It is the 93rd minute of a must-win game against Ajax and Manchester City have shown great spirit and character to fight back from 2-0 down. The Blues have a free-kick. Joe Hart pumps the ball forward, Edin Dzeko rises highest and flicks the ball on to Mario Balotelli. It is a chance! And Balotelli ... nearly has his shirt removed from his back as he attempts to shoot. It is a blatant penalty but the Danish referee bottles the decision and blows his whistle for full-time.
That is the moment City's realistic hopes of progressing to the next stage of the Champions League ended. Mathematically, it can still happen provided the Blues win both of their remaining games and other results go in their favour, but that penalty appeal, combined with a very debatable offside decision to deny City a late winner, have given the Blues an excuse. But it is an excuse that should not be sought.
It is all too easy and convenient to blame others, but what must be recognised is the simple fact that City have just not been good enough. That might sound a touch simplified as various theories float around to explain the relative European failings of the Premier League champions, but it is the sad truth. By my reckoning, the Blues have played well for a total of 80 minutes in the four group games so far. Out of a possible 360 minutes, that is nowhere near the level required in this competition against such top quality sides.
In the Premier League, such a lack of consistency is not too much of a problem. City were distinctly average at home to Swansea, but thanks to one moment of individual brilliance from Carlos Tévez they secured three points. Similarly against the likes of Southampton and Fulham, spells of dominance and control for ten minutes, in amidst an average showing, meant that the Blues recorded victories. Domestically, City can coast more often than not and still win. In Europe, they are punished for such lethargy.
The reality of the situation is that, performance-wise, the Blues were out of their depth against Real Madrid, taught a footballing lesson by a majestic Borussia Dortmund side and then comfortably swept aside by Ajax in Holland. A better display in the return match at the Etihad Stadium was pleasing to see but it was too little and far too late.
What has been manifest in City's two seasons in the top European competition is how sides are both technically excellent and, crucially, fearless. Whereas teams who face the Blues in the Premier League sit back, scared of their attacking qualities, in the Champions League, the three other teams in the group this season, and Bayern Munich and Napoli last time around, attacked City with a purpose and drive about their play. They pressed high up, forced the Blues into errors and never let them settle. From a City perspective, there has been a worrying lack of control in midfield and that has lead to the Blues being overrun and passed around.
To combat that, Roberto Mancini has tried different combinations in midfield, all to no avail. Javi Garcia and Gareth Barry were the designated holding midfielders against Real Madrid and in the most recent encounter with Ajax, with Yaya Touré given the freedom to operate slightly further forward. Then it was Barry and Yaya on their own against Dortmund. James Milner was included in Holland, but whatever the combination in the first three matches and then for spells on Tuesday night, the Blues have been unable to gain a foothold in the game. It is in stark contrast to matters in the Premier League and it is tough to know what other options the manager can use.
He has, to much criticism, briefly switched to a back three but that plan didn't work. It is clear to see the benefits of the system and it worked extremely well in pre-season, but against a better calibre of opponent, there has been a sense of confusion and panic. Much of the analysis following the fixtures against Dortmund and then in Amsterdam focused heavily on the manager's implementation of 3-5-2 but that is slightly misplaced. The Blues were already trailing in Holland when the change came, whilst the Germans were creating chances aplenty when City had four at the back and so Mancini opted to switch the system for a few minutes in an attempt to gain a foothold in the game. Disappointingly, it backfired due to a poor pass from Jack Rodwell.
That type of individual error has characterised this Champions League campaign and cannot be attributed to the manager. He understandably, and rightly, wanted to change formations in an effort to alter the outcome of the match but it didn't work. That he tried to be proactive rather than reactive ought to praised, even if the end result wasn't what was intended.
The most baffling of Mancini's tactical decisions came in Holland when, immediately after Samir Nasri opened the scoring for City, the manager opted to move from a 4-2-3-1 system to a hugely lopsided 4-4-2, a formation that the Blues have never played under Mancini. It meant Nasri operated from out wide on the left but he lacks defensive discipline and thus Gael Clichy was outnumbered every time Ajax attacked down their right, and it was from that side where the opening goal originated. Equally, it meant Yaya Touré and James Milner, both far more comfortable and suited to playing centrally, took turns out on the right, from where they were unable to influence the game. It was an odd switch, one which attracted criticism and rightly so.
As has been the case over the past two years whenever City haven't won, there has been an eager disparagement of Mancini's record in the Champions League. It goes without saying it is not the most impressive, as he has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals, but as Gabriele Marcotti pointed out in this terrific, balanced piece, there are mitigating circumstances surrounding Mancini's sides' exits. That should not mean by any stretch that Mancini should be immune from questioning. He has failed to deliver in the Champions League and it is only right he ought to be probed, but it must be done with perspective about what he has already achieved with City.
Injuries, most notably to David Silva, have played their part, with the likes of Milner, Joleon Lescott, Sergio Aguero, Maicon, Rodwell and Garcia also missing at various stages. Of course, every side suffers at some stage from this problem, but it has come at the worst possible time for Mancini and the club as they try to make an impression in Europe. Silva's drive and creativity have been missed in particular, but the remaining high quality players have not risen to the challenge posed by the numerous absences.
In amongst the tactical changes, the rotation of players and the below-par performances, perhaps the most concerning and alarming element is that the Blues are simply not learning from erstwhile errors. Sloppy goals were shipped last season in the crucial fixture with Napoli and likewise this time around against Ajax. Individual mistakes can happen at any time but it is hugely frustrating to know that the majority of goals conceded this season in the Champions League were preventable. If a striker produces a thunderbolt from thirty yards or the opposition score a wonderful team goal, that is disappointing but not hard to take, but when Vincent Kompany ducks out of the way of a shot, as he did for Cristiano Ronaldo's winner in the Bernabeu, or when Yaya Touré fails to track his man at a corner, it is exasperating.
Equally, it is fair to say the draw did City no favours. Placed in the second pot, it is no surprise to be paired with top seeds Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, but the Blues' bad luck has come in the shape of Napoli and Borussia Dortmund. Both sides were in pot four, supposedly the worst team in the group. However, the Italians shocked all with their vibrant, attacking and clinical displays, while the Germans were comfortably the best side to have visited the Etihad Stadium. If you were to place any of the other English teams - Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal - into our group, they would also struggle but there is the feeling that they would be on more than just two points at the moment. City have played with a hesitancy and nervousness that has cost them and that fear must be eradicated in future seasons.
On the flip side, we have seen just how small the margins are in this competition. After 87 minutes in the Bernabeu, the Blues were on course for a memorable victory. Had City managed to hold on there, not only would that have given them a huge boost of confidence heading into subsequent challenges, but Roberto Mancini would have been hailed as a tactical genius for defeating one of the best sides in the world on their own ground. And had Peter Rasmussen, the Danish referee, awarded a penalty on Tuesday for the foul on Mario Balotelli, the Blues could quite feasibly have seven points currently instead of the paltry two.
With two group games still to go, there is the possibility that City may not even finish in third place, thus missing out on the Europa League and many supporters would feel that could be a blessing. The extra games in what is regarded as a worthless, lengthy second-rate competition would be avoided, allowing total concentration on the pursuit of retaining the Premier League title.
I, however, would take the opposite view. Apart from the need to acquire coefficient points to maintain and perhaps improve upon their current UEFA ranking, City need experience of facing different opposition. They should want to learn how to play against varying styles and know how to travel abroad and still perform well. Having shown that they are not good enough at the moment to impress in the Champions League, it would be arrogant in the extreme to view themselves as too important for the next best competition.
Irrespective of all the above, what must be remembered is that success in the Champions League takes time. Manchester United have won the competition only twice during Alex Ferguson's 26 year tenure - once on penalties and the other thanks to two injury time goals - whilst Chelsea chopped and changed their manager until last season when they somehow defended their way to the title. In addition, Arsenal have competed for numerous years without ever lifting the trophy. That should tell City supporters everything about the necessity for patience. Improvement should be expected but hasn't been forthcoming and that is the most worrying aspect, but Champions League success doesn't happen overnight.Suggest a correction