We couldn’t have it any other way, could we? It’s all we know. The Manchester City way: the long, predictably unpredictable, emotional roller coaster.
Just two weeks prior to tonight we went into a must-win fixture against Pep Guardiola’s rampant Bayern Munich, who in the last round of Champions League fixtures had routed Roma 1-7 in a display of ruthless efficiency. This was a fixture we had to win in order to maintain any faint hope of qualification from a competitive group. It was a fixture in which we were missing 3 key players: Yaya Toure and Fernandinho through suspension and David Silva via injury.
Very few gave us a prayer of winning the game. In fact, the wider public and media had their knives at the ready and were gleefully sharpening them in anticipation of our elimination that night.
Here we are two weeks later having qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League. Thousands of jubilant blues are now impatiently waiting for the draw, preparing their passports and time off work in preparation for another European tour.
After our Sergio Aguero inspired defeat of Bayern Munich, with a last minute winner in true City and Aguero fashion, tonight’s game was where we truly wrestled free of our much highlighted European struggles.
Defiance in the face of adversity; a quality which was again demonstrated by Manuel Pellegrini’s side tonight
Defiance in the face of adversity; a quality which was again demonstrated by Manuel Pellegrini’s side tonight.
The wider narrative facing us prior to tonight’s game was that we are now a ‘one man’ side. Our talisman, and top scorer, Sergio Aguero was injured at the weekend against Everton, and so the narrative was set once more: Manchester City’s season is over.
Not so, say the boys in blue.
On a night when we were again missing several key players: Yaya Toure through suspension, Kompany and of course Aguero via injury, Manchester City delivered against the odds once more.
The game at Roma’s Stadio Olimpico tonight represented effectively a do-or-die for both sides. There were several possible permutations, but provided the unlikely didn’t materialise at the Allianz Arena in the shape of a CSKA Moscow win at the home of the Bundesliga champions, then whoever won this game in Rome would progress to the last 16.
It started fiercely contested, Roma began strongly pressuring City in possession and effectively creating opportunities in wide areas: a notable one coming early in the game from a diagonal ball to Cholevas who came inside (from an offside position no less) and brought a key early save from Joe Hart from close range.
City however grew into the game, and showed both the character and patience of a seasoned European side. A save was drawn from De Sanctis via a Milner strike, while Dzeko was unfortunate with a couple of good chances.
Gervinho drew the eye testing both Zabaleta and Clichy in wide positions, while late in the second half drawing a great low save from Joe Hart via a quick counter attack.
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Milner was unfortunate not to open the scoring prior to half time, after making an intelligent diagonal run behind the Roma defence, he was picked out by Navas and found himself one-on-one but was smothered by De Sanctis who was off his line early to make an important save.
The game was finely balanced, and Navas was unfortunate to have a goal disallowed for a challenge Dzeko made in the build-up which the Serbian referee deemed an infraction.
The nerves held however, and some fine individual performances began to emerge as the game entered the second half.
Fernandinho showed great persistence and workrate, tirelessly pressing and harrying the opposition into errors, winning the ball high up the pitch on several occasions; leading to some important opportunities on the counter-attack.
Demichelis was disciplined and calm under pressure, playing the ball out well from the back.
Navas was an ever present threat from his wide position, placing several dangerous crosses into the penalty area.
Milner was characteristically selfless, chasing every lost cause and contributing to a solid shape in midfield. Likewise he created opportunities going forward with several intelligent off the ball runs.
But the stand out performer was the scorer of the opening goal: Samir Nasri.
While the game was growing increasingly tense, Nasri received a short pass to feet with a neat interchange from Clichy on the left flank, and carried the ball towards the penalty area. An intelligent run from Milner, and a feigned pass from Nasri drew a couple of opposition players away giving him the opportunity to hit an absolute peach of a strike, arrowing towards the top corner and cracking in off the inside of the post – sending the travelling fans into raptures.
City grew increasingly assured, and the desire to see out the fixture became abundantly clear
City grew increasingly assured, and the desire to see out the fixture became abundantly clear.
Joe Hart again made a key save, getting a finger tip to a ball goalbound for the bottom corner, via a header from a Roma free kick.
The resolve, however; was clear for all too see. City rolled with the punches, and took what Roma threw at Pellegrini’s side in an effort to find the equaliser. It proved in vain, as once more Nasri put Roma to the sword: this time receiving the ball just inside the area, feigning to shoot and then delightfully putting it onto a plate for the late run of Zabaleta – who dutifully slotted it into the bottom corner with delightful aplomb.
Cue some genuinely sincere badge-kissing from a fan favourite, and that was that: City had overcome the odds, and had secured their status in the Champions League round of 16.
I’m sure I speak for all blues when I say this: but tonight felt like a vindication of what we all know this side is capable of. A vindication of a side who have often brought harsh scrutiny from casual observers, and embittered neutrals.
Sometimes evidence of that resolve can be sporadic, and we know all too well about our struggles in Europe, but we’ve long known that this side has it in them to dig deep and grind out a win against all odds. Lest we be reminded how this very side turned around large point deficits in the closing weeks of both seasons in which we claimed the Premier League title?
Who could possibly forget the manner in which our season culminated in 2012?
As Pellegrini stated in his post-match interview:
"“I think that this team deserves maybe a little more credit than the press always [sic] gives us”"
Truer words have yet to be spoken this season. But this blue will give it a go:
Write Manchester City off at your peril.