joleon Lescott somehow contrive not to stab home Dzeko’s header at the far post, Nasri struck the dead centre of the net.
Yaya Touré had barely been on the pitch for 60 seconds when his cross found Nasri, if not in acres of space then on a small allotment. The Etihad thought further resistance would be useless but the visitors equalised again before City pulled clear at the end.
Booked: Man City Milner, Demichelis, Touré. Viktoria Plzen Cisovsky.
Man of the match Milner.
Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Man City 54% V Plzen 46%.
Attempts on target: Man City 9 V Plzen 9.
Referee F Aydinus (Tur).
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